There is something wrong with a society that can't allow itself to just enjoy the simple pleasures of a Christmas TV special without analyzing the experience to death. Have we become so media-critical and deconstructionist that there's no place for a little Rudolph joy in our post-postmodern hearts?
That's what I was thinking as I sat down with Bravo's The Christmas Special Christmas Special, a one-hour look at the history of Christmas television shows. The special, hosted by Carson Kressley (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), promised to "explore how pop culture and the public's view influenced this important genre" and how "the genre shaped our concept of Christmas." Blah, blah, blah.
As pop culture criticism, The Christmas Special Christmas Special is a failure failure. But, to my great surprise and delight, as entertainment, it is an hour of fabulous, campy, fading-mists-of-memory fun guaranteed to make one smile at his or her own inexplicable emotional response and attachment to some of these shows.
The program works best if viewed as a quirky history of Christmas specials, with an eclectic chorus of tart wiseguys and gals sniping at the shows that came into our living rooms decked in boughs of holly, hokum, fake snow and false familial warmth. The history starts with the family specials of the 1950s and '60s featuring the likes of Andy Williams, Pat Boone, The King Family and Judy Garland.
The King Family - all 2,000 of them (kidding) and blond (not kidding) - doing a bossa nova version of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" ("'Twas the Night Before Christmas") in a 1968 special is not to be missed. It is almost as much fun as the comments from various "experts" about singer Andy Williams bringing his ex-wife, Las Vegas dancer Claudine Longet, back to play his spouse on Christmas specials after they had divorced. (That bit of holiday deception ended only after Longet was convicted in 1976 of criminal negligence in the shooting death of her lover, skier Vladimir "Spider" Sabich.)
From Judy Garland's messing up the lyrics of "The Christmas Song" during a testy duet with composer Mel Torme (The Judy Garland Christmas Special, 1963), to Pee Wee Herman's looking on in rapture as Grace Jones grinds her way through an erotic holiday dance number (Pee Wee's Christmas Special, 1988), no show is left unsavaged. And both Lorna Luft, Garland's daughter, and Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee Wee, join in the savaging.
And, yet, for all the arch commentary and screwy archival clips, there are genuinely touching moments - like Bing Crosby singing "Little Drummer Boy" with David Bowie. And the commentary by Crosby's daughter, Mary, who recounts the reaction of her arch-conservative father upon Bowie arriving for the taping dressed exactly as his wife, only adds to the power of the performance.
Maybe we are too self-reflexive as a culture, but bravo to Bravo for so successfully summoning so many of the video ghosts of TV Christmas Past back to the screen tonight.
What: The Christmas Special Christmas Special
When: Tonight at 8
In brief: The video ghosts of TV Christmas Past return in this off-beat special.