10 Traditional Holiday TV Specials

  • 'Tis the Season for TV Torture

    No amount of Blu-ray discs, digital downloads or on-demand streaming services can save viewers from the annual flood of holiday specials, and ignoring them won't make them go away. While strong segments of the population applaud seasonally appropriate showings of Meet Me In St. Louis on Time Warner's TCM, White Christmas on Cablevision's AMC and even Disney/Pixar favorites such as Wall-E and Toy Story on ABC Family, there's a small segment that wants to jump into a fallout shelter the first time someone mentions a Red Ryder air rifle or notes that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. Call them grinches if you'd like, but these same folks have been dealing with 2010 holiday specials since NBC ran the DreamWorks Animation doubleheader Merry Madagascar and Kung-Fu Panda Holiday Special the night before Thanksgiving. These poor souls likely have children, which means they'll have to watch these specials until they're woven into their brain tissue like a month of sleep-based subliminal language lessons. Much as some folks learn to speak French just by leaving the iPod on during their daily tasks, so, too, are whole generations of parents fluent in Linus' biblical description of what Christmas is all about. Photo Credit: Huge Cool
    Stiff Competition
  • Stiff Competition

    We're only a few days into December and the holiday specials are already putting the hurt on their more conventional competition. Fox, which has no holiday fare on its schedule this year, saw its powerhouse Glee beaten down by the 46-year old stop-motion special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- which took the 8 p.m. time slot Nov. 30 as easily as the Glee kids lift a pop song and use it for their own Up With People-style Apple iTunes releases. The combined audience of two of Glee's other holiday competitors -- ABC's airings of the original 1966 animated version of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas and DreamWorks animated special Shrek the Halls and NBC's coverage of the Rockefeller Center tree lighting -- drew two and a half times Glee's audience. That's not just a big win for holiday fare and a huge boost for its advertisers, but a sure sign these specials are going to be with us for a while. Whether you plan to embrace them or elude them this year, here are 10 specials your kids or not-quite-grown-up contemporaries will hound you into watching this holiday season: Photo Credit: Huge Cool
    A Charlie Brown Christmas
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas

    Airdate: Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. EDT Channel: ABC The choppy animation, talking-into-a-tin-can vocals and hopping Vince Guaraldi jazz score -- combined with a run time of less than a half-hour -- come together like a holiday potluck to make this 1965 classic one of the least obtrusive and most beloved holiday specials of all time. Yes, you want to throttle Violet and some of the other secondary characters for jumping all over "blockhead" Charlie Brown before he's even had the chance to fail. Yes, Lucy's high-profit 5-cent psychiatry business, ignorance of the musicianship behind Schroeder's fleshed-out versions of "Jingle Bells" and insistence on portraying the heretofore unheard of Christmas Queen during the gang's play wear thin. But the head-bobbing dance sequences, Linus' biblical soliloquy and the single most joyous version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" in television history serve as a reminder to a cynical viewership that the oldest, most sappily sentimental items are usually the most beloved once they're dusted off for the holiday season. We understand this can get repetitive after a few decades or so, but like a favorite old ornament or familiar face you see only around the holidays, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a pleasure to revisit -- once a year.
    It's A Wonderful Life
  • It's A Wonderful Life

    Airdate: Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. EDT Channel: NBC This, the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade and the Rockefeller Center tree lighting are NBC's only acknowledgements of the holiday season. For those of you too young to remember a time local affiliates and independent stations would run this film ad nauseam, be grateful NBC allows George Bailey to run screaming through Bedford Falls only twice a year. Generations oversaturated by hours of Jimmy Stewart having his dreams ripped from him at every turn naturally had a few questions about some of the tragedies that befell him: Why would you ever entrust a ginseng-deprived, absent-minded oaf such as Uncle Billy with any amount of money when the hand you're placing your businesses' future into has string tied around five of its fingers as reminders? If George Bailey spends the movie being recruited by Sam Wainwright for his wildly successful plastics business and Mr. Potter for his bank, why isn't he able to network those connections into a little investment capital for the savings and loan? Lastly, how does a roomful of people who come to George's aid and represent the town's best and brightest never call in federal regulators to investigate potter, look up antitrust laws he's seemingly in blatant violation of or at least reach the conclusion envisioned by Saturday Night Live back in the '80s?
    A Christmas Story
  • A Christmas Story

    Airdate: Starting Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. Through Dec. 25 Channel: TBS This film is to the modern viewer what It's A Wonderful Life was to the pre-cable generation. Time Warner's seasonal sadism runs as deep as a cauldron of egg nog around Christmas Eve, as its marathon airings of Jean Shepard's holiday standards have driven the Old Man's leg lamp, the bloody bully-beating Scut Farkus Affair, the Bumpus hounds, Flick's tongue on the flagpole, Randy's oversized winter apparel, the Little Orphan Annie decoder pin and Ralphie's official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range-model-air-rifle-with-a-compass-in-the-stock-and-a-thing-that-tells-time deep into the country's subconscious. Many are the revelers who've passed out in a whiskey-and-dairy-induced stupor while watching the department store Santa "you'll shoot your eye out scene" on Christmas Eve and awoken to the exact same point in the movie during which they'd lost consciousness the night before -- as if time stood still. You'd think that this film's confinement to one channel would make it all too easy to avoid, but those who travel to multiple gatherings of family and friends during this 24-hour period only increase their odds of seeing Randy show his mother how the piggies eat. This writer's sister has made a determined effort to boycott this movie since Turner began the marathons on TNT back in 1997. Thirteen years and 250 Turner showings later, she's still as disappointed as Ralphie is for much of the movie. From frustrated Christmas Story-assaulted souls everywhere to those who haven't seen this film yet, we send this sincere holiday greeting: He gets the BB gun in the end.
    Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

    Airdate: Nov. 30 (You missed it) While America is force-fed A Christmas Story to the point it regurgitates lines from the film around the holiday dinner table, it's practically starved of the 1964-vintage Rankin/Bass stop-motion standby Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There are 340 stations across the country playing all-holiday music all the time -- with WSMM-FM in South Bend, Ind., starting Oct. 20, according to industry site 10,000Watts -- yet CBS can spare only one showing of Rudolph, his elven dentist friend Hermey, the Island of Misfit Toys, the Abominable Snow Monster and Burl Ives' Sam the Snowman singing the only bearable version of the outrageously overplayed "Holly Jolly Christmas"? And you can't even show it in December? Really, CBS? We realize your primetime lineup is busy coddling audiences attached to old, formulaic joke-and-laugh sitcoms and in love with acronym-laden procedural dramas, but, in case you forgot what a young viewership looked like, those 12 million viewers you drew for Rudolph to crush Glee on Nov. 30 were mostly in the 18-to-49 demographic. Considering that your holiday lineup looks pretty bleak until Frosty The Snowman airs Dec. 11, perhaps you may have considered airing it when there weren't four other holiday shows on at the same time -- including the 1966 animated version of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas that ABC patently refuses to air again, likely because of its commitment to nearly a dozen airings of the Jim Carrey live-action film version on ABC Family this season. We understand that ABC Family's multiple airings of inferior sequels including Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys may lead you to believe its OK to stash the original-recipe special in whatever one-off November time slot works for you, but your stinginess with this special makes your programming department look like bigger jerks than Rudolph's disappointed and disbelieving dad Donner, the special's suddenly self-absorbed Santa (who disses Rudolph and then sings a bit of braggadocio referring to himself as "the king of jing-a-ling" that even Lil' Wayne would consider immodest) and the loutish laughing and name-calling reindeer who excluded Rudolph from their games.
    Santa Claus is Comin' To Town
  • Santa Claus is Comin' To Town

    Airdate: Dec. 9 at 8 p.m., Dec. 10 at 7 p.m., Dec. 18 at 10 p.m., Dec. 19 at 5 p.m., Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. Channel: ABC Family Now this is how you handle a classic. When you combine a holiday standard, voice work by Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney and a German Kaiser-style villain named Burgermeister Meisterburger, one Dec. 2 showing on ABC just isn't going to do. Instead, ABC Family airs this special five more times and supplements it with showings of Rooney-driven semi-sequel A Year Without Santa Claus and its straight-to-video spinoff A Miser Brothers' Christmas. Granted, the original is often cut to the bone to fit in commercials, with scenes of the Burgermeister burning toys cut to spare modern children's delicate sensibilities and many songs cut simply because attention spans can't take as many showtunes as they could when this special first aired in 1970.
    The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas

    Airdate: Dec. 4 at 11 p.m. Channel: ABC Family Look at ABC Family, using perfectly good 700 Club and CBN News air time to throw the goth kids a bone! Right in the middle of the 25 Days of Christmas, no less! If Pat Robertson's head doesn't explode when he sees a skull-headed Jack Skellington and his bony dog dressed as Santa and a reindeer, Gilbert Gottfried's mad scientist scratching his brain and being routinely poisoned by the girl he stitched together and a burlap Oogie Boogie bogeyman oozing worms from every orifice, it may be the greatest miracle of the holiday season. There's no denying this Tim Burton film's stop-motion ties to the Rankin/Bass holiday specials that preceded it or the inherent holiday charm of Danny Elfman songs like "What's This?," but even the most palefaced, eye-blackened, Meat Beat Manifesto-listening Nightmare fan has encountered the same conundrum as the mainstream masses who've embraced this film: Is it really a Christmas movie, or just a Halloween tale featuring Santa? The answer's likely somewhere in between, which is why this dark Disney production will providing equal time for the "occult" as ABC Family's late-night holiday fare for the forseeable future.
    Frosty The Snowman
  • Frosty The Snowman

    Airdate: Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. Channel: CBS We're still not quite sure what's supposed to be keeping this snowman alive: the blistering cold or his magic hat. Narrator Jimmy Durante never makes this clear, and Rankin/Bass' most popular nonstop-motion animated special hasn't done much to clarify this position since it first aired in 1969. Here's what we know: The children of this story can make snowmen to their hearts' content, but a snowman only becomes Frosty when a magic hat is placed upon his head -- yelling an extremely passive-aggressive "Happy Birthday" each time he's "born." Fine. But after a maniac scientist spends much of the special chasing down Frosty and pals and eventually melts him to death, Santa Claus basically revives him by letting some cold air in. So that's the key, right? No.Santa then tells us that Frosty is made of "Christmas snow" that can never really melt -- which is odd, because the kids built him on a random day in December when the snow was no more Christmasy than it was the day before. If you do somehow get roped into watching this one, get a nice big pitcher of mulled wine, an iPad or other tablet and some scratch paper for calculations -- figuring out the alchemy of this "children's tale" could take a while.
    The Polar Express
  • The Polar Express

    Airdate: Dec. 3 at 6 p.m. And 8:30 p.m. EDT, Dec. 21 at 8:30 p.m. EDT and Dec. 24 at 4 p.m. EDT Channel: ABC Family The creepy pre-Avatar performance-capture 3-D animation, child abduction, strange allusions to the powers of "hot cocoa" and reliance on hobos make this a tough one to stomach. We understand this was a huge hit in IMAX theaters -- mainly because it was effectively the only IMAX 3-D film of its kind when it was released back in 2004 -- but for the rest of us who have to sit through this on in 2-D where little elements such as plot and acting actually matter, no amount of locomotive detail or sweeping North Pole shots can overcome an hour and 40 minutes of shortcomings. If the kids want to drag you to a local science museum IMAX to pay $20 a pop for a special Polar Express showing and some sensory overload this holiday season, that may work out. If it's suggested that you sit through any of the eight hours of animated Tom Hanks on television in the weeks before Christmas, pull the emergency brake immediately. That's one long ride no holiday traveler should have to take. Photo Credit: ryaninc
    Shrek the Halls
  • Shrek the Halls

    Airdate: Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. Channel: ABC DreamWorks Animation killed the Shrek series after this year's Shrek Forever After, but its green and green-producing ogre lumbers on this holiday season. Already aired once this year -- on Nov. 30 -- Shrek the Halls gets right what so many movie spinoff specials get so horribly wrong. It retains Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and Antonio Banderas as vocal talent so kids aren't put off by off-brand Shrek, it doesn't pull punches with the adult humor (like the gingerbread man's horror story about his girlfriend being eaten by Santa) and it isn't afraid to let its oft-melancholy characters be as morose as they want during a tough holiday. As Murphy's Donkey so aptly explains, "Christmas isn't Christmas until somebody cries." That could describe any parent forced to watch this special after their child's played Shrek movies on every road trip and weekend of the past year, but it shouldn't prevent those put off by the pandering Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar holiday specials from enjoying a half-hour of DreamWorks at its best. Photo Credit: Ben + Sam
    Mariah Carey: Merry Christmas to You
  • Mariah Carey: Merry Christmas to You

    Airdate: Dec. 13 at 9 p.m. EDT Channel: ABC Direct from the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, it's an hour-long commercial for Mariah Carey's new Christmas album! Yep, Mariah and Island Def Jam just dropped Merry Christmas II You last month and, as if the 16,624 plays of "All I Want For Christmas Is You" that tracking firm Media Monitors says we heard last December weren't enough, Carey and her label are looking to dominate your holiday with a bunch of covers, four new songs and yet another version of the song that was played an average of 28 times an hour last holiday season. In fairness, Mariah has some right to believe the world owes her some leeway around this time each year. The video that accompanies "All I Want For Christmas Is You" is basically spliced together from home videos of her and her music executive ex-husband Tommy Mottola -- you know, the guy whose divorce inspired her Butterfly album, a complete image makeover and, for better or worse, her ill-fated film foray, Glitter. Think about having all of that hauled out every holiday season with the decorations and tree stand and having millions of people around the world get their jollies from your personal holiday hell. In light of all that, it's understandable why all Mariah wants for Christmas is a bloated, self-indulgent holiday special and complete gutting of her ex-tainted holiday standard. Photo Credit: david_shankbone
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