With Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday behind us, the holiday season is officially in full swing. For many of us, that means tuning in to some festive television programming while we sip hot cocoa, trim the tree, and wrap Christmas presents in preparation for the big day. While some of us prefer films like Miracle on 34th Street, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story, Joanna Wilson is chiefly looking forward to the Christmas specials that air on television during December.
Wilson is the author of The Christmas TV Companion: A Guide to Cult Classics, Strange Specials, and Outrageous Oddities and Tis the Season TV: The Encyclopedia of Christmas-Themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies, which were both published by 1701 Press. In these two books, she takes a look at some of the most beloved and infamous holiday specials ever to hit the airwaves. When it comes to holiday specials, she is the expert, and we are all fortunate that she has shared her expertise with us in these works.
I had an opportunity to discuss Christmas specials with her, while she was promoting her recent book Merry Musical Christmas: Volume 1: The Best Christmas Music in Television Sitcoms and Dramas. What follows is our interview:
Caseen Gaines: You’ve devoted a lot of your writing career to Christmas specials. In your view, what makes a great Christmas special?
Joanna Wilson: A great Christmas TV special has to have heart. Christmas is an emotional time of year and we often indulge ourselves by re-watching a Christmas entertainment that we know will bring us to that same place again. Many of us re-watch 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas for the reminder that the holiday isn’t about the things and stuff–the lesson that the residents of Who-ville prove to their green Christmas thief. Or, we want to feel the power of renewal and the possibility for change and forgiveness, so we watch our favorite adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol. There’s no denying that viewers want to see Christmas TV movies about romance and people coming together in TV movies, the kind that fill the schedules on networks such as the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime. It’s not just Charlie Brown who sometimes feels like he’s forgotten what the Christmas spirit is all about–and we rely on his friends Lucy and Linus to remind us as well.
CG: Why do you think some Christmas specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Charlie Brown Christmas Special are shown every year, while others have faded away?
JW: I think the TV specials that remain our favorites year after year are the ones that not only inspire the emotions we want to feel at holiday time but ones with story lines that are rich enough to appeal to children and adults alike. I see again and again that the most popular TV specials are ones that parents and grandparents look forward to sharing with their young ones. This year after year viewing becomes another Christmas tradition just like decorating the tree and baking cookies.
CG: What are your three favorite Christmas specials and why?
JW: I’m just like everybody else–I love watching the Christmas TV specials that I grew up watching. So my favorites are Rudolph, Charlie Brown and The Grinch. My three favorite Christmas TV episodes are the ones I grew up watching–so I always look forward to re-watching 1963’s “The Alan Brady Show Presents” from The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1964’s “A Vision of Sugar Plums” from Bewitched, and 1974’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” from Happy Days. And, I still remember how excited I was to watch the TV movies The Homecoming from 1971 and The House Without A Christmas Tree from 1972. Watching these TV movies again as an adult is another way to recapture that Christmas joy and excitement I first felt as a child.
CG: One of the most infamous Christmas specials is the Star Wars Holiday Special, which was only shown once. What are your thoughts on it and do you think it deserves to be seen again?
JW: Like a lot of other people, I had heard about this TV special for a long time before I ever had a chance to see it. I remember being extremely skeptical about the whispered rumors that it was horrible, perhaps even the worst thing on television. For many years, I wasn’t even sure if it ever existed–TV’s own jackalope–but the internet age has set that record straight. When I finally had my first chance to see it, I was sure I was going to be the one person to recognize how awesome it must be. It was made in 1978, the earliest days of the Star Wars universe–I remember asking myself, “How bad could it be?” There is certainly a strong argument to be made that it is indeed the worst Christmas TV special. Ever.
Do I think it deserves to be seen again? Absolutely. Despite being ignored by George Lucas for decades, The Star Wars Holiday Special has historical significance in the canon. Fans were introduced for the first time to the bounty hunter character Boba Fett in an animated segment, a sort of show-within-a-show sequence. This animated segment was originally produced by Nelvana, the Canadian animation company that would eventually grow to make some of our favorite animated TV series. Despite its many, many flaws, The Star Wars Holiday Special also includes our favorite actors and characters including Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, as well as Chewbacca, Darth Vader, the Stormtroopers, C3-PO and R2-D2. It also incorporates strains from John Williams’ original musical score. Unfortunately, these good things can’t even save this poor story from its destiny.
While I think The Star Wars Holiday Special’s flaws are many, I believe it fails primarily for two reasons. The first is that it is too long. It runs two hours in length while the plot struggles along, asking viewers to keep company with Chewbacca’s weird furry family waiting for the heroes to return to the Wookie planet to celebrate Life Day–their own parallel version of Christmas. It is two long, slow hours of watching Chewie’s wife preparing a holiday meal, Chewie’s son playing with his toys, and his father pursuing his own “distractions.” The second reason this TV special fails is that Star Wars fans want to be immersed in the Star Wars universe, not entertained by popular guest stars such as Art Carney, comedian Harvey Korman, singers Bea Arthur, Diahann Carroll, and Marty Balin of Jefferson Starship–whose presence repeatedly drags viewers from their Star Wars fantasy. Though viewers are left unsatisfied after watching the Star Wars Holiday Special, I still would like to see it officially released on DVD.
Caseen Gaines is the author of A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic, which can be purchased on Amazon.com and wherever books are sold.