Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holiday special review: ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

This month we are reviewing classic and not-so-classic holiday television specials.

Before I even begin here, I just want to express how much I have always appreciated “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” When I was, say, 8 or 9, Hess gas stations began selling the special on VHS—“Buy 10 gallons of Hess gas and get ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ for only $14.99!” or something; made sense at the time—and I made my mom go to Hess to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime deal. That tape, along with Michael Jordan’s “Come Fly With Me,” remains one of the most precious VHS items I have ever owned. And maybe my wedding video*, I guess.

My point is that I recognize “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as classic, a well-deserved designation.

But here’s the thing with that special, and this goes for Peanuts in general—it doesn’t really age well. This, to me, is how Charlie Brown cartoons have been absorbed by people of my generation: You love them as kid, defend them to the death, you go away to college, come back as an adult and try to watch Peanuts specials again for nostalgic reasons and are like, “What the … ? What is going on? Why is this Snoopy World War II fighter pilot sequence lasting 10 minutes? Why is everyone so mean to Charlie Brown? I am confused and uncomfortable.”

Now, when I speak of how “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has aged, I’m not talking about the animation, which is terrible. The scene in which Lucy is the psychiatrist and the sign on her booth goes from “The doctor is real in” to “The doctor real in is” is a quirk of 1960s graphic limitations/laziness, although NEITHER ONE MAKES SENSE. But things like that and the off-color pigmentations actually add to the special’s endearing quality. Where it really doesn’t age well—and maybe this is just me—is the language.

HOW MUCH FOR A GRAMMAR DOCTOR?

We watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with our 3-year-old daughter this year. I thought, “This will be a great way to pass down this Christmas television special classic to a new generation.” I was, as per usual, wrong. Almost right off the bat the s-bomb is dropped—stupid. “Stupid” is a word we don’t say in our house, but it is definitely a word that is totally cool on whatever planet Charlie Brown and friends exist. And “stupid” is always hurled as a personal insult, not merely a description of something intangible. Sample (not actual, but close) quote: “You’re so stupid, Charlie Brown! Why are you so stupid? Your parents must be stupid. Get out of here, you stupid blockhead!”

The experience of watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as a family was like this: they’d drop the s-bomb, we’d cringe, our daughter would turn to us and say, “We don’t say stupid,” we’d reassure her that she was exactly right, she would continue to watch the TV with a look on her face that said, “I am confused as to whether my parents support this show they have plopped me in front of,” repeat process.

And that’s besides the general plot device that everyone is just super-mean to Charlie Brown for no apparent reason, which causes him to be an 8-year-old manic depressive. Of course, the borderline offensive language is balanced out by the equally non-PC nature of Linus’ classic explanation of the true meaning of Christmas. Sure, they drop the s-bomb a lot, but while many television specials claim to capture the true meaning of Christmas, by simply quoting the biblical account of Christ's birth, this is arguably the only holiday special that truly does. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” doesn’t get green lit in today's world -- less because of "stupid" than for quoting Scripture -- which is probably why people of my generation hold it so dearly to our hearts.

Unfortunately for me, a father, it’s a special I cannot watch again with my daughter until she is old enough to understand that 1960s cartoon characters insulted the weak link, further spiraling him into a depressed state, until they felt enough remorse to decorate his tree. For that reason, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” gets five-out-of-ten Christmas stars. I know, I am stupid.

*I am so old our wedding was recorded on VHS. DVD, too, but still.

This column appears in the 12/13 issue of The Glendale Star and the 12/14 issue of the Peoria Times.

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