OH IT’S CHRISTMASTIME AND IT’S CHRISTMASTIME AND IT’S CHRISTMAS-CHRISTMAS-CHRISTMASTIIIIIIIIIME!!!!
It’s my favorite time of year again and for Nostalgic Bookshelf I’ve started this article that turned into something a bit different from what I originally planned.
The Christmas episode, that one special episode a franchise usually creates in time for the holiday season. Sometimes they may be twice as long as a usual episode which means they don’t normally air in regular syndication, but if they’re normal length the stations won’t care enough to pull them from rotation.
You also have commonly retold Christmas stories such as “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “The Nutcracker” whose plots are so specific they tend to simply be re-adapted as their own tales instead of being used as the basis for an episode.
Sitcoms and cartoons have plenty of stock plots for easy episodes, “Two Dates At The Same Time,” “Miscommunication = Cheating Partner,” “Character Gets Drunk With Power,” “New Job Causes New Problems,” but none are as predictable as Christmas episodes. It can take a lot of effort to breathe new life into these ideas, and sometimes you have to either be really, REALLY funny or willing to make things really, REALLY bleak to stand out from the crowd.
- Save Christmas: Our main character finds themselves having to salvage the holiday season for one reason or another. The magical versions almost always focus on Santa Claus’s prominence, so expect the protagonist needing to stand in for the Man in the Red Suit if they don’t have to defeat someone trying to magically erase Christmas. The mundane versions usually have the characters trying to save some establishment, like an orphanage or a family-owned store from a greedy land developer, executive, or politician. If they aren’t saving some building, they’re trying to reignite Christmas cheer in the neighborhood because things have turned bleak or their family’s trying to get together for the holidays despite overwhelming odds. Whether or not it snows at all during the episode is a big factor in Christmas being saved.
- Believing in Santa Claus: Our protagonist, usually a child, is told by someone (A parent, sibling, friend, teacher, or adult) that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. If not, they stop believing because they haven’t received what they really wanted for Christmas some years prior. The child goes about trying to find some way to prove Santa does exist or a co-protagonist tries to prove it to them. A standard twist involves everyone assuming a supporting character has dressed up as Santa to renew the child’s faith only to learn later said supporting character was actually stuck in traffic, at work, etc.
- The Perfect Gift: Character A wants to get Character B a present they know Character B really wants, or that they THINK Character B wants. Character A will learn a lesson about how it’s not the present that counts but the emotions behind them. Sometimes Character B gets offended by Character A’s gift being awful, or because Character A forgot to get them something altogether at which point the conflict focuses on Character A trying to fix their mistake. Character A will usually make several more mistakes in the process.
- Christmas Every Day: Not quite as common, but has a few stories under its belt. A rehash of “Groundhog’s Day” where a character wishes it were Christmas all the time because of the material loot. They don’t know what’s causing the repeat and the story doesn’t normally address the exact machinations. The protagonist goes along with it for a few days, exploiting their previous knowledge to mess with everyone but the novelty quickly wears off. The surprises are dulled, the music’s annoying, the food’s bland, etc. Usually, the character does something really, REALLY bad and then decides to do something really, REALLY good in the next loop which finally brings December 26th. Expect one of their friends to say “I bet you wish it could be Christmas every day,”and the character freaks or laughs.
- Learning The Meaning Of Christmas: What all Christmas episodes really boil down to, but some episodes in particular focus on this as the core story. You’ll have a character who hates Christmas for one reason or another and usually changes their mind by the end. Sometimes evolves into a “Christmas Carol,” but often the person learning the lesson may be a supporting character and not the protagonist (whose hopes are crushed because they couldn’t prove this lesson to their associate and then has their faith renewed). May feature a character wanting to have the perfect Christmas in some form or another. There’s also the spoiled brat obsessed about getting presents and learning about giving instead of getting. If Jesus is mentioned at any point, it really would be a Christmas miracle.
- Getting On The Nice List: A kid realizes they’ve been a total shithead or despite their good behavior does something bad before Christmas and is told they’re now on the naughty list. The kid then does everything they can to prove they’re nice so Santa will give them gifts. Becomes a struggle for the character to realize WHY they’re doing this and the act of doing nice things to get presents isn’t nice at all.
- Evil Santa: If we’re going into horror, there’s this variant where Santa takes on an especially horrifying visage to punish children for their misdeeds if Santa isn’t revealed to have been a monster the whole time. There’s also the escaped mental patient or serial killer dressed in a Santa suit, which I just covered over on Point Horror in “Christmas Terror Tales.” Recently versions of this story have started using the Krampus, who emerged from relative obscurity in the mid 2000s.
- A Politically Correct Christmas: A much more recent trend due to the rise of political correctness in real life. The crux of the story involves some outspoken authority figure (either on the church’s side or the government’s side) arguing that Christmas is offensive because it’s a religious holiday. If not the holiday itself, they protest aspects such as Santa Claus or the lack of religion in the modern holiday celebrations. The holiday celebrations become more and more watered down until the protagonists find a loophole to exploit or convince the opposing authoritarian they’ve taken their censorship too far.
- I Can’t Believe It’s Not Christmas: This type of story is prominent in sci-fi and fantasy works. When you have a story set in the far future, an alien planet, or a magical realm, it’s likely doing a straightforward Christmas story defies convention (unless characters from the real world/modern time/past time are sent into the story). So writers work around this by creating a holiday that is incredibly similar to Christmas, at which point any of the other story types mentioned above or below are then applied.
- The Re-Gifting of the Magi: Based off O Henry’s short story, you have two characters pulling a self sacrifice to get the other a great gift only to learn the gift they got was pointless. Character A sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his heirloom watch, while Character B sells his heirloom watch to buy jeweled combs for the wife’s hair. Usually the characters are more touched by what their loved one have done, although in the original story I’d say the wife gets the better end of the deal since her hair will probably grow back.
- How Whoever Stole Christmas: Not as severe as some of the other rehashing, but under “Saving Christmas” you may encounter a character either being accused of being a Grinch or going out of their way to sabotage Christmas much like the original Grinch.
- It’s A Wonderful Knock-Off: Based directly off “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which can actually be applied to non-Christmas related episodes. A character goes through a series of contrived, unhappy accidents which leaves them seriously depressed and most of their friends mad at them, so the character wishes they were never born. The character is then shown a world where their wish came true and realizes how important they really are, while we’re also shown their friends eventually figured they were too hard on the protagonist for whatever happened. If it’s played for laughs, the character might learn the world really WOULD be a better place without them and comes back just to spite their associates.
- Again With The Christmas Carol: God there are so many of these it’s not even funny; I recapped TWO of them in 2017 for Point Horror. Character’s an ass at Christmas, gets shown error of their ways by three ghosts, usually involves a sick kid and a dead partner. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a Christmas episode.
- The Nativity Story: On the rare chance the episode actually talks about Jesus, it’ll be a retelling of Joseph and Mary having Jesus in Bethlehem with the Three Wise Men. Some TV shows do episodes featuring a woman giving birth on Christmas without a father, or who happens to be in the presence of three men.
At least one major trend in all these tales will have one character saying by the end how they got what they really wanted for Christmas or how this is the best Christmas ever.
Here’s a brief look at several Christmas episodes of the 90s I’ve personally enjoyed and wish to recommend. For the sake of making things easier I’m only recommending ones I’ve recently re-watched and enjoyed, so next I’ll probably do a follow up.
3rd Rock from the Sun: Jolly Old St. Dick
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Aliens come to Earth and rent a house in Rutherford, Ohio. They’ve been sent to study life among humans and take on the form of a family of four, the Solomons, answering to their leader the Big Giant Head (“When you’re thinking of giant heads, think of the BIG Giant Head”). They go about exploring concepts such as love, lying, asskissing, sex, birth, gender, beauty, attraction, race, cable TV, and reevaluating things they already know about such as death.
Our quartet includes:
- Dick, the High Commander. Extremely egotistical, Dick assumes the form of the family patriarch and gets a job as a physics professor at third-rate Pendleton University where he falls in love with his coworker, doctor of anthropology Mary Albright. Dick spends much time trying to make sense of his relationship with Mary, his realization that he’s fallen in love with her, and his confusion over why his blunt honesty and inability to recognize sarcasm keep annoying her and everyone around him.
- Sally, the Lieutenant and Security Officer. Take charge, borderline fearless, and easily the scariest when she wants to be, Sally is thought to be Dick’s younger sister. The only designated woman in the unit, she’s struggling with the concepts of femininity and gender (Which has been unknown to the aliens at this point since by default they’re quivering purple tubes). Sally learns to use her gorgeous body to her advantage while falling in love with dimwitted but well meaning police officer Don Orville.
- Tommy, the Information Officer. Given the body of a teenager and posing as Dick’s son, Tommy’s extremely unhappy with his role since he’s actually the oldest of the unit. His deadpan quips and observations tend to make him the most rational of the aliens, but being stuck in a body succumbing to puberty and raging hormones means he’s just as likely to act stupid as Dick and the others. When not dealing with his teammates, Tommy struggles with school bullies, idiot teachers, and the mind games of his obnoxious girlfriend August.
- Harry, the Communications Officer. An oddball of oddballs, Harry’s thought to be Dick’s brother and keeps the group in contact with the Big Giant Head. How, you ask? With the enormous transmitter chip implanted in his skull. He’ll always announce an impending discussion with the B.G.H. by striking a pose and shouting “INCOMING MESSAGE FROM THE BIG GIANT HEAD.” Despite being the weirdest of the aliens, Harry’s easily the most benign and naive of the four. What he lacks in intellect he makes up for in terms of friendliness, artistic ability, and an uncanny knack for charming women who are far more gorgeous than him.
While the aliens struggle to blend in with humanity, the show also focuses on the foibles of their unsuspecting human compatriots:
- Mary Albright, an anthropology professor who isn’t nearly as respected or successful as she’d like to be. She finds herself falling for Dick (much to her horror) and most of the show focuses on her struggling to balance her bizarre relationship and complicated feelings for Dick with every other fucked up thing going on in her life.
- Nina Campbell, Dick and Mary’s grad student secretary who was done with Dick before she ever met him. A fountain of unending snark, Nina nevertheless is somewhat fond of Dick and Mary and becomes a sort of friend to the Solomons, even dating Harry for an episode.
- Mrs. Dubcek, lovely woman very nice, the Solomons’ eccentric and lovably sex-obsessed landlady.
- Don Orville, Sally’s police officer boyfriend. Not much to look at and not terribly competent as a cop, Don has no idea how someone like Sally ever fell for him but the two are totally in love and somehow able to mentally sense when the other’s nearby.
- August Leffler, Tommy’s insufferable girlfriend who prides herself on being an intellectual and a feminist when she’s really a shallow, hypocritical ass. Prone to playing mind games on Tommy, their relationship finally ends after August is caught cheating on him.
- Vicki Dubcek, Mrs. Dubcek’s inexplicably Southern daughter and a proudly raging nymphomaniac who spends most of her time acting like she’s in a bad porno. She enters a semi-relationship with Harry that later endures some BIG problems.
- Vincent Strudwick and Judith Draper, two of Dick and Mary’s coworkers at Pendleton. Vincent becomes Dick’s sworn enemy which makes things awkward when Tommy dates his daughter Alissa. Judith is probably the funniest character on the show due to how utterly deadpan she is.
“Jolly St. Dick” is a second season episode featuring the aliens’ first encounter with the holiday season on Earth. While most of them are immediately enamored by the festivities, their exuberance is dulled when they have to face the less savory elements Christmas has to offer.
The episode opens with August telling Tommy she got him the perfect Christmas gift, which leaves Tommy frantic and covering his ass saying he got her something amazing but has no idea what she’d like. Sally, Harry and Dick start off more excited, the former two getting holiday jobs at the mall while Dick’s thrilled to participate in the office Secret Santa (going over the $20 limit buying a $125 gift basket and sobbing “Look how generous I am! I AM CHRISTMAS!“).
Harry gets to help out the mall Santa (and advises children “16 to 91” not to sit on Santa’s lap, much to Dick’s annoyance) while Sally’s wrapping gifts for shoppers. Harry is horribly disillusioned when he learns “Santa” is just a guy in a suit and has a breakdown, while Sally’s disgusted at seeing how greedy and ruthless people get while doing their Christmas shopping. Which, you know, she usually endorses but not at Christmas!
You think Dick’s gonna deal with some crap because of the Secret Santa, but instead…
Really, watching the aliens come to terms with the ups and downs of Christmas is always worth a good chuckle. For me personally Dick’s story is probably the funniest with the highlight being his, well, lack of subtlety during the Secret Santa drawing and the sheer horror expressed by his recipient.
Batman The Animated Series: Christmas with the Joker and Holiday Knights
The early 1990s saw the debut of a “Batman” cartoon that spawned an entire animated universe so versatile many consider to be the definitive adaption of the Dark Knight mythos. “BTAS” was a distillation of decades of Batman comics into one cartoon aimed at both children and adults.
The success of the show led to the creations of “Superman: The Animated Series,” “Batman Beyond,” and later “Justice League,” under the banner of the DC Animated Universe. As of now, no DC animated series or cartoon has come close to matching the power resonating within the DCAU. Not even some of the live action properties have matched it! It helps that each of the characters is matched with superb voice actors, including Kevin Conroy, Arleen Sorkin, Mark Hamill, Diane Pershing, Adrienne Barbeau, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and David Warner.
Although I will say it’s been pointed out to me Paul Dini’s writing of Poison Ivy leaves a lot to be desired in comparison to the portrayals of Catwoman and Harley Quinn.
“Christmas with the Joker” was one of the first episodes in the original series and served as the official debut of Mark Hamill as the Joker (well before DC ran the character into the ground). The episode opens with the Clown Prince of Crime breaking out of Arkham Asylum by riding on a ROCKET POWERED CHRISTMAS TREE.
Joker hijacks the local TV channels to host his very own “Christmas special,” having kidnapped Commissioner Gordon, Det. Harvey Bullock, and reporter Summer Gleason as he puts Batman and Robin through a gauntlet of holiday-themed mayhem and destruction. Hamill brilliantly portrays the Joker as both laughable and totally vile, from him mocking Summer over her mom’s potential death, to the climax of his entire scheme with what he had planned for Batman.
“Holiday Knights” is admittedly my favorite of the two episodes for two reasons, Harley and Ivy. This was the first episode of the show’s redesigned continuation “Gotham Knights,” and I love that it was a Christmas episode. It’s an anthology episode adapting three different stories from some of the tie-in comics, taking place in Gotham from Christmas to New Year’s Eve.
The first story features Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn using special lipstick to brainwash Bruce Wayne into treating them to a shopping spree throughout the city. The second has got Batgirl running into Det. Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya while the two are undercover in a department store. The third and last story has Batman and Robin (now Tim Drake) foiling Joker’s plans to kill everyone in Gotham Square on New Year’s Eve.
Harley and Ivy’s story has always been my favorite because Ivy’s my favorite of the animated villains. I even have the original story in a trade collection of different DC Christmas tales. The one downside is the episode omits the confirmation that Harley’s actually Jewish. Though the shopping montage is hilarious, as is Bruce’s increasing RAGE as he struggles to break out of Ivy’s control and Ivy’s increasing annoyance at Harley wanting a Christmas tree.
Daria: Depth Takes A Holiday
The first and only holiday episode of “Daria,” worth mentioning because it is so freakin’ bizarre compared to the rest of the series.
“Daria” is a show about one Daria Morgendorffer who, if she isn’t the human personification of sarcasm does a damn good impersonation of it. Daria tries to navigate through life as a smarter-than-average teenager in the town of Lawndale, living with her workaholic lawyer mother Helen, her well-meaning but anxious father Jake, and her popularity obsessed sister Quinn (who will insist to everyone outside their family that Daria is her cousin). Daria faces everything life throws at her, from her moronic classmates, her bizarre teachers, and a bevy of obnoxious, sexist, incompetent goons with the same level of sardonic wit alongside her best friend, fellow outcast and talented artist Jane Lane.
If it wasn’t for reruns of “Daria” on “The N” I would’ve never survived high school as she taught me everything there is to know about sarcasm. Despite the show being dated in the 90s it still resonates with a large audience of newer viewers, including those enamored with the ahead-of-its-time portrayal of Daria’s associate Jodie Landon (who’s getting her own spin off at some point next year) and how she has to deal with being their school’s Perfect Black Teenager in a predominantly white community.
The show’s writers also realized people were getting the wrong idea about Daria and went the direction of acknowledging, while she does have rather admirable qualities, she’s by no means a perfect role model and offered an examination of her flaws. The last proper episode, “Boxing Daria,” deconstructed her more negative attributes while also reconstructing her positive ones.
“Depth Takes A Holiday” is, as I’ve said, the show’s only holiday episode and makes up for it by cramming most of the holidays together in one half hour story. The problem is it’s also considered one of the worst episodes in the show’s five seasons which leads me to believe the creators intentionally made it that way so they wouldn’t have to do more. Personally my least favorite episode is “The New Kid,” and this episode’s worth at least one viewing due to the strangeness of the plot.
One day Daria is approached by two guys who claim to be the anthropomorphic teenage personifications of St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day. They ask Daria help them find Christmas, Halloween, and Guy Fawkes Day and bring them back to Holiday Island.
Turns out Christmas (or X-Mas), Halloween, and Guy Fawkes Day left to start a hip hop/punk/electronica band and have already made the acquaintance of Jane’s older brother Trent. Daria isn’t bothered by what the disappearance of the three holidays on the calendar would do to life on Earth, but finally decides to get the teens back on Holiday Island when they prove how annoying they can be.
Meanwhile, Valentine’s Day gets Daria’s parents out of the way by rekindling the spark in their relationship so they’re too busy to notice what Daria’s up to. All the hanky-panky going on between Helen and Jake convinces Quinn the two are trying to have another baby because why else would they… you know, and has to figure out how to stop a new sibling from becoming the center of attention.
Aside from the inexplicable weirdness of the setting, my personal reason for rewatching this is the one liners Jane gets throughout the story.
Guy Fawkes Day: It’s like, um, BOLLOCKS is what it’s like.
Jane: Yeah, bollocks!
Valentine’s Day: But then there’ll be no Christmas or Halloween of Guy Fawkes Day.
Jane: No Guys Fawkes Day?! *fake sobs*
The Flintstones: A Flintstones Christmas Carol
Yes there was gonna be at least one Christmas Carol episode on here, and it’s gonna be the Flintstones.
One of the last animated hurrahs created about the modern Stone Age family is none other than a surprisingly postmodern adaption of the famous tale by Charles Dickens.
Set during the period when Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm were still babies, the main cast and a number of supporting characters are heavily involved in a local theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” The production’s narrator and script writer is none other than a Stone Age version of Dickens himself.
Fred lands the starring role as Eboneezer Scrooge, Barney and Betty get to be the Cragits with Bamm-Bamm playing Tiny Tim and Pebbles playing his sister, and Fred’s boss Mr. Slate is Jacob Marbley. Wilma operates behind the scenes as stage manager and costume designer. Unfortunately for all involved, Fred lets the starring role go to his head and he grows more egotistical as the day of the show approaches. Everyone becomes annoyed with Fred’s attitude, especially Wilma whose patience with Fred’s evolution into a “Self-centered Scrooge” wears thinner and thinner.
Fred only pulls his head out of his ass long enough to remember he forgot to buy presents for Wilma and Pebbles, but in focusing on THIS just before the play begins he left Pebbles all by herself at daycare which serves as Wilma’s final straw (He was supposed to pick up Pebbles after work and bring her to the theater since Wilma couldn’t). Barney and Betty are equally disgusted and by the end of the play everyone calls out Fred for “Being such a Scrooge!”
As “A Christmas Carol” progresses, Fred’s realization of his horrible behavior occurs alongside “Eboneezer” being forced to see how he’s treated his loved ones throughout his life. Wilma needs to fill in at the last minute for several actors when they come down with “The Bedrock Bug,” seamlessly stepping into the roles of the Ghost of Christmas Past and Belle since she knows all the lines. Fred manages to keep pissing Wilma off when he wonders what happened to the actress who should’be been playing Belle, not helped that Fred had previously been flirting with said actress at work.
“Hey what happened to Maggie I’m supposed to be doing this scene with her.”
“Oh, you’d rather perform with HER then your own wife?!”
Wilma impressively and heartrendingly channels her frustrations and sadness over Fred’s selfishness into the dissolution of Eboneezer’s relationship with Belle, breaking down in genuine tears. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, her delivery of the lines “But you loved money and yourself more!” is compounded when Fred overhears Wilma sobbing in the dressing room over forgetting Pebbles.
Oh, and speaking of performances, Mr. Slate does an absolutely chilling version of Marbley even though he kept complaining about not getting to play Scrooge (Betty: That’s typecasting, Mr. Slate). Really this entire feature is more clever then it has any right to be, and a definite watch for those interested in the Christmas Carol variations.
Futurama: An Xmas Story
Matt Groening’s other equally good animated series, “Futurama” is basically “‘Friends’ but with killer robots,” which would’ve been a major improvement because FUCK YOU ROSS.
“Futurama” is the story of Phillip J. Fry, a 20-something pizza delivery guy unsatisfied with his crappy life in the 20th Century. Fry is cryogenically frozen by accident on New Year’s Eve, 1999, just as the new millennium is ushered in and spends a thousand years on ice. Thawed out in the 30th Century, Fry quickly takes to life in New New York with gusto and befriends Turanga Leela, a one-eyed alien tired of being the last of her species, and Bender Bending Rodriguez, a narcissistic bending robot who fantasizes about killing all humans.
The three end up getting jobs for Planet Express, an intergalactic delivery company owned by Fry’s great-great-something nephew, the elderly Professor Farnsworth. Their coworkers include former Olympic limbo champion turned bureaucrat Hermes Conrad, Martian heiress (as in heiress TO THE PLANET MARS) and grad student Amy Wong, and Scruffy, the janitor.
When they’re not delivering packages to other planets, the crew gets involved in all sorts of nonsense from fighting in alien wars to going back in time and learning THEY were the ones who crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Surprisingly the show had its own steady continuity and didn’t simply reset things by an episode’s end much like “The Simpsons” does. Two long running arcs developed around Leela finding out who her parents were and the ramifications of what Fry left behind in the 20th Century.
The Planet Express Crew gains a number of enemies, including the insufferable lech Capt. Zapp Brannigan, Mom, head of Mom’s Friendly Robot Company and a vindictive old harpy who pretends to be a sweet old lady, the Robot Devil who is the tormentor of all robot souls and sinners, LRR, RULER OF THE PLANET OMICRON PERSEI 8, and Professor Ogden Wernstrom. Or as Prof. Farnsworth calls him, WERRRRRNSTROM!
“Xmas Story” was produced and aired just before the end of the 90s and featured Fry getting used to the holiday season of the future. Christmas has officially become Xmas after it was made into a secular holiday, and despite it retaining the usual trappings of the season one major thing has changed. Mainly, everyone lives in fear of Santa Claus. Turns out a couple hundred years back, the Friendly Robot Company tried to create their own version of Santa but set his “Naughty and nice standards” too high. Now Santa is a robotic killing machine that spends Christmas Eve mutilating and torturing anyone he deems naughty, which is EVERYONE.
Except Zoidberg, the only person in the entire show to EVER be judged “Nice.”
The episode introduces the Robot Santa character, who would reappear several times throughout the show. The following Christmas episode even had Fry, Leela and Bender try to put an end to Santa’s reign of terror with Bender stepping in as the new Santa which gets him put on Death Row.
Hey Arnold: Arnold’s Christmas
One of the timeless Nickelodeon cartoons of the 1990s, “Hey Arnold” told the story of Arnold, a wise, football-headed 9 year old navigating through life as he’s raised by his lovably eccentric grandparents in a boarding house full of wacky tenants, and goes to school with his best friend Gerald and obsessive bully Helga G. Pataki.
The show dealt with Arnold’s personal struggles and the way he gets wrapped up in everyone else’s bizarre and not-so-bizarre lives, offering sage advice while dealing with his own hang-ups. The reason the show’s aged so well is because its lessons tend to transcend the era it was broadcast in, though a few episodes are kind of… yeah. Regardless, much like the “Rocko’s Modern Life” entry below, “Hey Arnold” was able to receive a proper conclusion by its original creative team in the form of “The Jungle Movie” which finally answers one of the show’s biggest mysteries.
“Hey Arnold” went out of its way to give the spotlight to nearly every main and supporting character in the cast, with the most developed probably being Helga. While she bullies and mocks Arnold somewhat relentlessly, this is Helga’s desperate attempt to hide the fact she is passionately, completely in love with Arnold and terrified he might reject her. She’s written volumes of complex poetry dedicated to him and has constructed shrines to Arnold in her room. Helga also carries around a gold, heart-shaped locket containing Arnold’s picture which she frequently pulls out in private to deliver some long winded yet verbose monologue about her “Trembling girlhood.”
Amazingly, Helga’s episodes show what could be the most accurate and realistic display of an abusive family in children’s television as she struggles with the ongoing neglect her parents (her domineering blowhard dad and alcoholic mom) subject her to while they smother her brilliant older sister in praise and attention (which has turned said older sister into a high-strung neurotic mess, BTW).
“Arnold’s Christmas” is a rather heartbreaking special episode that sheds light on Mr. Hyunh, one of the people living in Arnold’s boarding house. After drawing Hyunh’s name during Secret Santa, Arnold realizes he knows nothing about his neighbor (although Hyunh is prominent among the tenants throughout the show) and tries to figure out what he’d like for Christmas.
Arnold is shocked when he learns Hyunh got separated from his infant daughter Mai during the Vietnam War when he gave her to a group of American soldiers to get her out of the country. Years later Hyunh finally got out of Vietnam and moved to this city thanks to the only shred of information he had on Mai’s whereabouts, but has no idea where she could be now so he gets depressed during Christmas.
Arnold attempts to do the impossible and wants to reunite the two in order to give Hyunh the best Christmas ever. Keep in mind Arnold is not doing this for recognition or the hope of getting something good in return. He’s doing this because he genuinely believes that much in Christmas and how important this is to his neighbor, thinking Mr. Hyunh deserves to be with his only child after being separated for so long.
While Arnold and Gerald figure out how to find Mai Hyunh, Helga’s focusing on her Christmas shopping. Rather, she’s shopping for Arnold. Operating under the belief Christmas is all about getting flashy, expensive presents, Helga believes this is her opportunity to finally prove her love to Arnold by getting him something amazing. Too bad Arnold’s a hard person to shop for.
You probably figure Helga will eventually have a hand in the search for Mai Hyunh. I can’t spoil too much other then I will say Helga eventually pulls one of the greatest examples of self sacrifice in the entire show, and possibly all of western cartoons, by what she does to give Arnold what he wants. Thinking about it still makes me tear up even as I’m typing this, and the significance of Helga’s actions become even more beautiful and sadder after watching the several episodes focusing on her family.
Rocko’s Modern Life: Rocko’s Modern Christmas
The next Golden Age Nick cartoon of the 90s, “Rocko’s Modern Life” became especially relevant for those of us struggling with how to “Adult.” Created by Joe Murray, the titular Rocko is a wallaby (NOT a beaver) recently emigrated to O-Town, U.S.A., from Australia. Taking care of his loving, dimwitted dog Spunky and working at Kind Of A Lot O’ Comics, Rocko struggles to keep the ridiculousness of the adult world from tearing him apart. Things like grocery shopping, doing laundry, and paying bills are treated as the truly insufferable nightmares that they are.
While navigating through life in the 90s, Rocko is joined by his best friends Heffer Wolfe (a gluttonous steer literally raised by a family of wolves) and Filburt Shellbach (a hypochondriac turtle in glasses who later marries feline, hook-handed Dr. Paula Hutchinson). There to make trouble is Rocko’s neighbor Ed Bighead, a perpetually pissed off toad who can’t stand Rocko and his friends. Thankfully Ed’s antics are usually reigned in by his wife Bev, a hardcore party animal who truly cares about Rocko and is not afraid to assert her intelligence and attitude.
This is another show that relied on a lot of adult humor that flew over younger viewers, but did not always make it past the censors. Eating establishment Chewey Chicken was originally called CHOKEY Chicken, and one entire episode featuring Bev trying to seduce Rocko was pulled from broadcast for several years. Then there’s this:
Recently this year, the show’s original creative team was able to release the “Static Cling” special featuring Rocko getting used to life outside the 90s. It even had one of the supporting cast come out as transgender, but I won’t say who. It makes a lot of good points about getting too wrapped up in nostalgia and argues about the ways to go about reviving old franchises for a new audience.
“Rocko’s Modern Christmas” featured Rocko’s first Christmas in O-Town and it starts out as rather disappointing due to the miserable weather. Rocko eventually decides to create Christmas cheer himself instead of waiting for it to happen, planning a small party that turns into a big brouhaha nearly all of O-Town looks forward to attending. However, Ed Bighead’s enjoying the fact it hasn’t snowed in O-Town in decades and hopes everyone else becomes as miserable as he usually is. Bev tries to have fun and tells Ed not to sour the mood at Rocko’s party. Since the Bigheads didn’t receive their invitation yet, Ed becomes enraged at supposedly getting snubbed and spreads rumors about the party so no one will go.
While Rocko plans his shindig, he befriends a large family of Christmas elves that have moved in across the street. The youngest of the family becomes especially endeared to Rocko when Rocko saves him from a bunch of bullies at the mall. After Ed practically succeeds in ruining the party, the young elf steps forward to try and repay Rocko’s kindness and sincerity.
But if there is any reason at all to watch this episode, it’s because of the appearance of the greatest, most beloved holiday icon of them all…
Rugrats: The Santa Experience
“Rugrats” is yet another of the Golden Age Nickelodeon cartoons, created by Klasky-Csupo in the early 90s and surviving until the mid 2000s when it was followed up by “All Grown Up.” Boom Studios recently did a comic continuation and there are talks of a revival by the show’s creators.
“Rugrats” followed the adventures of a bunch of babies who happened to have the most HORRIBLY oblivious parents this side of “Goosebumps.” Our group of infants consists of Tommy Pickles who’s always up for exploring the unknown, his best friend Chuckie Finster who constantly worries about everything, and the twins Phil and Lil DeVille who love doing gross things when they aren’t arguing with each other. The babies’ biggest adversary is usually Tommy’s cousin Angelica, who is able to understand what the babies say while being able to communicate with the adults since she’s 3. Angelica’s a mercilessly spoiled brat who frequently antagonizes the babies when she’s not lying to them to get them in trouble.
Many of their journeys center around the babies having a rather misconstrued idea of the adult world (thinking a garbage truck is a monster that eats trash, a dog groomer is a “Broomer” who plans to “Broom” Tommy’s dog) and how they labor to stop these “Villains.” When they aren’t doing that, they’re enjoying the myriad of movies and shows centered around their favorite dinosaur, REPTAR.
“Rugrats” is another type of show that works for kids and adults due to the level of humor centering around the parental figure characters. One of the greatest gags the show offered is the gradual breakdown Tommy’s dad Stu suffers while catering to Angelica’s supposed broken leg.
“The Santa Experience” was the show’s first Christmas episode, aired before the art style changed again and before the introduction of Tommy’s brother Dil. It focuses mainly on Chuckie and Angelica and their respective views of Santa following an incident at the mall.
It comes as no surprise that Chuckie’s terrified of Santa much like he’s terrified of everything else (especially the guy on the Oatmeal box), and this isn’t helped when all the adults decide to chip in and rent a mountain cabin for a Christmas getaway. While Tommy and the twins decide to help Chuckie deal with his Santaphobia by preventing the man in the red suit from getting into the cabin, Chuckie’s dad Chaz wants to give Chuckie a better Christmas experience than he had as a kid and decides to dress up as Santa. Oh boy.
Angelica’s at her brattiest when she rips off the beard of a mall Santa and whips up a frenzy screaming “Santa Claus is a fake!” The toy store gives Angelica nearly every toy they had to placate how “Traumatized” she was, but of course Angelica thinks it’s all crap. For shits and giggles, she trolls Phil and Lil by pulling a “Gift of the Magi” on them.
- Phil trades his Reptar doll for a box of crayons to give to Lil
- Lil trades her coloring book for a Reptar doll space helmet to give to Phil
Angelica is pretty thrilled at how she’s tricked the twins into giving each other presents they can’t use, until she has a nightmare about Santa Claus punishing her for what she did by BURYING HER ALIVE IN COAL. Oh and for added horror, Santa is voiced by Tony Jay doing a good warm-up of his Judge Frollo voice for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Angelica spends the rest of the episode freaking out about being put on the Naughty List and how to fix what happened. At the same time, her dad Drew is still worried about how the mall episode might’ve “Scarred her” and decides to hire a professional Santa for Christmas.
The episodes features the first appearance of Angelica’s mom Charlotte, a typical 90s CEO, and also makes a rather good point about us TRYING to be good as well as BEING good.
The Simpsons: Marge Be Not Proud
If you’ve been paying attention to “The Simpsons” for the past few years or anything its fans have had to say, you’ll know most feel the cartoon’s Golden Age has long since passed. For me I’d argue the cut-off point to stop watching the show is either the episode where Homer’s raped by a panda or the one where he’s raped by a ‘roided-up Marge.
Thankfully this episode happened long before then.
“Marge Be Not Proud” was a 7th season offering more sobering then the show’s previous Christmas episode, the series premiere “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire,” but nowhere near as mean as “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace.” It was one of the few times where Bart manages to do something so bad his parents, particularly Marge, lose faith in him and it shakes him to his core. Although what Bart does here isn’t as bad as, say, “The PTA Disbands” where he manipulates the teachers into striking and uses his time out of school to spread chaos around Springfield.
Bart becomes obsessed with an extremely violent video game called “Bonestorm.” Marge refuses to buy it for Bart, all the copies have been rented from Comic Book Guy, and that whiny creep Milhouse won’t let Bart play with him. Dejected, Bart listens to the erroneous advice of local bullies Nelson and Jimbo and tries to steal the game from Try-N-Save where he’s caught moments before exiting the store. Store detective Don Brodka (that’s right Don Brodka) leaves a message on the Simpsons’ answering machine about Bart’s crime and bans Bart from the Try-N-Save under the threat of sending Bart to juvenile hall.
Bart returns home in time to remove the incriminating message, only to learn the next day the family’s having their Christmas photo taken you-know-where. Attempting to hurry his family through the photo before he’s seen, Bart’s grabbed by Brodka just as the picture’s snapped and is outed to Homer and Marge in front of the entire store. Marge refuses to believe her special little guy would stoop so low, so Brodka shows the security camera footage on one of the store TVs for everyone to see. Bart’s humiliated and Marge’s heart breaks.
While Homer’s genuinely outraged over Bart’s actions, Marge is left numb and barely acknowledges him once they get home. Marge fears Bart’s been acting out because she babies him too much. Due to less than stellar communication, Marge’s idea to fix things only makes the tension between her and Bart worse. She tries to give Bart space and treat him more like a young adult. Because Marge doesn’t explain to Bart why she’s doing this, he assumes coupled with her reaction to his theft that Marge is deliberately shutting him out of family activities because she considers him “A bad seed.”
Despite the prominence of Christmas in this episode, you couldn’t really call it a Christmas episode since it focuses on Marge and Bart’s relationship as mother and son. It offers a prime example of why communication is a basic essential when punishing and interacting with your kids. Bart is left to interpret Marge’s treatment as neglect while Marge’s good intentions are ironically tormenting Bart more than if she’d straightforward grounded him. It’s one of the few times where Bart, in the heyday of his lovably evil antics, is left stewing in anguish realizing he’s gone too far and hurt someone who’s always had faith in him. Compare this Bart to the Bart of the later seasons, who once sociopathically destroyed Homer and Marge’s relationship to get out of doing his math homework.
The heaviness of the episode doesn’t stop it from having some decent jokes which don’t feel alien to the ongoing drama. There’s Bart practically foaming at the mouth when he sees the “Bonestorm” commercial, the commercial itself, Bart’s reaction to a hideously spoiled brat named Gavin, Bart imagining various video game characters enticing him to steal the game, Homer losing his train of thought while scolding Bart and reminiscing about “Police Academy,” Bart’s ridiculous ineptitude at putting a marshmallow in his hot cocoa, Lisa going catatonic from the fake snow covering their Christmas tree, and the prominence of “Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge.”