Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Christmas TV Companion: A Review

I was recently privileged to receive a copy of the first book released by 1701 Press (to my knowledge), a fun little slice of season appropriate enjoyment called The Christmas TV Companion: a Guide to Cult Classics, Strange Specials & Outrageous Oddities by Joanna Wilson.

Now, I used to think I was quite conversant with the pantheon of holiday-themed specials and movies, but after reading this Joanna Wilson's book, I can see how deficient I've been, especially when it comes to episodic television that was off the beaten path for me, whether it was from an age that was before my time or from a genre that never interested me as a kid.

For instance, aside from that Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet from the 1970's, my knowledge of Christmas episodes from variety TV is remarkably lean, and it seems there were some rather interesting moments in that medium that I should really look into (like a 1963 Judy Garland Show Christmas Special which Wilson describes in loving detail).

The category that she discusses which I am most familiar with is animation, which doesn't dwell on those programs which we have all seen (like a Charlie Brown Christmas, How The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the Rankin/Bass specials), but shines a spotlight on the oddities of animated television in the modern era, including the various iterations of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, and South Park, which has made Christmas episodes its bread and butter.

And she also devotes a fair amount of the book to both horror inspired and science fiction-based Christmas episodes, which means that Doctor Who, Bender, Buffy and Jack Skellington also get their moments to shine (and after all, A Christmas Carol is a story with ghosts and time travel after all). Wilson also spends some time discussing that holiday train wreck we are all familiar with, (though many of us, myself included, have been spared the agony of watching), and I am of course referring to the infamous The Star Wars Holiday Special. She took a hit I certainly wouldn't want to.

But I think the most interesting chapter of the book is the final one which takes a look at the darker, more cynical visions of the Christmas season, most of which are films. From the film noir The Lady in the Lake, to a few post-apocalyptic Christmas tales to even the Pope of Trash John Waters' Female Trouble, this section is filled with treasures which would be appreciated by those who aren't big on the saccharine and sugar plums (and for those of you who want their Christmas fare a little bloodier, well, there is that previously mentioned horror section).

In addition to these categorized chapters, Wilson has also included a number of Make Your Own Marathons (making a Christmas-themed marathons based not just on themes, but even taking a classic or cult film and trying to find Christmas episodes/movies with all the cast members in them). She finishes the book with her own version of the latter concept by putting together a Marathon based on the cast of The Big Lebowski, and what a list it turns out to be.

As a fellow traveler in the pop cultural world, Joanna Wilson's book is an entertaining trip through some of the less explored areas of our collective holiday experience. Naturally, there are a few things I wish were in it (like the hilarious Alan Cumming/Lenny Henry/Rowan Atkinson vehicle Bernard and The Genie), but for the most part, it hits a lot of movies and television episodes that deserve noting and it serves its purpose as a guidebook for the holiday season, especially with so many options on the cable and satellite dial (not to mention all the videos available online as well) that showcase things that may be off the radar.

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