The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn't sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we're having a good time. We've found a way to combine those things with our love of television, and we're hoping you'll join us every day through December 25 to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday special or holiday-themed episode we're covering that day. We've got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we're hoping you'll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit.
Like its main character’s defining feature, Rankin-Bass’ Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer shines a light from within the empty, wintry landscape of post-Thanksgiving television. Even in the cable era, TV production more or less shuts down as soon as the Christmas trees go up, and Rudolph and the three other Christmas holdovers from the 1960s—A Charlie Brown Christmas, How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, and Frosty The Snowman—offer dependable charms amid second airings of first-run series, cheaply produced winter replacements, and other Yuletide filler. In recent years, the Rankin-Bass stop-motion special has also served as an odd reminder of changing social mores among the primetime set, with CBS often scheduling Rudolph on the same night as its telecast of a newer holiday tradition: the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. In 2011, there was an NCIS buffer between the two, the Abominable Snow Monster of the North was protected from The Slutty Pink Giant by Mark Harmon, The Salt-And-Pepper Old Lady-Charmer.
But the opening salvo in Rankin-Bass’ attempt to dramatize every last bit of Christmas minutiae actually became something of a shifty character over the years. Your memory of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer may vary depending on the first time you watched it—and how many times you’ve watched it. Sometimes, the protagonist and his aspiring-dentist buddy Hermey sing “We’re A Couple Of Misfits” twice; sometimes, they sing it only once, then move on to dreaming of “Fame And Fortune.” In the version of the special that debuted in December 1964, Rudolph doesn’t return to The Island Of Misfit Toys to save the Spotted Elephant, Charlie-In-The-Box, and the seemingly fit baby doll with the undiagnosed malady; wanting to save viewers from developing their own undiagnosed maladies, an epilogue detailing a Santa-assisted airlift was added for Rudolph’s second broadcast. Until a few days ago, I had never seen the cut featured on Classic Media’s current DVD issue of the special, where Yukon Cornelius finally gives up on gold (or is it silver?) to harvest peppermint in Christmas Town.
Yet, despite leaving a scrambled impression on nearly than five decades’ worth of TV audiences, the unfussy charm and timeless message of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer endure. Classic Media—which is something of a King Moonracer to media properties abandoned by their previous owners—uses nostalgia as the big selling point for its “Original Christmas Classics” line of Rankin-Bass efforts, but Rudolph doesn’t need to be the beneficiary of wistful remembrances. The special doesn’t need its fans to ask “Remember when?” because it never went off the air. In fact, it’s such a reliable ratings boon to CBS that the network now devotes two hours of primetime real estate to the special every holiday season. (The second 2011 airing is set for Saturday, Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. eastern.)
For all its rushed storytelling and lo-fi visuals, the special holds up remarkably well. The songs are catchy—to the point of infectiousness, something Rudolph allows its Santa Claus to remark upon following “We Are Santa’s Elves”—and Romeo Muller’s script manages to push a theme of acceptance without being preachy. “What’s the matter with misfits?” Rudolph and Hermey ask in a way that’s probably already lodged “We’re A Couple Of Misfits” in your head for a few days. “That’s where we fit in.” Pretty pithy for a reindeer and a rebellious elf.
It also helps that the special has contributed some deeply weird stuff to Christmas lore—and pop culture in general. In addition to The Island Of Misfit Toys (a term which has long since been adopted as a sobriquet for any sanctuary harboring a band of lovable outsiders), the daffy prospector Yukon Cornelius, and Cornelius’ mortal enemy the “Bumble,” the special introduced the notion that Santa Claus can be a right surly old elf. Santa reacts as horrendously as one can at the sight of the newborn Rudolph’s “nonconformity,” begrudgingly tolerates the musical recitals of his elfin workforce, and refuses his wife’s insistence that he fatten up for the pleasure of the world’s children. It makes sense, given that the character annually passes judgment on those children—though you have to wonder whether or not Muller was a fixture on the “naughty” list during his childhood. (He’d create a much cheerier version of Santa six years later with Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.)
That vision of Old Saint Dick-olas prevents Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer from crystallizing into just another piece of treacly holiday entertainment as well. It’s an artifact of a bygone era that hasn’t painted over its rough edges: Rudolph’s reindeer brethren are more venomous than Santa, and Burl Ives’ narration actually uses the phrase “No, this is man’s work” unironically. For all the edits and remastering performed on the special over the years, it remains a strikingly untreated product: While the world stands to receive a freshly gussied-up version of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (a film 35 years Rudolph’s junior) next year, in 2011 you can still tune into Rudolph and watch Donner’s antlers wilt beneath the lights of the Rankin-Bass studio and catch the occasional hiccup in the soundtrack. And that’s the source of Rudolph’s true reliability. Like a favored, yet weathered, tree ornament or a Santa hat with matted faux-fur trim, we accept the special’s flaws and celebrate it for surviving these many years. The current crop of Victoria’s Secret Angels should be so lucky as to have a career as long as their annual lead-in.
Tomorrow: A sadly forgotten special from TV's past.