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.
“My father, he believed in God. He didn’t have a problem.” —Thirtysomething “The Mike Van Dyke Show.”
We’ve always had year-end holidays, because it’s a way to keep out the dark of the shortest days of the year. But as we’ve settled into cities and gotten more outwardly “civilized,” we’ve shifted those holidays into something more befitting a modern world where we long for a day to slow down. And as we’ve become more aware of other ways of looking at the world and other religious traditions, we’ve expanded what we think of when we say “holiday.” We might long for an “old-fashioned” holiday, but there’s no such thing. What we’re really longing for is to step into a world that doesn’t exist, to find our way back to a primordial source that calls to us from fiction, a place with no conflict or fear, where things always work out. What we want is to go back to when we were kids, to that last moment before adulthood started to creep in.
It’s these ideas that Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick play around with in “The Mike Van Dyke Show,” the second-season Christmas episode of their drama Thirtysomething. Set in Philadelphia, Thirtysomething was revolutionary when it debuted in 1987 because the drama wasn’t just low-stakes; it didn’t bother with stakes at all. The big questions of the show had nothing to do with whether someone’s life would be saved and more to do with whether its central characters would feel fulfilled in their marriages, life, and work. It was an often wonderful show, particularly in that second season, and it’s one of the dramas of the era that holds up best to modern eyes, perhaps because the stories are so low-key, like little Alice Munro short stories unfolding on a weekly basis. (If you’re curious to follow along, this episode and the entire run of the show are available on Netflix Instant.)
The central couple in Thirtysomething is Michael and Hope Steadman (Ken Olin and Mel Harris), who begin the series as new parents and serve as a steady rock for the other characters. Their best friends are Elliot and Nancy Weston (Timothy Busfield and Patricia Wettig), who have two kids and—as “The Mike Van Dyke Show” begins—are recently separated. Elliot and Mike are business partners, but their lives are so bound up in each other that they might as well be brothers.
What makes “The Mike Van Dyke Show” so remarkable is that it doesn’t strain to incorporate the other characters into the central storyline, instead trusting that we’ll want to spend time just hanging out with Mike on the eve of the holidays, as he goes through any number of small-scale crises of faith. The episode opens with an unusual scene that lays out what to expect for the rest of the episode: As the Steadmans play Trivial Pursuit with two of their unmarried friends, conversation turns to old TV shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, shows where things were always safe and conflict resolved itself as neatly as possible. It’s the kind of place where Santa Claus can be real, and where a marriage would never, ever fall apart. It’s the kind of place where when someone gets lost in the snow, they’ll always find their way back home. But that’s not “real,” the characters insist as they play the game, and the (admittedly rather condescending) stakes are set: This is not like those television shows; it’s like real life, and bad things might happen at any second.
Michael is the only Jew of the central foursome, and his holiday preparations involve a delicate teasing out of how he and his Christian wife are going to celebrate this year. Their daughter may not yet be cognizant of the differences in their religious traditions, but neither wants her to be raised solely as a Jew or as a Christian. And so Michael barters with Hope for two nights of Hanukah, if he’ll let her put lights up outside the house.
Michael, however, isn’t an observant Jew. In fact, as he tells his cousin Melissa (Melanie Mayron) later, he hasn’t been to synagogue since his father’s funeral nearly a year earlier (a major arc in the show’s first season), and before that, he hadn’t been since 1967. Melissa asks him if he believes in God, and he just smiles, obviously not wanting to crush her newfound faith by saying, “No,” but thinking it just the same. At the same time, his Jewish heritage is important to him. He doesn’t want it to be steamrolled by Christmas, just because it’s the dominant holiday. And so he prepares to fly out to supervise the installation of his father’s headstone, even as his wife plans for a giant Christmas celebration with family and friends.
Then there’s a car accident, and Hope is nearly killed.
It’s difficult to talk about this episode—or any episode of this show, really—because so much happens, and it’s not easily summarized. In the best episodes, Thirtysomething took on the rhythms of real life, where incidents piled on top of each other to create a kind of prism the characters were reflected through, until we saw them in all their many shades. Where we expect we’re going with this is that Michael is going to learn about how real life intrudes on the best-laid plans and discover just how lucky he is to be married to this woman, even if negotiating their holiday arrangements is a pain in the ass. And, indeed, this is one of the things that happens in the episode, but it doesn’t happen in any conventional form. Michael gets to the hospital to find out Hope is all right. She’s released the next day. But the ghost of what could have happened—in the form of the totaled car or the recurring ailments his wife suffers, ailments that keep her from planning the party she wants—haunts him, and he keeps finding himself circling back to the synagogue, to the idea that someone, somewhere must have a better idea of what’s going on, even if he’s not capable of believing in a higher power.
Also, throughout, Michael keeps imagining himself as a character in a ’60s sitcom, clearly patterned on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
It’s the sequences shot in multi-camera black and white that have made this likely the most famous Thirtysomething episode. The show was always fond of movie and TV homages, but there’s something so specific and poignant about the way this episode uses these sequences that even as their meaning is too obvious—Mike is realizing that life isn’t like a TV show!—they become sweet and meaningful anyway. Elliot and Nancy are happily married in TV land, and their son isn’t suffering through the uncertainty of the separation like he is in the real world. There’s an old bearded man here who seems to be Santa Claus. And even though Michael’s not sure when Hope’s coming home, he knows she’ll get back soon enough. This is a world devoid of pain, yes, but it’s also a world devoid of passion or complex emotions.
Michael keeps circling back to the snow-covered synagogue, eventually wandering inside and looking around for the good rabbi Melissa told him about. He’s not even sure what he’s looking for. The episode doesn’t spell it out, but we fill in those answers for him. He wants an end to his anxiety about Hope—who hasn’t recovered as swiftly from the accident as either would like. He wants to remember his father. He wants an answer as to how to raise his daughter in two faiths comfortably. But he’s both too scared to ask the questions and not even sure how to do so.
He walks into an open office to speak with the rabbi and is confronted by the old man from his fantasies, the Santa Claus who popped up out of nowhere and had the answers to the fake sitcom problems he’d imagined for himself. Herskovitz and Zwick never bother explaining this, nor do they suggest that what viewers believe is actually what’s going on. There’s a moment of shock and recognition in Michael’s eyes, but it remains a mystery, or perhaps a miracle. The scene that follows is the best in the episode, as the two men have a conversation that says so much without saying anything at all. Michael wants the answers Santa could provide, but he doesn’t know how to ask the old rabbi the right questions. “We’re doing fine,” the rabbi says enigmatically, when Michael finally manages to ask, “How are we doing?” And that will have to be enough.
It’s the conclusion of the episode that solidifies it as a holiday treasure. After giving gifts to Elliot and Nancy, who are struggling through a Christmas Eve together for their children’s benefit, Michael arrives home to a house where he can’t find Hope. He finds himself lost in thought again, in a world where Santa’s made sure Elliot and Nancy have just the right gifts for each other and the kids, a world where the two hold each other and kiss as if nothing could ever part them. Michael asks Santa where Hope is, face beaming. Surely, in this land of miracles, the old man can find his wife out in the blinding snow. No, Santa says. He can’t find Hope. And that’s because Hope is gone.
The chintzy sitcom score drops out. Michael’s face goes from jocular to terrified. Nancy looks up at him as if unsure of what to say. And then, slowly, black-and-white Michael becomes color Michael, walking out of the room and back into reality, into a world where he has to confront the fact that whatever’s ailing his wife might be horrific and serious, might even take her from him. (The cutting in this episode is superb, particularly the images chosen to pull Michael out of his fantasy each time.)
But Hope isn’t gone. She comes home, the makings of Christmas dinner in hand, and for once, the miracle’s reserved for reality, not TV land. Her symptoms stem from a pregnancy, one she wouldn’t have known about so soon if she hadn’t had to keep going back into the hospital for tests. And so we circle around to the beginning, to the place we always knew we were going. It doesn’t matter what or how Michael celebrates, so long as he has the people he loves around him. It doesn’t matter where these holidays come from if the feelings backing them up are genuine. As he tells Melissa, he didn’t think he believed in God, but something about this whole experience, about almost losing his wife and then gaining another child instead, has convinced him there must be something out there. He doesn’t seem sure of it himself as he says it, but his voice gains confidence.
He returns to the synagogue. He wants to talk to the old man again. Yet when he enters the rabbi’s office, he’s not there; instead, there’s a younger rabbi, who seems unaware of any other rabbis in the place. Where Santa couldn’t provide the right answers in fantasy, the old rabbi was able—almost accidentally and, sure, miraculously—to push Michael on the right path, the path that led him back where he was going to go all along. He steps into the synagogue for the first time in decades, and he steps forward to join in prayer, part of this world again.
It’s easy to find Michael’s recommitment to his Judaism unconvincing, the sort of thing you stick on the end of a holiday episode because, hey, it belongs there. But there’s something so tentative about it, so grasping and pure, that I’ll forgive it. Michael’s father had no trouble believing in God, he says, and he seems honestly amazed by that idea, by the idea that it’s possible to simply let go of all he’s learned and all he knows and have faith.
Put another way, my father has no trouble believing in God, yet I do. I’ve given up on the faith of my childhood many, many times over the years. But there I am every Christmas Eve, standing among the people in the pews, singing the old songs and praying the old prayers and hearing the old stories. Like Michael, like many people in the church, I suspect, I’m looking for miracles. And every year, we reach out to each other. We wish each other peace. We look for miracles in each other, and hope that will be enough.
Tomorrow: Christmas in a hospital.