Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Stranger Things: Season 1 (2016)

Let's get this out of the way - in the opinion of Mainlining Christmas, season one of Stranger Things does not technically qualify as an Christmas story, nor does any single episode feature the holidays to a significant extant to be accurately called "a Christmas episode."

Which is why we're doing this now instead of in December.

Excluding flashbacks and an epilogue (which does take place at Christmas), the series takes place over a few days in what's presumably late November. Christmas decorations have started going up, but they're certainly not ubiquitous, and stores are stocking holiday lights.

It's those lights, incidentally, that I mostly want to address. The story of the series centers around --


Oh, yeah. Spoiler Alert, and all that.

Where was I?

Right. The story centers around a missing child who's pulled into a parallel universe by some sort of alien monstrosity. I say "parallel universe" in keeping with the series, but in current geek parlance, the term "alternate dimension" might be closer. Alternate universe isn't technically inaccurate for this sort of extra-spatial anomaly, but going with dimension helps to clarify that it's less a separate reality than a hidden one. I trust if their nerdy science teacher had a better understanding of the situation, he'd have gone with that turn of phrase instead of bringing up Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation.

The significance of this focuses on the way people and creatures in this parallel dimension (dubbed the "Upside Down" in the show) interact with that of our own. It creates electrical and magnetic interference, which plays haywire with lights. This is where the aforementioned Christmas lights come in: when the missing boy's mother concludes her son's alive, she purchases and hangs tons of Christmas lights, first to track his movements, then - with a hastily painted alphabet - to communicate.

It's both a beautiful image and a novel integration of holiday tropes in genre, and I thought it justified mention.

As I mentioned earlier, the epilogue is explicitly set at Christmas, complete with holiday sweaters, presents, and snow. It's meant to both wrap up character arcs and set up a few unanswered questions. The sheriff leaves food scrounged from a holiday party in a box in the woods, implying El might still be alive. Nancy gives Jon a camera to replace the one Steve broke. And, in classic Christmas tradition, Will vomits up an alien slug into the bathroom sink. You know, in case they want to make a second season.

The closing does a decent job playing up the strange feeling of the holiday season, implying a renewal of mystery and magic - both good and bad. In this context, the epilogue could be viewed as a variation on the solstice.

Or maybe they just wanted to toss in an allusion to Gremlins, since they'd basically hit every other genre movie from the 80's. Who the hell knows?

I don't have too much to say about the rest of the series that hasn't been covered elsewhere. I like the series quite a bit, though everything came off as a little too generic. It felt like they were so interested in nostalgia, they created an 80's genre smoothie. That's not a bad thing - like I said, I liked it quite a bit - but there was nothing that felt unique to this story or these characters. Because of this, there wasn't really much to love.

Still, it's definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of pretty much anything made in the 1980's.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Now Ends the Reign of Mainlining Christmas

Sadly, our reign as monarch of Sensible Castle has come to an expected end, so that the next subscriber can claim their three minutes of glory. You should be able to read our proclamations by visiting the Hall of Kings and searching for us.

Now Begins the Reign of Mainlining Christmas

Well, this is it. The moment we've all been waiting for, when Mainlining Christmas is unambiguously crowned king of Sensible Castle in Ireland. This honor is being bestowed on us by Cards Against Humanity as part of their Eight Sensible Gifts for Hanukkah promotion.

You can celebrate our rule by visiting this site, which features video of our castle. You should be able to see our proclamations here, once they're officially proclamated. What are those proclamations? Hell if I know - we submitted them last winter.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Mainlining Christmas in July

E: Okay, so that’s Christmas. In July. What in hell did we learn?

L: That way more people are obsessed with Christmas card photos than we ever imagined.

E: I know, right? Your Family or Mine, Rugrats, and… okay, just two, I guess. I could have sworn there were more, too. The Lizzie McGuire episode is basically the same idea, but with a music video instead of a portrait.

Okay, let’s talk best and worst. What did you like from this? Setting aside Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July for a minute - we’re both on the record digging that. Of the new stuff we saw, what surprised you most?

L: I liked Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, but that isn’t a surprise. It was a bit of a surprise that it was Christmas in July, technically. It was such a traditional Christmas mystery, just in Australia, so if they wanted a proper ‘people dying in the snow’ it had to be set in July.

E: That one grew on me. I started out a little bored by it, but as it moved along, they ratcheted up the tension. I mean, only to like a “3” on a scale of “10,” but that’s all it needed. The set dressing on that was gorgeous.

L: I wanted to bury my face in her hat.

E: I’ve got to go with Ben 10, and that IS a surprise. The episode had some serious flaws, but… damn. I loved the twisted holiday elements.

L: Next I was going to say Ben 10. There were some really neat aspects to that.

E: Yeah - you can only get so excited about a series whose premise is an homage to that 70’s live-action Captain Marvel show, but I loved the haunted holiday elements so much. Real “Christmas curse” stuff is hard to come by, especially if you omit Krampus.

L: The Red Green Show was pretty fun as well.

E: Okay, I’ve got some thoughts about tropes, but first what was the WORST thing you sat through? I think I know the answer.

L: Oh that’s hard. The proportion of crap was high this month. Baby Looney Tunes was terrible, so was Super Mario World

E: Mario was awful, but it tapped into that “so bad it’s good” vein. Not as deeply as I’d have liked, but it wasn’t completely boring. Baby Looney Tunes, hands down, was the worst.

L: Mario was SO boring. The voice acting on both was bad, but that cave kid might be the most annoying thing of the whole month, and that includes the characters on Your Family or Mine and Workaholics, which also both sucked.

E: How about music. Okay, we both know where there is going, but I’m pushing the issue anyway. What’s the BEST Christmas in July song? (Spoiler: Lindsay is already wrong.)

L: Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year)

Yup, I’m cheating. All the Christmas in July songs were just okay to decent.

E: The quintessential, perfect Christmas in July song is, was, and will always be S’Winter from Phineas and Ferb. And if you’re going to CHEAT with seasonal songs that can apply to any point in the year, you should at least pick Hazy Shade of Winter, by the Bangles.

L: Muppets (and Sesame Street) trump non-Muppets. It’s a holiday rule.

E: It’s a CHRISTMAS rule. Okay, I was picking a fight bringing up the music thing, I admit it.

I think I promised some trope talk.

L: I was surprised how little I was able to find about Santa on holiday.

E: There was a little. Part of the problem was we didn’t re-watch Father Christmas. Other than that, Punky Brewster, Rudolph and Frosty, and Phineas and Ferb: I, Brobot all touched on Santa kicking back in the off season.

L: And Camp Lazlo, as well. I just thought for sure there would be more stories about Santa in the summer, but other than a picture book I wasn’t able to get a copy of, I just couldn’t find much.

E: Good call on Lazlo - it skipped my mind. It was surprising there wasn’t more. Father Christmas remains the best of those I’ve ever seen.

L: That special is based on two of Raymond Briggs’ children’s books, FYI, one called Father Christmas, and one actually called Father Christmas Goes on Holiday.

E: Who published them? What years were they released? WHAT WAS THE STREET ADDRESS OF THE PUBLISHER, LINDSAY? (smart-ass).

L: 73 and 75, respectively. (According to Wikipedia.)

E: Since obviously, we’re covering trivia about that thing WE DIDN’T EVEN REWATCH. Seriously, though - it was fantastic.

L: On a similar note, we saw more than one example of winter taking over summer, although I think green/unseasonably warm Christmas is a more popular trope.

E: Yes, I seem to remember reading a brilliant essay on the subject of winter taking over. Really amazing work - I wish I could remember the author’s name.

Speaking of that trope, we also didn’t get around to rewatching Frozen, although I think we finally settled our longstanding Christmas/not-Christmas feud: Mainlining Christmas is now ready to categorically state that Frozen is a Christmas in July movie. Break out the damn champagne.

L: Eh, I guess. Oh, wait. I’m for it. I’d like to change my best song selection.

E: Every girl alive (aged 4 to 9) is with you on this.

L: I liked that occasionally Christmas in July was sort of an unexpected metaphor. Ben 10 is actually a good example of this. The fact that there was a snowbound holiday town in the summer, in the desert, was a symbol of a greater issue. Time is out of joint, so to speak, if you celebrate the winter holiday in the summer.

E: I don’t mind linking to my article again. But, yeah - definitely. The breaking of the compact of the seasons; the inversion of the solstice - I love it.

L: I mean, one of the songs I listened to used it as a metaphor for not having the timing right on a relationship. That’s less exciting, but still - metaphor.

E: The Sufjan Stevens song? I like it more than you, but that’s a good point. Ben 10 was kind of about misplaced nostalgia - the dark side of keeping Christmas in your heart year round.

L: Haven played with that, too.

E: If the ending had been better, Haven would have been my pick for best of season. The whole thing was awesome until the resolution.

L: That’s something else I wanted to mention: we didn’t address any “Christmas Every Day” stories this month. (You know, someone makes a wish or gets cursed and has to live a year of Christmas…)

E: No - I think we meant to and ran out of time. Now that this is an annual tradition, we can cover it next year.


L: I was actually going to say that I think those stories, since they generally start and end at Christmas, are proper Christmas stories, not Christmas in July.

E: Yes, though that’s true of almost every Christmas in July piece, exempting things where Christmas is either nominal or absent entirely (the 1940 Christmas in July movie, oddly, is an example of something that isn’t Christmas at all). Likewise, Phineas and Ferb Save Summer wouldn’t apply as Christmas and only connects to Christmas in July due to the aforementioned seasonal inversion tropes.

L: One more trope we saw more than once: Christmas at the wrong time of year for someone who won’t be around/with the same people by next Christmas. This is sort of connected to the Christmas in July “origin story” of kids celebrating at summer camp, but it also popped up in Tracy Beaker and Road to Avonlea.

E: Most of the things we saw that did this - hell, most of the Christmas in July episodes in general - were episodes made to be watched at Christmas that had to be set at a different time due to continuity. Road to Avonlea was an exception, though: I think the writers for that show were just doing cocaine or something.

L: You better hope my mom doesn’t read this article, if you’re going to smack talk Avonlea.

E: Tell it to the dying street urchins who never had a real Christmas.

There’s one thing we haven’t determined yet, and I think it’s the most important.

L: Oh?

E: What is the true meaning of Christmas in July?

L: That if you put up Christmas decorations at any time of year, other people will too, because no one wants to be the person missing out.

E: That was awesome on Garfield, I’ll grant you. But I think Christmas in July is about more than that. Did you know that Jesus was actually born on July 14th? It’s true, and I dare you to try and prove otherwise.

L: July 14th, in Australia.

E: Obviously. The boomerang is a symbol for his resurrection.

L: Makes sense.

E: Remember, folks - anyone who looks at you funny for dragging your Nativity scene outside to slowly melt in the July heat is attacking your freedom of religion!

L: All that’s left to say is We Wish You a Merry Christmas in July.

E: The war on Christmas in July is REAL! Get on it, Fox News!

L: And a Happy School Year.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Revisiting Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979)

First of all, we've covered this already, over here. Lindsay wrote up a pretty glowing review for this and slapped on a "Highly Recommended" label, mainly because it managed to coalesce nearly the entire Rankin/Bass catalog into a single coherent Christmaverse and rebuild Rudolph's backstory using a mythic structure.

I'm not writing this as some sort of retraction, though upon rewatching, I do want to roll back the unconditional love we showered on it the first time around. While it accomplished everything listed above, that accounts for around fifteen minutes of its hour and thirty-seven minute run time. The rest oscillates between a series of mediocre love songs and a holiday-themed stop-motion circus show.

Obviously the main reason I want to revisit this now is to focus in on the "Christmas in July" elements we more or less skipped over the first time. Also, there are 31 days in July, we're doing our best to hold to our post-a-day commitment, and we're out of original content. So. Here goes.

Lindsay didn't want to spoil the magic for you the first time around; I'm not so generous. If you'd like to see this without knowing its secrets and just haven't been able to make the time in the past thirty-seven years, stop reading now.

The villain of the movie is a new character named Winterbolt who looks and acts an awful lot like the Winter Warlock of Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. Long before Santa existed, Winterbolt ruled over the north as a tyrant king, until Lady Boreal, queen of the northern lights, could no longer stand to watch his evil.

To stop him, she had to take on human form and use her magic to place him in a deep sleep. But to become human is to become mortal - her reign of the north couldn't last forever. As Winterbolt slept, the world changed: Santa came to the Northpole and became its king.

As Lady Boreal grew weak, Winterbolt woke. He learned that Santa had been crowned king of his empire, and that Claus was empowered by the love of the world's children. To remove his advisory's power, he planned to create a powerful mist to stop Santa from delivering his gifts.

But Lady Boreal overheard his scheme and, with the last of her life force, transferred her remaining magic into a newly born reindeer.

So, yeah. Holy shit. And that's the opening.

Unfortunately, we then take a left hand turn to focus on an ice-cream seller who's in love with a circus performer. She can't marry him, because the circus is about to be taken over by some guy who isn't but might as well be Snidely Whiplash. In order to stop this, a plan is hatched where Rudolph, and Frosty (along with wife and kids - see Frosty's Winter Wonderland) will head down to use their star-power to drum up an audience. In order to get the Frosty family to go along, Winterbolt gives them magical amulets that will keep them frozen solid until the fireworks are finished as part of an over-complicated evil scheme.

Santa agrees to swing by and pick up the snow-people at the last minute, and everyone stupidly assumes nothing could possibly go wrong.

Meanwhile, Winterbolt enlists the aid of an evil reindeer named Scratcher, probably the movie's most disappointing addition. The character's lead in involves a dark side to the fairy-tale world of these specials - a forest of burned Christmas trees, a cave of lost rejections - you get the idea. But Scratcher is whiny and lazy, not scary - he's a missed opportunity if ever there was one.

He heads down and plays nice with Rudolph, eventually convincing him to act as an unwilling accomplice in a theft. For some reason, this triggers the fail safe on Rudolph's magic: that it will only work so long as its used for good. He can't set the record straight, because Winterbolt blackmails Rudolph into staying quiet: he's already delayed Santa and Mrs. Claus, and only his magic can keep the Frosty family alive.

But that's not enough for Winterbolt. He learns the truth behind Frosty's hat, that its magic can be duplicated (again, that's pretty much how Frosty's family came to life) and could be used to create an army of evil snowmen.

Again - holy snow shit. The music's annoying, and the stuff I'm glossing over is boring, but when this thing goes dark, it goes dark. I guess Frosty's magic isn't inherently good or evil: it's a raw power of creation.

He gets it away from Frosty by offering to return Rudolph's magic, which is an outright lie. But by this time Rudolph's already had a vision of Lady Boreal telling him he can get his own damn magic back if he's brave. When he discovers Winterbolt has taken Frosty's hat, turning him into a normal (though still unmeltable) snowman, he gives chase, battling the snakes who pull Winterbolt's sleigh and the warlock himself. Rudolph recovers the hat and his magic, but Winterbolt's not quite done.

But he's close: the woman who owns the circus smashes his ice scepter using the iron handles of her gun (a line connecting the power of iron over magical beings would have been a nice touch, but we assume that's why this worked), and he screams in pain and terror as he transforms into a tree.

The Frosties melt, because his power's no longer sustaining them, but it's all cool: Big Ben shows up with Jack Frost, and they fix it, then Santa and Mrs. Claus ferry the snow-people back to the North Pole.

Oh, and Snidely whatever-his-name-was gets arrested, and the circus is saved or something.

After typing that, I feel better about spoiling everything, since I'm pretty sure I did a better job conveying the story than the movie did. Again, this is mostly filler, and what its filled with gets old fast. But the animation is good, and the core story is great.

The July elements operate on a few different levels. First, this is a fairly standard "Santa in the off-season" tale, though it's more an adventure than the usual vacation stories we see. It comes close to delving into the whole broken solstice trope I wrote about, but we never actually learn if Winterbolt plans to overturn the seasons (he has a line about the world being his snowball, but it's not clear how metaphorical that is).

The primary use of July is to introduce the warmth of the season to the Frosty clan, a concept used to some effect in Frozen, too. Though, it could be argued that Frosty is used as something to be threatened by the July weather: the character serves little purpose except as something the main character needs to protect. Ultimately, he's really a damsel in distress, at least structurally.

I still like this quite a bit, and I'll double-down on Lindsay's recommendation, with the caveat that it's not for everyone. For every sequence of ice dragons and dark magic, you've got a love song between Frosty and his wife that will make you seriously consider if it's worth it.

But, damn. I've got to recommend this for the revelation Frosty's hat could be weaponized for evil alone. That's just awesome.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Saved by the Bell, the New Class: Christmas in July (1994)

I’d like to say that we saved the worst for near the end on purpose, but it was just challenging to get a hold of this episode. It turns out that these DVDs are out of print for a reason.

Here’s what I know about Saved by the Bell: There was a character named Screech, and it must have come on after something I watched regularly, because the theme song is familiar.

Here’s what I know about Saved by the Bell: The New Class: When I was looking for Christmas in July television episodes, I found out that there was a spin-off of Saved by the Bell.

So, with that lack of knowledge in place, let’s begin.

This is a heavily Christmasy episode, which we appreciate, and it packs an impressive amount of plot into 22 minutes. It does this by making every line, beat, and sound effect exquisitely painful to experience, thus extending the subjective time spent watching.

I can’t say this enough: do not under any circumstances watch this show. Making it was a waste of electricity, props, and craft services. The writing is atrocious, the acting broad beyond the point of parody, the unnecessary laugh track and sound effects are distracting and awful.

The main cast seems to be a bunch of teenagers and young adults who work at a… I guess it’s a country club? I don’t know for sure. There’s a couple older adults too. Maybe this is a summer episode, and the “regular” episodes take place in school? The opening credits seemed to take place at school.

Anyhow, the country club holds a “Christmas in July” party every year. First up: Secret Santa Drawing.

Screech is still a character in this show, and every second he is on screen I want to put the actor out of all of our misery. In any case, he rigs the Secret Santa so he selects his girlfriend. And immediately I don’t understand. She doesn’t seem to work there (her dad is the head boss), while Screech and the teens do, and there are a lot of names in the bowl and a big fancy banner, so are both staff and guests involved in a mandatory gift-giving activity? That sounds horrible and vaguely in violation of good workplace ethics.

My misgivings are confirmed, incidentally, by the subplot about the two boys who draw the supervisor and the boss. Both adult men proceed to drop hints about expensive gifts to their underpaid juvenile subordinates. Everyone in this world is a horrible person, and that goes double for all the people on the laugh track.

Next Christmas activity: The Snow Queen Pageant.

In keeping with the “everyone’s a scuzzball” theme, this is a beauty pageant for the (juvenile, underpaid) female staff, and the prize is a thousand dollars towards college. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be annoyed by yourself, viewer. You can be annoyed at Megan, who heads up a subplot about the sexism inherent in swimsuit competitions. Her objections are so annoying and pathetic in execution that I can only imagine how many kids watching this decided that sexism was A-okay if it would drive off people like Megan.

The other plot is also a follow-on from the Secret Santa. Screech’s girlfriend (the boss’s daughter, remember?) receives a car from her dad, and Screech decides he has to get her something extravagant, proving that he doesn’t know her or the conventions of after-school television very well. First he sells pictures with “Santa” to raise extra money, and when that doesn’t work, he sells his scooter to buy her a gold sports watch.

These scenes interweave with the aforementioned “pressure teenage boys to buy presents for adult men” and “sexism 101” plots. Megan tries to get the other girls to walk out on the pageant, but they decide they need the money. The boys trade Secret Santa names and each come up with a half-ass solution.

Megan finally decides to crash the swimsuit competition in a ridiculous 80’s power suit and give a painful speech about it, thereby clinching the thousand bucks. She was ahead of her time in claiming the trappings of feminism to get herself ahead.

I guess Screech’s girlfriend knew they were supposed to do “Gifts of the Magi” but didn’t know how it went, because she bought him a used and broken-looking horn for his scooter but didn’t sacrifice anything. She does refuse to keep the bracelet. The episode closes on some awkwardly forced caroling.

So today we’ve learned rich people can have anything they want, sexism is bad but you can solve it by posturing to gain sympathy, and minimum wage employees should be grateful that all their bosses want out of them is overpriced gifts.

Merry Christmas in July!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Avengers: Take-Over (1969)

That's the British Avengers - a pair of super-spies - not their American counterparts. These Avengers predate Lee and Kirby's team by a couple of years.

I'm not 100% certain of this, but I think this is the first full episode of the classic series I've ever seen. It won't be the last - there's an actual Christmas episode from 1965 that's on our list. I have, however, seen the 90's movie, which I kind of love despite the fact it's an awful movie.

Apparently, the one we just watched isn't the best to start with. Both tonally and structurally, it's a long way from the norm. The episode opens with Steed and Tara going separate ways. Tara, filling in for the more iconic Emma Peel, is barely present at all: other than this scene and a few at the end, this is a solo adventure for John Steed, who's going to visit some old friends to celebrate Christmas in February.

Quick aside: I think we've already made it pretty clear that we're playing pretty fast and loose with the "July" part of "Christmas in July". As long as it's Christmas being celebrated in the wrong month, it counts.

That said, there's virtually no Christmas being celebrated in this episode whatsoever. The whole thing seems to be a quick gag, present for a single scene then abandoned. The conceit is that John and his war buddy were once POW's together, and they wound up losing track of time. Their calendar got a few months off, so they were accidentally celebrating Christmas in February. They made it an annual tradition, which has continued to this day.

You got all that? Great - forget it, because it's not coming up again.

See, Steed's friends are currently being held hostage when he arrives. He doesn't realize at first, because their captors have implanted miniature explosive pellets in their necks and are threatening to detonate them if Steed catches on. Forced to play along, the whole thing becomes an elaborate game of life and death.

Eventually, they wound Steed while hunting, and he manages to trick them into believing he's stumbled into a bog and been swallowed up by mud. He gets back just after Tara reappears, and the two of them stop the villains from assassinating a bunch of diplomats with a missile.

I suspect that sounded significantly more zany than it actually was. Unlike most episodes, this one was relatively serious in tone. Fortunately, the synopsis also reads a lot dumber than the episode came off. For all the weird turns, this delivered some decent suspense.

It helped that the villains were at once fascinating and disturbing. The lead bad guy had a fantastic voice that was simultaneously refined, commanding, and chillingly evil. The other significant villain was the brilliant young woman who invented the exploding capsules and the method for surgically implanting them. Her character comes off as eerily alien - she seems less evil than completely detached from human feelings. She's sort of a playful sociopath existing in her own world.

There are still quite a few bad decisions in the episode: the bog thing makes very little sense, it's not clear why Steed doesn't do more earlier, and the villains make a handful of mistakes. But the bad guys and the suspense succeed in redeeming this, at least as a standalone story.

As I said earlier, the holiday elements are basically present as an extended joke. Still, it offers an interesting look at the Christmas in July trope (even if it's off by five months). In this case, it's a holiday tradition with an interesting origin story. I'd certainly have liked more time on it (it was something of a plot point that his friends had forgotten all about it due to the home invasion), but it was a fun idea.