Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Road to Avonlea: Christmas in June (1995)

When we borrowed this DVD from the library, I wasn’t sure whether I had seen this show. It turns out that my confusion is because the Disney Channel just called this show “Avonlea,” because the opening sequence was definitely stored in my deep memories.

Avonlea, or Road to Avonlea, is sort of a spin-off of Anne of Green Gables, based loosely on other L.M. Montgomery stories and produced as a joint production between a Canadian television station and the Disney Channel. That should be enough to give you an idea. It’s a melodrama, a soap opera safe for children, following the citizens of Avonlea through the vagaries of their lives.

However, I don’t remember this episode at all. It mostly focuses on Cecily King. I have some memory of her mother as a character, but I don’t remember her. (Aha, Wikipedia tells me that the character’s actress switched around this time.)

Cecily has tuberculosis, like you do if you live in the early 1900s and need some extra drama. She has been taken into a prestigious sanitarium in an effort to get well. Early on her mother visits her and later expresses to her husband a concern that it might not be the best place for Cecily to actually heal. But that isn’t the plot.

The plot concerns a group of charity cases - sick newsboys from New York. They were sponsored into the sanitarium by some foundation and proceed to cause havoc in the quiet hospital. The ringleader, Louis, is a brash tale-spinner with a very broad Brooklyn accent.

For sweet Cecily from quiet Prince Edward Island, a cliche puppy love was inevitable.

Cecily and Louis hate each other at first, of course, and they fight in the best LMM style, with wit and cutting remarks and occasional physical violence. (In this case a food fight, rather than a broken slate.)

One of the annoying and distracting things about this episode was the inconsistent and often poorly done makeup. They want the kids to look ‘sick,’ but they often look like they either fell into a flour sack or are auditioning for a vampire movie.

Louis’ charm and stories bring Cecily around, and they eventually become friends, which means she starts getting in trouble. He plays a prank on her in the middle of the night and they all get caught. He tries to make it up to her by preventing the head nurse from writing to her parents and accidentally starts a fire. He convinces her to sneak out again and they both fall in the river.

Well, he falls, and she goes after him and rescues him.

There’s some inconsistency throughout here: Cecily said several times that she wants to go home, but when faced with “behave or we’ll send you home,” she wants to stay. Part of that is Louis, but it’s unclear and inconsistent whether Cecily actually believes that the sanitarium is improving the patients’ health.

For all that I didn’t hate this, (because I can get behind an over-emotional melodrama when it’s dressed in pretty historical costumes) I did sometimes wonder if the same people were writing each scene, because characters’ motivations and plans seemed to change randomly.

But Lindsay, you’re saying, what about CHRISTMAS?

Well, near the end, Louis confesses his lies (about having a rich family who traveled the world) to Cecily, and mentions that he’s never even had a nice Christmas. Cecily’s parents come to investigate the reports of their daughter’s misbehavior, and she begs them to invite Louis to Avonlea once the holidays roll around.

Her father stares weirdly into the camera and says he has a better idea. That evening, Cecily wheels Louis (sick from the river escapade) out into the yard for a Christmas party in the summer. There’s a decorated tree, presents, and singing, and Cecily’s dad plays Santa.

Awww. But all cannot be fixed by out-of-season holiday cheer, and Louis succumbs to his illness the next day.

One more weird point: I don’t know whether it was the station, the writers, or Disney, but they never say, “Louis died.” They just say “we’re sorry,” fold his clothes somberly, and make poor distraught Cecily figure it out in silence.

Of course, this means no one has to point out that maybe the party was not such a great idea.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Existential Horror and Pagan Connections of Christmas in July

When we started this project, I expected media built around Christmas in July parties, along with a few "Santa in the off-season" stories, and maybe a few things that related to marketing events. What I wasn't expecting were stories built around pagan themes and elements of horror. But there were quite a few.

It turns out that Christmas in July, for all its jovial connotations, is potentially an extinction level event. In hindsight, I probably should have seen this coming.

At its core, Christmas - or more accurately the Solstice, but they're really one and the same - represents a sort of perceived compact with the seasons. The celebration marks the turning point when the days start growing longer. It's a ritual for bringing back the sun's light and warmth.

In this form, the invocation of Christmas in July can represent a shattering of this compact. But uncoupling Midwinter from its rightful place in time, we're potentially bringing about the coldest, darkest point on the calendar without any guarantee it will end. Arguably, it's an inversion of this moment, so instead of changing from cold to warm, we're transforming the warmth of summer into an endless winter.

Or, to put it in less pretentious terminology, attempting to pull in the pleasant aspects of the holiday can inadvertently break the system it represents.

We see this idea come up frequently in the Christmas in July stories, sometimes in surprising contexts. Transformers: Rescue Bots isn't exactly a deep show, but when a weather machine malfunctions, it nearly brings about eternal winter. We see variations on the same catastrophe almost occur in Phineas and Ferb Save Summer, and It's Punky Brewster. While the causes differ, the core idea remains - the price of bringing winter into summer may be the end of the seasons as we know them... and possibly the end of life.

Similar ideas are played with in Frozen. I've defended this movie as a sort of honorary Christmas movie in the past, but Christmas in July would be more accurate. Once again, the unchecked power of winter threatens to overtake the world. Summer becomes winter, and characters face the possibility it will never change back.

None of this seems to connect with the much more mundane origins of the Christmas in July tradition, but it's a fascinating subset of specials and episodes I assumed would lack any substance. And it makes a nice change of pace from everything focused on taking early Christmas card pictures and throwing ironic holiday parties.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Haven: Silent Night (2011)

Ostensibly based on The Colorado Kid, a mystery novel by Stephen King, Haven is probably better described as a homage to the genre writer's body of work. It centers around a police officer drawn to Haven, a fictitious Maine town beset by strange phenomenon.

This is the only episode we've seen - naturally, we were drawn by its Christmas in July connections. And what connections those were: this episode offers not only a unique spin on that conceit, but a new Christmas/horror archetype as well.

We've seen killer elves, killer reindeer, killer snowmen, killer Santa (so damn many killer Santas), killer Christmas trees, killer gifts, killer stockings, killer decorations, killer snow... honestly, I was pretty sure I'd seen it all. But this went and offered a new spin: killer Christmas.

It opens with a woman hearing Silent Night while surfing off the coast, seconds before being cut in half. Soon after, we cut to the town, where our main characters are finishing breakfast at the local bakery while holiday decorations are going up. This grates on police officer and supernatural detective Audrey Parker, since it's July. She gets into an argument with her partner, who dismisses her cynicism on the ground she just doesn't like Christmas.

See, while he knows it's July, he also knows it's Christmas Eve. Everyone in Haven does, in fact. And no amount of arguing or reasoning can get them to change their minds. But a off-season Christmas and some unnamed woman being cut in half aren't the only things wrong: people are vanishing, seemingly being erased from existence and memory. Only Audrey is immune (my understanding is that she's immune to all the weird stuff that happens in town). She hears a few bars of Silent Night right before it happens, giving the tune an even creepier vibe.

It takes a while, but we finally get some context for the woman cut in half: she was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a glass dome appeared over Haven. But this time it's not aliens - it's a snow globe. More specifically, Haven's being transformed into a giant snow globe, and a minor character Audrey met in a movie theater at the beginning's at the center of it all.

The girl in question inherited supernatural powers from her grandfather, who had a similar experience around model trains decades earlier. People around him vanished, never to return. But around the time all the series regulars but Audrey had disappeared, it was pretty clear this one would have a happier ending.

Actually, the ending was far too happy. Audrey helped the angsty teenage girl cope with her parents' separation, which allowed her to undo the damage. Everyone who'd vanished reappeared, having no memories of the day, and the woman who'd been cut in half... wasn't addressed by the writers. Instead Audrey made peace with the holidays, and threw a Christmas in July party for all her very confused friends.

The holiday elements were definitely the strong point this time around. The music, coupled with the growing sense of isolation as more and more characters disappeared, created a genuinely disturbing tone, even as the absurdity of treating Christmas itself as a formless, existential threat offered limitless humor. The Christmas in July concept only ratcheted up the comedy and creepiness further - bravo. This was a really inspired premise and execution... at least up until the end.

Calling the resolution sappy is an understatement: the writing in this scene got downright painful, and the attempt to parallel the girl's emotional problems with Audrey's own holiday reservations was cloying to watch. Things like this always make the mistake of shoehorning in a classic Scrooge-style turnaround, which is rarely satisfying. I'd have been far happier if Audrey had walked away from this more turned off by Christmas than ever - it would felt less redundant and truer to the character and her journey.

On top of all that, I'm actually kind of irritated they never got around to covering whether the surfer lived. Audrey had seen her body, but it vanished earlier. The fact we never saw her go to check makes her come off as a horrible police officer and person. Either there's half a woman on the beach waiting for a kid to trip over it, or there's a woman who's very lucky the unexplained temporal anomaly wasn't malevolent in nature. You'd think she'd at least look into it.

All that said, I liked the interesting twists more than I disliked the issues. While the characters and the overall premise of the series might come off as an amalgamation of X-Files/Twin Peaks/every other supernatural show on TV, the premise of this particular episode was quite a bit fresher. I still can't quite bring myself to label this highly recommended (the merits are skewed towards those of us who have seen a lot of Christmas episodes), but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

QVC Christmas in July Sale

I know that most television is supported by either advertising or subscription fees. That’s why, whether it’s CBS or HBO, when a channel allows its content to stream online, they want you to either watch ads or pay money for the privilege.

But what about television that is nothing but ads?

I did not know that QVC is constantly streaming two live channels on its website, but on reflection, I should have guessed.

QVC is big on Christmas in July, apparently because of the historic shipping lag in ordering products off the TV. They hold a big sale and release a lot of Christmas merchandise, with a special return policy that extends through January of the next year, I guess in case you buy a present which falls flat. Or maybe so you can buy for the people you think will still be your loved ones by the holidays, but you never know. I mean, what if they found out you shopped at QVC?

We watched some samples of the Christmas programming provided this year.

Holiday Decorating with Carolyn

I forgot how long these segments are, if I ever knew. I watched (okay, watched and/or listened) to this for almost half an hour, and they only featured four items. The presenters need to stretch constantly so that viewers at home can decide that they want it and call in while it’s still on-screen. One person explains the item, and the other seems to be there to exclaim at how awesome it is.

All the pieces they were featuring were decorative items, and I admit, if they had been just a little cheaper I might have been tempted. This is just the sort of ridiculously garish stuff we’re probably going to want if/when we buy a house.

My favorite part was when the presenters tried to suggest non-Christmas uses for some items. I mean, it’s not an awful idea to use a light-up blue banner that reads “Let it Snow” at a birthday party for a girl who likes Frozen… but it’s not exactly a good idea either.

Gourmet Holiday

We watched about fifteen minutes of this, and saw caramel apples, bulk gourmet popcorn, and single-serving meatloaf.

I was overall weirded out by the idea of shopping for holiday food this far in advance. They explained that you would pick from a few different “ship dates,” but it was still weird to me. The popcorn didn’t look as good as stuff we can get locally.

And then there were the meatball-things. Apparently there’s a market for microwavable meatloaf in red holiday paper cups, because the presentation lady kept updating how many had sold while we were watching in disbelief. They looked gross, and the guy from the company shilling them bemused me. He kept trying to emphasize that “all the ingredients are right there, you can see them” while gesturing to this picture-perfect platter of vegetables.

They didn’t have any sample visual for the meat.

The chic lady talked a good game, but when she tried a meatball she couldn’t quite hide her grimace.

Erin was so enamored by the item, he took a picture of the screen. If you're interested, they might still have some leftover for sale on the site:

Santa's Best - Holiday Trim

This turned out to be an hour-long piece about that day’s special on Christmas trees. (We didn’t watch the whole hour, as it quickly became repetitive.) These particular trees had a variety of remote-controlled lighting functions, some of which Erin described as “pretty cool.”

They hardly ever got close-up on the branches, though, leaving us skeptical as to the actual quality of the trees.

Christmas Shoppe

I checked this out for a while, hoping for a few more fun decorative items. The big battery-powered sparkle light things were kind of neat, although again the hosts began to strain credulity in their attempts to suggest non-holiday uses for the item.

I finally turned off QVC after about five minutes of ridiculous Lenox angels.

Because if I had to hear that lady say one more time that a light-up 50-dollar porcelain Angel of Hope dusted with 24-karat gold would be the perfect gift to your friend or loved one who is having a hard time, I’m not sure I could be held responsible for my actions.

Anyway, if you thought that getting rid of your television meant you were giving up ridiculous advertising-white-noise in the background while you clean or cook or sleep, you'll be happy to know that QVC is available both on http://www.qvc.com/ and YouTube.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Rugrats: Angelica Orders Out/Let It Snow (1997)

I know that kids in most cartoon shows never age, but that convention seems especially creepy when you’re talking about infants never growing old enough to try to speak, even though they have experienced (at least once) both Christmas and summer.

This is technically a Christmas-in-August, but it counts for our purposes. Christmas in July tropes include an off-season photo opportunity and characters who believe it’s Christmas when it isn’t.

Incidentally, the first half of the episode isn’t Christmas, just an example of unfunny children’s television in which Angelica gets in trouble for pretending to be an adult on the phone.

In “Let It Snow,” the babies see Tommy’s Grandpa decorating a Christmas tree. Grandpa explains to the adults about taking a holiday photo in time to have cards done, and some obvious foreshadowing is laid around a bag of old toys intended for donation.

The babies think the presence of the tree must mean it’s Christmas, but there aren’t any presents. Some extremely quick leaps of logic later, and they’ve decided that Santa must have forgotten the holiday, and the only way to remind him is to make it snow.

Naturally they write a letter to the weatherman. Now, this sounds like a cute conceit, but I don’t think I’m adequately conveying the tedium of watching this episode. Actual kids can be cute when they’re doing something like making up letters and pretending to write. I’m not sure why we were expected to find animated babies drawn and voiced by adults cute or funny while doing the same.

I mean, there’s already been some heavy-handed exposition about laundry soap; we’re just waiting for the end at this point.

The babies finally manage to accomplish their second or third (I don’t recall) snow-making plan: turn on the AC. The AC sucks up and spits out an unlikely amount of spilled soap from the laundry room, and right on cue Grandpa comes down dressed as Santa and spills the old toys where the kids can grab and play with them.

I guess this episode is notable in the scope of Christmas in July media because the characters who honestly believe that it’s Christmas never learn differently, unlike other examples we’ve seen.

It certainly isn’t notable for anything else.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Baby Looney Tunes: Christmas in July (2002)

We all remember Muppet Babies. Even those of you who have never seen Muppet Babies seem to know it exists and remember it in some strange way. That's the magic of Muppet Babies. That's its power.

But no one remembers Baby Looney Tunes. And, having just seen an episode, I can unequivocally assert that it's better that way. Because this show is awful.

Not just awful; it's humorless, tedious, boring, and pointless. It drags on, offering no justification for existing nor even seeming to try. You feel as though every step of its creation was undertaken in a dimly lit room, that the people working on it had a scotch in one hand and a pencil in the other, and the words, "What have I done with my life?" must have been scribbled around the margins of every script, every character design.

It could have better, is what I'm saying.

The premise of the series is almost precisely the premise of Muppet Babies, to the degree that I can only assume they weren't sued solely because the owners of the Muppet IP would have had to compare their show with this one in a court of law.

This is Muppet Babies stripped of inspiration, comedy, and heart. It is the empty void where imagination goes to die.

The episode opens with the infant characters told by Granny that it's too hot for them to play outside. As a result, they're stuck playing inside. After a brief period of discussion, they settle on playing doctor.

Incidentally, that "brief period of discussion" lasted approximately three billion years. Galactic civilizations rose and fell as the characters decided which of them would choose the game before settling on Lola, a character who is definitely famous and who we all remember from the movie Space Jam; as Lola weighed the merits of playing house version grocery store, and the implications and consequences of her decisions; as Sylvester reflected in terror to the time they made him dress up....

Three. Billion. Years. Give or take - I wasn't actually timing it.

Once Lola's explained how they play doctor, and the characters have finished debating terminology, they realize they don't have a stethoscope, which is absolutely required for the game. But how will they get this mythical device whose name none of them even know?

The answer, of course, is in the title. To get a stethoscope, they will invoke Christmas. They do this the only way they know how. They decorate and wait for Santa. But since Santa only comes when they're asleep, they take a nap.

When they wake up, lo and behold, a single package has appeared under the tree. When Lola opens it, she finds a crappy stethoscope made out of earmuffs, string, and what I assume is a sink plug. She's ecstatic, even as she wonders how Santa knew what she wanted.

The answer comes as the camera cuts to Granny, who's been watching them the whole time. She winks at the screen as we fade out. The implication, of course, being that she made the craft project. And also that she's raising these animals for the slaughter, fattening them up with the intent of butchering and cooking them.

At least, that's my interpretation. Perhaps she just called Santa and told him what to bring.

This is a fairly generic Christmas in July set-up: the kids are trying summon holidays by setting up the decorations, not realizing Christmas is about more than glitz and glitter. It's also about marketing, retail, and profit margins, and those can't simply be generated in the middle of summer. Sure, you can make a little money with a well timed sale, but you're never going to see Black Friday numbers in July: that's just economics.

Likewise, you're never going to recreate the magic of Muppet Babies by de-aging another set of anthropomorphic animal characters and shoving them in the same format. Forget about this one - it's not worth your time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Story of Tracy Beaker: Christmas (2003)

Wow, we are running into some weird running themes within Christmas in July. This is the second children’s show to feature kid(s) in foster care (also see It’s Punky Brewster) and the second to feature animated internal narration from the main character (also see Lizzie McGuire).

The Story of Tracy Beaker is a BBC series - based on the book of the same name - that follows a bunch of kids in a group home. And for once, the premise of the series actually has something to do with the Christmas plot.

In this episode, two of the boys in the house (“Lol” and “Bouncer,” because the British love their nicknames) receive word that their aunt, who they normally see only over Christmas, is willing to take them permanently. Lol thinks this is great news, Bouncer isn’t so sure.

After a conversation about how Christmas is commonly celebrated in the group home (the kids call the place “The Dumping Ground,” but I cannot bring myself to repeat that), Tracy decides to enlist everyone’s help in throwing a surprise Christmas party as a send off for Bouncer. The episode aired in August, and it’s some sort of unspecified sunny season outside the house, so I feel justified calling this Christmas in July.

The rest of the fourteen-minute episode is made up of setups that don’t pay off. One kid steals a fir tree, and there’s a line about a house worker getting a complaint from a neighbor, but there isn’t any comeuppance, I guess because Christmas? Two girls combine a series of unlikely ingredients into a “pudding,” but we never actually see a character try to eat it.

Of course because it’s the middle of the season, they aren’t changing up the cast, and Lol and Bouncer’s aunt decides maybe it isn’t the best time to adopt them after all. At least everyone got a Christmas party?

This wasn’t awful so much as it was impressively boring, considering how short it was. The humor was fairly broad and we didn’t find it funny. The writing and the sets couldn't seem to decide whether to portray the kids’ situation as positive or negative, settling on surreal. The animated interstitials were poorly drawn, but in a low-budget way rather than a cute-little-kid way.

The show did very well and spawned two sequels, though. So either this wasn’t enough of a representative sample to understand the show, or we really need to find a way to send the British better children’s television.