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 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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Lizzie McGuire: Here Comes Aaron Carter (2001)

This is the second episode of Lizzie McGuire we've subjected ourselves to, though it predates XTreme XMas by a year. The one I'm reviewing today was only the show's seventh episode, airing in March of 2001.

The premise of the episode, as the title implies, revolves around the teen singer coming to Lizzie's town to record a music video. Although the episode is set in the spring, the music video was for the holidays, hence the Christmas in July connection. Well, okay, technically Christmas in March, but we're using a loose interpretation here.

Lizzie and her two friends want desperately to meet Carter, each for different reasons. Because the shoot is secret, they need to include her younger brother, who knows its location for some reason. They sneak out early, leaving her parents a note - ironic, as her dad was going to surprise her with passes a client gave him.

They show up at the film set and Lizzie tries using her school press pass to get in, only to have it taken away. Her younger brother, having thought ahead, pulls out a bunch of elf costumes for Lizzie and friends, along with a wig and leather pants - he thinks he can pass as Carter. The elf costumes fool no one, but he gets pulled in as a stunt double and taken onto the set.

The other kids finally manage to sneak past the guard, but wind up on the run. Meanwhile, her mother and father show up separately, make trouble, and are detained. Lizzie and her friends accidentally interrupt a rehearsal, before getting chased out. They find their way to Carter's dressing room, but they're found by his manager before they can meet him.

Lizzie manages to convince her to let one of them meet Carter (I'm honestly unclear why she agreed to this), then picks her friend, who wants to sing for Carter. Only she gets to meets him, too, because of idiocy. Then, having inexplicably impressed the director while they messed up the set, they're all allowed to be stunt elves.

The episode ends with a painful performance/quasi-music video with Aaron Carter. I don't believe Lizzie's parents ever made it out.

Okay. Now that that's out of the way....

This was stupid. It was incredibly stupid. It was mind-numbingly stupid.

But it wasn't actually bad.

The season two episode we watched before was trying for a spastic, zany, cartoonish tone, but it completely lacked energy or commitment. While this could definitely have used better writing, it accomplished what it set out to do: to make a live-action teenage comedy/adventure in the vein of Looney Tunes. It delivered the needed energy, and committed to the concept.

I'm not saying I like this - I am not an eleven year-old girl. But, if I were and if this were still 2001, I'd probably have dug it. This episode was, all things considered, a decently put together comedy aimed at that demographic.

Ugh. That music video, though. They played the whole damn thing, and by the end I wanted to throw my TV out of the window. Freaking painful.

Sorry - getting back on track.

The holiday elements were used in a tongue-in-cheek manner. The characters knew it wasn't Christmas, but they invoked the holiday, both in a joking manner and as a hamfisted attempt to elicit sympathy. The plot worked holiday costumes and sets into the narrative using a pretty classic Christmas in July conceit: the need to create holiday content in the off-season.

Overall, considering how much I despised the other episode, I was surprised to find this one, while still painful at times, gelled together much better.

Even so, I'm glad there don't seem to be any other Christmas episodes of this show.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries: Murder Under the Mistletoe (2013)

I’ve had this on my radar for a while, but this is actually a Christmas Murder Mystery in July! The series is filmed and set in Australia, and while Australia celebrates Christmas in December like the northern hemisphere, many people also celebrate in July, when it’s actually cold out.

This story is not directly based on the book series but was written for television.

Private detective Phryne Fisher is traveling to a fancy Christmas in July party with her Aunt Prudence. Also attending are Phryne’s maid/assistant/friend Dot and her lesbian doctor friend Mac.

They arrive to find that someone is already dead (killed by an unseen figure in the cold opening) and soon realize that one of the guests has murder on their mind. Aunt Prudence is partially there to sell a closed gold mine owned by her late husband, and the history around a Christmas cave-in from ten years earlier means that many of the guests have motive for murder. (One woman’s husband was killed there, along with another man’s uncle. One man was one of the business partners in charge of the mine, and a couple have been hiding information about the cause of the collapse…)

Soon enough Detective Jack Robinson (the source of much sexual banter with Phryne throughout this series) and his friendly assistant Hugh show up as well, just in time for the roads to close.

It’s melodramatic as all heck, but I enjoyed this episode quite a bit. The balance between humor and horror was well played, and even as it checked off classic tropes we were happy to go along for the ride. (Besides Christmas staples like being snowed in and contrasting dark deeds with cheerful carols, this story is also inspired by classic mysteries, particularly Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.)

If you aren’t familiar with the series, there is a slim B-plot involving Jane arriving home from school early that might not make much sense, but I think most of this special episode could easily stand alone.

As always with this show, the costumes and sets are sumptuous. The reds and whites for Christmas are particularly lovely, and Phryne’s hat from the beginning is fabulous.

Except for the fact that it is actually, literally, set in July, this episode was more straight Christmas than Christmas in July.

For the reverse (actually December, but hot as heck out) check out Forbidden Fruit, a modern mystery by the same author as the Phryne Fisher books.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Super Mario World: The Night Before Cave Christmas (1991)

I remember the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, but I either forgot or never heard of its sequel, Super Mario World. Actually, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 was the first sequel, and I either forgot about or never knew about that one, either.

But Super Mario World, the series intended to tie-in to the Super Nintendo, is the one with the Christmas-in-July (technically August, but let's not split hairs) episode, and by extension the one we need to talk about.

This is a half-episode, and it aired alongside Captain N, which sucked for entirely different reasons than Super Mario World. Sadly, Captain N never gave the world a Christmas episode, so we'll have to set it aside and get back to the crappy series at hand.

If you've never seen any of these series and are wondering how anyone would convert Super Mario Bros. into a television series, don't bother asking the writers of this episode, because clearly they never figured it out.

The premise is ostensibly based on the SNES game of the same name, but there's very little overlap. Sure, Yoshi's present, along with a few of the game's minor monsters, but the setting bears absolutely no resemblance to the video game's. If anything, it's closer to "Bonk's Adventure".

No, screw you - you're old, and EVERYONE REMEMBERS BONK'S ADVENTURE.

Sorry. Where was I?

Oh, yes: Dinosaur World. The protagonists are Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, Yoshi, and Oogtar. If you're wondering who the hell Oogtar is, he's a caveman child who gets into trouble. Also, he's kind of an asshole.

In an attempt to get him to be less of an asshole, the other characters decide to introduce the world of the cave people to Christmas. It's the middle of summer, but they decide it doesn't matter and start decorating. They make a bunch of toys, but Oogtar - having been warned that Santa only gives presents to good children - sneaks into the sack to steal his pick first.

This is naturally when King Koopa (aka Bowser, but they're not calling him that for some reason) steals the presents. Mario, dressed as Santa, goes to rescue Oogtar and get the gifts back. By this time, Koopa's already found the kid and has him tied up over a hungry dinosaur with a candle slowly burning through the vine.

That's right - 80's cartoon villains always pulled this crap, didn't they? Is it really that important he hangs there waiting to die for fifteen minutes first? Just cut the damn vine, so this show can be 19% less annoying (normally it would be higher, but this series is obnoxious as hell).

At any rate, Mario - still disguised as Santa - and Yoshi fight their way through the stupid castle, rescue the stupid kid, and steal back the presents. The kid learns a stupid lesson, and the stupid plot resolves.

Think that sounds dumb? Wait until you hear about the editing. In an attempt to drill the connection to the game through the viewer's skull, they dumped a crapload of Mario sound effects all over this. They also do that thing from Super Mario World where the screen gets pixelated whenever there's a cut.

On top of everything else, they don't even get the character designs right. Yoshi, in particular, looks abysmal - the game's proportions are adorable: this thing's a monster.

The holiday elements should be pretty clear. Christmas is used as a cheap story element here, nothing more. But that's not at all surprising: this is a cheap attempt to simultaneously cash in on and advertise the far superior video game.

That game's a classic, a work of art. The show is crap.