The Charmings: Yes, Lillian, There Is a Santa Claus (1987)

We don't cover many random sitcom episodes anymore, but this one has been on my list for a while. This isn't a case of a childhood memory for either of us or a show that someone recommended: this is an episode I saw on a Wikipedia list of Christmas episodes, and I said, "Wait, there was a show with WHAT premise?" 

Someone finally uploaded it to YouTube, so I was able to watch it. 

An overall note: if, like me, you flinch at characters embarrassing themselves and constant, loud laugh tracks make you wince... maybe brace yourself before you try this one.

The Charmings was a short-lived sitcom in the late '80s about Snow White and her family (along with one of the seven dwarfs and her wicked mom) magically getting zapped to modern-day California and having to adjust to life there. Presumably this was pitched as similar to fish-out-of-water shows like Mork and Mindy. I thought it would be more of a secret-identity-in-the-suburbs show like Bewitched, but they don't seem to be hiding; none of the characters seem to care that half the things they talk about don't make any sense to the modern-day people around them.

(A side note about Luther: the dwarf character is played by little person Cork Hubbert. While I didn't feel that his height was specifically the butt of any jokes in this episode, his status as an "actual dwarf" was mined for humor and he ends up in silly outfits in two episodes I watched.)

In the cold opening of the Christmas episode, Lillian (the Evil Queen) casts a spell to create a blizzard in Snow's kitchen, but after being blown away briefly, she and her sons are shown joyfully building a snowman. This was apparently a common rhythm for the show: Lillian does something kinda mean, Snow and the others either roll with it or object loudly enough that she eventually relents, and everything turns out for the best. 

Lillian (played by Judy Parfitt) is probably the best part of this episode. Several of the actors are talented people doing their best with very weak material, and she is clearly enjoying being ridiculously over the top and campy. Of course, it would be funnier to watch if nearly every one of her lines wasn't being lampshaded, explained, or belabored by a furiously mugging Paul Winfield as the Magic Mirror. It's not his fault, he understood the assignment, it's just that the assignment was to be extremely annoying.

I have to wonder whether someone was trying to bridge the old-fashioned and the high-tech with the opening credits, but the result looks like neither, the backgrounds instead resemble somewhat animated clip art combined with Microsoft Paint. On doing some research, I found out that this hideous opening was only used for the second season; the first season has much more appropriate storybook animation with explanatory voiceover followed by a traditional '80s sitcom opening.

That out of the way, the plot of this episode is quickly established. As fairy tale characters themselves, Snow, Eric (Prince Charming), and their sons naturally believe in Santa Claus. Lillian takes it upon herself to tell them Santa isn't real specifically to wreck their Christmas. 

At first, they refuse to listen. Snow and the boys visit Santa at the mall, but he's more drunk and lecherous than jolly. Snow tries to keep a good face on it, but their older son's friends convince him that Santa's not real. 

There's a minor side plot about Luther looking for a part-time job and being offended after being offered a position as an elf. After all, he knows what real elves look like. He does eventually take the job to pay for a ski trip.

It's now late on Christmas Eve and Eric begins dutifully reenacting "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," complete with kerchief and cap. Meanwhile, up in the boys' room, the younger son, Cory, is beginning to doubt the Santa story, and Lillian pushes him over the edge into disbelief.

She goes downstairs to gloat to Snow and Eric. A neighbor drops by to complain about having to set up all his kids' toys for the morning and Eric finally despairs. Snow begs her mother to magic up some Christmas for the boys but she refuses.

Late that night, however, Lillian finds Santa (dressed in traditional colors but modern styles, which is the source of several bad jokes) raiding the fridge. He says that he's real, but he only delivers toys to true believers. (Not loving that moral, Kris Kringle!) Since Cory doesn't believe anymore, he leaves without dropping off any presents after shaming Lillian for her actions. Lillian then wakes up, but instead of being relieved it was a dream, she still feels guilty about ruining Christmas, so she magics up decorations and presents for everyone. 

The family is thrilled when they wake up, although Lillian refuses to own up to her generous actions when Snow presses her about it. Of course, this is a sitcom from the '80s, so there's a surprise present from Santa for Lillian too: a snow-globe replica of the castle home she misses. 

So far, so standard as far as the plot goes. Nothing surprising here. The dialogue is mostly obvious, and everyone is leaning into their one-note characters. The humor is mostly bland, but it did feature occasional punchlines that were clever enough to make me smile. 

I watched an early season one episode for more context and it had a few more funny bits than the Christmas episode. It also had more moments where the genuinely good actors managed to somewhat elevate the very mediocre writing. 

It's not brilliant television, but it's not completely terrible either. If it had somehow been secretly awesome, I feel like I would have heard of it before now. 

Although I can feel myself warming to the characters' sheer weirdness, I can't fully recommend this. However, the series is free on YouTube, and if you like mediocre old sitcoms with weird fantasy gimmicks and annoying laugh tracks, this is at least one you may have missed.