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TV's Schmaltzy Santa Act

Seems every show wants to get in on it.

By Elaine Corden 14 Dec 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Elaine Corden writes a monthly column about pop culture for The Tyee.

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If you are crack-cocaine-addicted to cable news as I am, you will know that over on the CNN, on CBNC and, one assumes, on Fox News, the reportage is focusing, increasingly, finally, on the war in Iraq. Extra coverage trickled in around US midterm election time. It ramped up more on the civil war/ non civil war debate. And now finally, with the release last week of the alarmingly bleak Iraq Study Group report , the news is almost nothing but gloomy semantics on just how deep in the mire the US and Iraq are actually stuck. Heavy, man. Total buzz-kill.

Watching that much “political” coverage tends to turn one into the kind of self-righteous, “truthiness” spewing, quasi-expert that starts bull-headed debates at Christmas parties, making everyone else uncomfortable (you know who you are, and just because you’ve seen Fahrenheit 9/11 twice doesn’t mean you’re qualified to defend the left, alright? Believe me, you’re not doing that side any favours).

With that in mind, I decided to do a holiday cleanse, not watching a lick of cable news and instead centering in on feel-good Christmas programming. To start with, I caught very special episodes of Two and a Half Men, the OC’s increasingly dreadful “Chrismukkah” show, and slightly imperfect holiday greetings on Ugly Betty.

Christmas TVtropolis

Oh sweet Jesus. Or rather, sweet Santa. Lots of sweet Santa and lots of plastered-on grins and lovey-dovey cuddles. Programs with 1950s-wholesome messages to match the 1950’s-style supposed wholesomeness of Americans, who presumably are the target audience here. As if the antidote to a particularly grim state of affairs in the real world is an extra show of June Cleaver-style merriment.

My foray into the lower 30 channels tells me that ER is still on (who knew?) and that Uncle Jesse from Full House is now a doctor. How he finds time to save lives and play with the Rippers over on TVtropolis is beyond me, but I guess he’s magic, just like Christmas itself. And at least he’s not the guy who did the awful Bullwinkle impressions. Uncle Jesse, when you’re done saving that car-crash victim’s life, you might want to take a look at your niece. She’s dressed like a hobo and doin’ rails at the Hyde.

I digress. At the end of the Very Special Episode of ER, Dr. Archie Morris (Scott Grimes) discovers there is a Santa. Really. He discovers Santa. Somebody take this show out back and shoot it already.

Moms and magic

Gilmore Girls is smart but tows the line, Ugly Betty is festive but perplexingly formulaic for a show so critically adorned. And as for actual Christmas specials, they are all variations on Dicken’s penultimate statement on the matter, A Christmas Carol. Whether it’s ABC’s A Mom for Christmas in which an orphan wishes for a mom and brings a mannequin to life, or endless airings of The Grinch, Rudolph and It’s a Wonderful Life the message is: let go of greed; family and love are all that matters. No surprises here folks. Christmas is not a time for surprises unless they are purchased at Best Buy. I need not rehash the specifics of the ad-nauseum Christmas specials: miracles, angels, Santa, gifts of Magi, love and family. Charlie learns Christmas is about love not women, Rudolph learns to be himself. The Doctor on ER learns to believe in Santa again (what?). Everything is as it should be.

Okay, so some of these shows on their last legs may not be the best exemplar of the modern network take on the holiday season. Over on Grey’s Anatomy, a program so popular Oprah Winfrey herself did a three-city, satellite hook-up show to praise its wonders, it is not yet Christmas, but that doesn’t mean doctors can’t celebrate with random inter-office coupling. Is this what real hospitals are like? Is this why I had to wait so long to get my case of mono looked at? Sigh.

But Grey’s Anatomy seems to be alone in its so far scroogy spirit. Indeed, most shows seems to putting on an extra smiley face (a face that seems ready to crack from the pressure) to distract from how grim things are in the world right now. Perhaps coming from a steady diet of cable news to the homespun fantasy land of network television has made me draw the point a little too sharply, but, put simply -- the issue of the war, raging for more than three years, which has injured more than 20,000 Americans, killed almost 3000 and cost countless Iraqis their lives, gets nary a mention in the land of scripted network television.

Fiction vs. news

Over on cable TV the case is different, even around the holidays, The L Word, Weeds, The Sopranos, Rescue Me, and even the comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm -- to name just a few, have subplots ranging from avoiding the backdoor draft, to soldiers who come home with their limbs blown off, looking at it as square, if not more squarely, in the face that actual news programming.

So it seems it’s just network television, apparently, that would rather have us stare at the glittering CGI Rudolph and ignore the increasingly chaotic and brutal war raging on the other side of the world.

There are exceptions: NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip makes so many mentions of the conflict, it feels like creator/writer Aaron Sorkin is trying to jam his lefty tongue down the throats of complacent viewers. Fox’s Prison Break, as well, has an Iraq-war subplot, as does ABC’s new drama Brothers and Sisters. But you can sit (and I have) and watch network dramas and comedies for hours (especially right now) and not be reminded of an issue that apparently was the deciding factor in this year’s election, that affects the lives of at least 130,000 families at a bare minimum, and is costing American taxpayers billions per day. Don’t mention the war: here’s a dancing Uncle Jesse! Behold the joy of Christmas everybody!

Back to news addiction?

Of course, there is a underlying philosophical debate as to whether or not television, especially scripted dramas and comedies, owe us any reflection of reality, or in fact exist to help us escape from a reality we can bear anymore (Indeed, it was nice not to be bummed out by CNN for a few days), but the fact is, audiences are moving in droves to cable programming, which will not only mention the elephant in the room, but also convey what a profoundly sad elephant it is.

Network execs may put forth Christmas specials that purport to show the magical good in humankind, and perhaps, steeped in constant bad news as we are these days, there’s no harm in a little cheery distraction. That’s what Christmas is about, right?

But if the amped-up good cheer points out anything, it’s that network television seems even more interested in manufactured pathos than the real thing than usual. That the murky waters of dealing with something as weighty as Iraq, compelling as that may be, are just a downer for ratings and for viewers in general. Why not have a played-out parable that-rehashes “the meaning of Christmas” with glossed over eyes, one that posits manufactured problems that can be resolved with manufactured love for humankind. Rather than practicing love for our actual fellow man, we can watch actors do it for us, and feel satisfied when we turn off the box that our hearts are still working. I guess the alternative, is to find out what’s going on in the world around us. And indeed, in contrast to these shows, give the gift of true compassion.  [Tyee]

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