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11 Memorable Christmas Episodes (Including the Bewitched With Tabitha in Blackface)

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Holiday episodes tend to be a bit generic. How many times can you rework A Christmas Carol or The Gift of the Magi into a sitcom plot? Here are a smattering of episodes worth mentioning either because they’re rare, different or just because we like them.

1. A Very Special Bewitched

Bewitched had many traditional Christmas episodes during its eight season run, but 1970's "Sisters at Heart" was controversial enough to require a special introduction by Elizabeth Montgomery at the behest of the show's sponsor, Oscar Mayer:

The plot that was making the network so jumpy was young Tabitha's desire to be sisters with her African-American friend, Lisa. In order to make them look alike, Tabby zaps black polka dots onto her flesh, and white ones on Lisa's. No doubt the episode would still be controversial today, thanks to Tabitha's brief appearance in blackface. The original story was submitted by a 10th grade English class at L.A.'s Thomas Jefferson High School.

2. Whoa, Jablonsky!

It's Christmas time at the Bundy house, which means Al is feeling more depressed than ever: "The stockings were hung round Dad's neck like a tie, along with a note that said 'Presents or Die.'"

As he plugs in a string of faulty lights he grumbles and wishes he'd never been born. Quicker than you can say "It's a Bundyful Life," guardian angel Sam Kinison pops in to show Al what his family would be like had he never existed. Married...with Children put an evil twist on the classic James Stewart film, revealing a universe in which Peggy cooked wholesome meals, Bud was a gracious young gentleman, and Kelly was a chaste college student. Al decides he wants to live after all... just to make sure his family stayed as miserable as they'd always made him.

3. "The Puppy Santa Brought Me Won't Wake Up!"

Many of us forget that December 25 is a regular work day for a lot of folks — nurses, fire fighters, police...and radio disc jockeys. Thus in the episode entitled "Miracle on Third or Fourth Street" we find Dr. Frasier Crane in the studio on Christmas day, taking calls from (as his disgruntled producer Roz predicted) the loneliest and most depressed people in the listening area. After his shift ends, Frasier (uncharacteristically dressed in old jeans and a torn sweatshirt) finds a diner that's open and treats himself to a turkey log with mashed potatoes. When he discovers that he's left his wallet at the station, his down-on-their-luck fellow diners — thinking he's homeless — pool their coins to pay for his dinner. Of course, Frasier is so touched by this "true meaning of Christmas" moment that he has to walk home in the snow rather than risk being seen climbing into his BMW.

4. The Draft Dodger

"The Draft Dodger" first aired in 1976, four years before President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to those men who'd fled to Canada to avoid conscription into the military during the Vietnam War. David Brewster, a draft-dodging pal of the Meathead, has been living in Canada but decides to risk a visit to the U.S. in order to spend the holidays with his old friend (since his own father refuses to see him). Meanwhile, Archie has invited his old friend Pinky Peterson (whose only son died in Vietnam) for Christmas dinner. Mike and Gloria struggle to keep David's fugitive status a secret from Archie, but once it's revealed, it results in a heated debate. Archie, a World War II veteran who served his country when called, argues that no one wants to go to war and get killed, but a true American obeys his government. Pinky, on the other hand, believes that if his son was still alive he'd welcome David at the dinner table. A poignant and thought-provoking episode that in many ways is still relevant today.

5. I Guess I'll Lick My Lolly Later

"Don't Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa" was a departure for The Partridge Family; not only did it feature a lengthy fantasy sequence in which the actors played old-time Western characters, the youngest Partridges (Chris and Tracy) actually had several lines of dialog for a change! Reuben Kincaid was cast as Mean Sidney who stole the town's Christmas bell in the tale, and Danny was the heroic Little the Kid. David Cassidy, as Sheriff Swell, musically narrated the action to the tune of "The Ballad of High Noon." You can watch a 9-minute clip from the episode on YouTube.

6. Like Booze Ever Killed Anybody

There's always one show-off in the office who exceeds the dollar limit on the grab-bag exchange. (Of course, I was never the one who drew that gift; no, my donor always adhered down to the penny, which meant I got gifts like tiny soaps shaped like Santa Claus. A couple of showers later and Santa looked like a suppository. But I digress.) The gang at Dunder Mifflin (The Office) has organized a Secret Santa gift swap with a $20 price limit, but once they start opening presents at the party and see that they range from a video iPod to a hand-knitted oven mitt Michael insists they all play Yankee Swap. Since Michael has added verboten alcohol to the festivities (15 bottles of vodka for 20 people), you just know that things will end up less than jolly.

7. Don't Even Know How to Snow Proper Out Here

No, it's not politically correct to laugh at backwoods uneducated folks who have no knowledge of modern conveniences...but nevertheless there's something charming and heartwarming (and downright funny) about the Clampett family experiencing their very first Christmas in Beverly Hills. Try and not split a gut when Granny mistakes a TV set for a new fangled washing machine.

8. Modern Christmas

This episode of Green Acres provides a new twist on the "longing for an old-fashioned Christmas" trope. Oliver Wendell Douglas wants to celebrate the holiday as the American Farmer of yore—to go out with axe in hand and chop down his own tree, and to decorate it with popcorn from his own corn crib. Of course, nothing is ever that simple in Hooterville. First he finds out that there is a conservation law in effect that prohibits him from cutting down trees, even on his own property. Then he is unable to work up any outrage among his neighbors, who prefer the "modern" method of buying an artificial tree from Drucker's Store, complete with spruce spray squeezers, imitation sap oozers, strings of wax popcorn and fiberglas candy canes. (Watch it here.)

9. Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

Even though it was actually the eighth episode produced, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" was the first full-length episode of the series to air. It was broadcast on December 17, 1989 — interestingly enough, the same night of the previously mentioned Married...With Children Christmas classic — and it certainly set the tone for the rest of the series. It's Christmas time, and Bart decides that a "Mother" tattoo would delight and surprise his mom. Marge catches him in the tattoo parlor at the "Moth" stage and has to blow the family's entire Christmas present budget on a laser removal procedure. Homer's expected Christmas bonus doesn't come through, so he takes a job as a department store Santa to earn extra money. When Bart climbs in his lap, he utters "I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?" for the first time. In a last-ditch attempt at raising cash, Homer goes to the dog track and bets on a long shot named Santa's Little Helper. The sluggish greyhound lost the race, but won a new home with the Simpson family.

10. "Three French hens!"

Nothing starts those visions of sugarplums dancing like Lou Grant barking "Three French hens!" And how many chances do we get to see Mary Tyler Moore sporting a World War I German spear-head helmet? Sue Ann Nivens, The Happy Homemaker, is taping her Christmas show ("Holiday Yummies from Worldwide Tummies") in early November. A sudden snowstorm has stranded the WJM newsroom staff, so Sue Ann enlists them to flesh out her dinner table. The only problem is that Murray, Ted, Lou and even gentle angelic Mary have been sniping at each other all day in a series of petty arguments and no one is in a festive mood.

11. Oh Boy, Cheddar Month!

How many times has a relative or co-worker surprised you with a brightly wrapped present after firmly agreeing "no gifts this year"? It happened to the FYI staff when Murphy Brown convinced them all to eschew the fruit baskets and cheeses of the world and to make a donation to charity instead. But, feeling guilty at the last minute, she ignored her own dictate and gave presents to all her co-workers. Her gesture sends the staff into a frenzied bout of last-minute shopping...at the drugstore, the only place open in Washington in the waning hours of Christmas Eve.

* * *
Now is the time to vent your tired-of-shopping, why-can't-people-park-properly, if-I-hear-Santa-Claus-Is-Coming-To-Town-one-more-time-I'll-explode holiday spleens. What is your favorite Christmas episode of a TV show? Why do my choices stink? Let us hear it in the comments.

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Man-Eating Space Lizards: When V Was a TV Smash
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Warner Home Video

American broadcast television in the 1980s didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Shows like Hill Street Blues were outliers, crowded off the schedule by head-hammering episodic series featuring mercenaries (The A-Team), car chases (The Dukes of Hazzard), or soapy melodrama (Dynasty).

On its surface, V appeared to be no different. A two-part miniseries airing on consecutive evenings in May 1983, it told the story of the “Visitors,” gregarious aliens who arrive on Earth in three-mile-long spaceships and greet humans with a bargain: Let the Visitors harvest a chemical needed for their continued survival and receive advanced medical knowledge in return.

As the humanoid aliens reveal themselves to be malevolent lizard-like creatures who prefer to dine on humans rather than prolong their lives, V took on the look and feel of a pulpy sci-fi epic—the kind of thing that could be easily summarized in one Amazing Stories cover image from the 1940s. But writer Kenneth Johnson had something far more subversive in mind. The Visitors were stand-ins for fascists, and V was a cautionary tale about the perils of complacency.

Jason Bernard and Robert Englund star in the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Johnson had broken into television with a writing stint on The Six Million Dollar Man, for which he conceived a female counterpart in the form of Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner). Sommers got her own series, The Bionic Woman, which Johnson produced until he was tasked with adapting The Incredible Hulk as a live-action drama.

It was around this time that Johnson became fascinated with a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist group that rises to power in the United States. Johnson reworked the concept into Storm Warnings, a feature-length screenplay; that work landed on the desk of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who encouraged Johnson to adapt it into a television miniseries by casting Soviets or the Chinese as the antagonists.

Tartikoff’s request made sense. The miniseries format, which took off in the 1970s with Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, was drawing record numbers of viewers. The Thorn Birds, about a priest who is tempted to break his vow of celibacy by a younger woman, was a hit; so was Shogun, about a 17th century man who shipwrecks in Japan and becomes a pawn in a war between samurai. (Both starred Richard Chamberlain.) Storm Warnings had an appropriately sprawling narrative with multiple characters, a feat of creative engineering Johnson was encouraged to use after reading War and Peace.

But the writer was less enthused about casting a foreign superpower as a rival. Tartikoff then suggested aliens, the allegorical turf of Rod Serling that had fueled many a socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone. Johnson later told Starlog he “ran screaming from the room” at the suggestion, but eventually warmed to it. Storm Warnings became V: NBC committed $13 million to produce the four-hour drama.

A scene from the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

While a generous budget for television, the scope of Johnson’s idea taxed every available dollar. A 60-foot-long model of one of the Visitor ships was built; a giant hangar intended to depict the inside was made to scale, albeit cut in half; matte effects, with the ships laid over a background painting, depicted their unsettling arrival over Earth’s major cities. A feature with those same ambitions might take months of pre-production planning: Johnson got three weeks.

Whatever was lacking in the special effects and costumes—Johnson opted for a regal, military-inspired garb for his aliens that hasn’t aged well—never diluted the real attraction of V. Following a television cameraman (Marc Singer) and a botanist (Faye Grant) as they grow suspicious of the true intentions of the Visitors, the series quickly turns into an examination of what happens when a population is seduced by the promise of a helping hand. Celebrities and world leaders endorse the Visitors; scientists questioning their motives are corralled and delivered to ships for “re-education.” By the time their foot soldier Diana (Jane Badler) is seen devouring a guinea pig, Singer and his cohorts have decided to form a resistance to push back against being turned into alien kibble. For viewers who didn’t care for the subtext, there was still the birth of a lizard baby to talk about with coworkers and friends the next morning.

In a departure from conventional advertising, NBC decided to take a conservative approach with V. Posters in subway stations and bus stops depicted illustrations of the Visitors in propaganda-style posters; later, a “V” would be spray-painted over the ads. There was never any mention of the series.

The premiere of V drew a 40 share, which meant 40 percent of all households watching television at that hour were watching the lizard people establish their dominance on Earth. Tartikoff even granted Johnson the ability to run 15 minutes past the allotted two-hour time slot, cutting into local newscasts. On night two, V maintained much of that audience.

What might have turned out to be a lucrative franchise for NBC quickly lost its way. Tartikoff wanted Johnson to oversee a weekly drama continuing the story of the resistance while ramping up their licensing efforts; Johnson argued that the premise would be too expensive for the format and suggested a two-hour movie air every month or two instead.

A licensed action figure from the 'V' miniseries
Amazon

In the end, neither quite got their wish. Another miniseries, V: The Final Battle, aired in 1984, but Johnson disowned it after extensive rewrites. V: The Series followed, but lasted just one season. Johnson lamented that the network had taken his cautionary tale and turned it into a spectacle, with gunfights and lizard people eating small animals taking the place of the allegory.

V was revived by ABC in 2009, but low ratings led to a quick demise after two seasons. Other shows and movies like 1996’s Independence Day had borrowed heavily from Johnson, wearing out the premise. In 2007, Johnson published V: The Second Generation, a novel based on one of his follow-up scripts.

The miniseries format would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s before serialized dramas with shortened seasons edged them off television schedules. Like The Thorn Birds, V remains one of the most well-remembered entries in the medium, due in no small part to Johnson’s nods to levity. When the aliens arrive, a high school band plays the Star Wars theme.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before he was called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior, in 1980, to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their original poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and said that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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