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One of the most conspicuous casualties of television programming in the age of 24-hour cable and internet broadcasts (in the United States, anyway, apparently this sort of thing is still big business elsewhere - good for them) has been the Holiday Special. Oh, they still exist - but they certainly aren't the cultural force they used to be. Most of those still in rotation hail from the late 1960s to mid-1990s, appropriately encompassing the childhoods of the three "Raised-By-The-Tube" generations.
The basic idea was all about profit: Produce a modestly-budgeted "special event" (as opposed to a "big episode" of a popular show) themed around an approaching holiday and promote the hell out of it, hopefully ensuring a big audience and thus selling commercial time for a higher price. In the days when not everything was ever guaranteed to be available on VHS (unless you taped it yourself, of course), "specials" were a huge event - want to see a man (or woman) in their 20s get glassy-eyed and nostalgiac? Ask them if they remember which ancient commercials were on their home-taped version of Rudolph or The Great Pumpkin. This one was mine.
There were specials for damn near every holiday, but unsurprisingly the two most popular in the U.S. were for Christmas and Halloween - the dual light/dark sides of celebratory consumption. I'm sure we'll get to Christmas later in the year, but for now I figured it'd be fun to look back on some of the most memorable and unusual.
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
The genre existed before this, but Pumpkin is usually seen as the ur-text of Halloween Specials. So much of what made the animated TV adaptations of Charles M. Schultz's legendary "Peanuts" comic has bled into the popular culture - the genial compromise between cynicism and hope, the dream-logic genre-mixing, the whole gag of young children thinking and speaking like world-weary adults - it's incredible that they hold up. But they do, and apart from the unassailable Christmas installment, this is the best one.
It's hard to believe that anyone hasn't seen this, but just in case: The story - a spotlight moment for Linus van Pelt, the Ron to Charlie Brown's Harry - is basically a moody, almost morose comic send-up of secular mythology figures. While the rest of the Peanuts gang makes ready for trick-or-treating, Linus is obsessed with proving the existence of The Great Pumpkin, a kind of Santa/Easter Bunny for Halloween that seems to be a creation wholly of his imagination. This being Peanuts, things don't so much resolve as they do slowly fade into conclusion, though it provides a welcome window into how Linus' eternal optimism and childlike (compared to his friends) outlook sustains him - and how his friendship with his apparent polar opposite, Charlie Brown, works.
Halloween is Grinch Night (1977)
After How The Grinch Stole Christmas, children's book writer Dr. Seuss became a TV brand unto himself, and participated in spin-off productions based on his style and/or characters, but not necessarily based on specific books. This semi-sequel (prequel, maybe?) to The Grinch is one of the more obscure - usually eclipsed by 1982's more well-remembered The Grinch Grinches the Cat in The Hat.
It's really more of a "scary autumn" special that a specifically Halloween-themed piece, and for a while VHS/DVD releases simply called it Grinch Night. The reason for its relative obscurity isn't difficult to figure out - it's uneven, and not a lot happens until about the halfway mark, but if nothing else it's fun to finally get an idea of why the Whos are so damn scared of The Grinch to begin with. Here, he's treated less like a cranky hermit and more like a demonic force of nature.
As the film opens, a meteorological phenomenon called "sour sweet wind" has the whole place running for cover, as it indicates that The Grinch is making a trip to the town - armed with a wagon full of dark magical forces ominously referred to as "The Paraphernalia Wagon." A young Who boy sets out to delay the assault and winds up inside the wagon itself, where he's terrorized by surreal visions, shifting reality and some of the creepiest behemoths ever to lumber out of Seuss's sketchbook. This sequence is more or less the meat of the special, and absolutely worth seeing in a trauma-inducing Willy Wonka's scary-ass tunnel kind of way.