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Events Tue Dec 14 2010

Author Joanna Wilson, Your Christmas TV Companion

Joanna Wilson is a TV junkie. The author admitted as much during a pleasant interview with Gapers Block, but you'd probably realize it from the titles of her two published books: The Christmas TV Companion: A Guide to Cult Classics, Strange Specials and Outrageous Oddities and Tis the Season TV: The Encyclopedia of Christmas-Themed Episodes, Specials and Made-For-TV Movies.

The Companion is designed for fellow TV aficionados. And while it might be helpful if readers liked Christmas at least a little, the book documents television programs that "broke the rules" of holiday entertainment. "The Companion is divided into 50% cult shows and 50% weird and unusual takes on the holiday tradition," Wilson explained. How weird can Christmas be on TV? Wilson devotes an entire chapter to Christmas-themed, macabre horror shows, Sci-Fi, and other unique and irreverent TV takes on Christmas, like the Native American tradition of the raven explored in Northern Exposure's 1991 episode "Seoul Mates."

Every holiday season it can seem as if the same few Christmas films replay from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, but Tis the Season TV offers a compilation of 3,000 original summaries of all Christmas-themed television episodes, made-for-TV-movies, and holiday films now primarily viewed on TV. Wilson stresses she wants fans and readers to know that these classic and quirky holiday specials are still out there, more relevant and accessible than ever before.

TV viewers today remember early television Christmas specials with unmatched fondness and nostalgia. How many times have you heard "There's nothing good on TV anymore?" But Wilson would argue Christmas on TV has stayed the same more than changed, "The themes we are used to seeing -- miracles are always possible, second chances, forgiveness -- continue to appear in current TV Christmas specials."

Wilson noted there has been some significant evolution on the small screen. "Families during the holidays have changed from the typical nuclear family into broader, more inclusive definitions like roommates, coworkers, and large, extended families." Christmas specials fifty years ago like Andy Williams' or Perry Como's variety shows targeted a wide audience- children and their parents. Now holiday television shows focus on specific micro-audiences like toddlers, tweens, teenagers, and adults. "We're still very traditional about our notions of Christmas," she added.

Not quite doomed by declining attention spans or the usurpation of 3D special effects, "retro" holiday television styles are actually making a comeback. Shows like The Colbert Report paid homage to the Christmas variety show in 2008 pairing Stephen Colbert with Elvis Costello for a twist on the holiday musical duet, and the NBC show Community produced a holiday episode just last week shot entirely in stop motion animation.

Wilson points out that the original Rankin/Bass stop motion TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has aired every year on network television since its debut in 1964. "That takes a lot of power," said Wilson. "What's on TV during Christmas is a tradition, like baking cookies and wrapping presents."

Chicago is the setting for numerous classic TV shows and sitcoms, many of which produced holiday specials. The Bob Newhart Show's 1973 Christmas episode, "I'm Dreaming of A Slight Christmas," is a particular favorite of Wilson's. Bob gets stuck at the office holiday party when a typical Chicago blizzard forces him to spend Christmas Eve with his drunken coworkers. (Wilson's blog even provides a link to watch the episode on Hulu.)

"Christmas specials uniquely represent the best and worst of TV," Wilson explained. It was her discovery of such high caliber television programming that inspired Wilson to catalog and research Christmas on TV for her two books. She was frequently surprised by the artistic quality and performances of many classic Christmas shows like Bob Hope's USO specials. "They're so fantastic; I can truly understand why he's the king of comedy. The important legacy that he produced, boosting the morale of troops during Vietnam, it's so moving and translates very easily today."

Joanna Wilson has been researching and analyzing Christmas on TV for over eight years. She finds being surrounded by Christmas all year long "constantly uplifting," but could you call her a Christmas junkie? "I have a TV in every room, not a Christmas tree!" Wilson replied.

Ms. Wilson will talk about and sign her books at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln on Wednesday, December 15, at 7pm.

 
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