Miracle on 34 channels.

Miracle on 34 channels.

Miracle on 34 channels.

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Dec. 8 2006 6:14 PM

Miracle on 34 Channels

Holiday TV that's worse than fruitcake.

Christmas season began on NBC at 9 a.m. a few Thursdays ago when the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade kicked off and Matt Lauer initiated Meredith Vieira into the ways of teasing the eventual appearance of the fat man in the red suit. The season will end on ABC on Jan. 1, when the establishment countdown show, Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, will convincingly assure Americans that great things lie ahead and, less persuasively, imply that the people gathered in Times Square are not morons. What you're getting in between is the glut of familiar chestnuts and fruitcake novelties that has come to define the holiday.

Every cable network can get in on the action, no matter its mandate. CNN has CNN Presents: After Jesus—The First Christians (Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. ET), a documentary on the early church just smart enough to avoid utter blandness. Oxygen has Christmas With the Dickinsons (Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET), starring "supermodel" Janice Dickinson, a reality special just shrill enough to avoid tolerability. HGTV, the decorating channel, is perhaps giving its biggest push to What's With That Christmas House? (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET), which will profile those merry freaks who turn their homes into blinking fantasias, but I was quite pleased to have my sensibilities dulled by White House Christmas 2006. If you're going to wrap your presents in front of one gently meaningless show this season, this is it. The producers ginned up a good bit of drama from a minor logistical difficulty regarding a gingerbread house, and I loved how, when the White House chief usher—the man responsible for procuring Christmas trees—paid a call on one tree farm, he emerged from his minivan in slow-motion. The First Lady's eyes sparkled steadily.

A Perfect Day. Click image to expand.
A Perfect Day with Rob Lowe, Paget Brewster, and Meggie Geisland
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A Christmas movie doesn't necessarily have to be about Christmas. If it's sappy, family-friendly, and tosses in some holly and goodwill-toward-men in the final act, it can be about anything at all. Lifetime specializes in these, and they're catching. A Perfect Day (TNT, Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. ET) is about what jerks writers are. Rob Lowe plays Robert Harlan, an average, morally upright guy from the Midwest who loses his job and decides to get back to the novel in his bottom drawer. It's based on the death of his father-in-law, and his wife, reading it, is moved to tears. "I should have asked your permission," he tells her. "I'm sorry. I could change it." (This line is the first clue that A Perfect Day is out of touch with the literary world; any novelist worth his laptop would be raiding her diary without apology or shame.) After a period of struggle—at one point, Harlan is literally digging ditches—he hits the best-seller list, becomes a star, and is soon enough spouting pretentious nonsense about Italo Calvino on Larry King. He starts alienating the little people and even fires the small-time agent who got him a book deal. Said the agent: "I stick with my writers through thick and thin." Said a voice on the other end of my couch: "Do we have to keep watching this?"

The Year Without a Santa Claus. Click image to expand.
The Year Without a Santa Claus with Harvey Fierstein as Heatmiser, John Goodman as Santa Claus, and Michael McKean as Coldmiser

The Year Without a Santa Claus (NBC, Monday at 8 p.m. ET) and Santa Baby (ABC Family, Sunday at 8 p.m. ET) represent—well, you can't call it the cream of the crop. The film on the eggnog, maybe? The former, a live-action remake of the animated classic, stars John Goodman as a burned-out Kris Kringle and features plenty of actors (Chris Kattan, Eddie Griffin, Carol Kane) whose appearance will give parents a semblance of amusement. The latter stars Jenny McCarthy as Santa's daughter, a go-getter of a productivity consultant who steps into the sleigh after her old man has a heart attack. Here, George Wendt plays Santa, and his flowing beard is far superior to Goodman's Styrofoam-like facial appendage. These movies share the theme—transmitted, of course, between commercial breaks—that Christmas is in danger of becoming too commercialized. Right. Ho.

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.