The Christmas TV special canon is pretty small and mostly relegated to a handful of specials made in the '60s and '70s. Certainly Charlie Brown, Rudolph, and the Grinch. Then there are a handful of other Rankin-Bass productions and Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas, if we believe it's widely seen enough. (Popularity matters with this particular canon.)
From there, it's a bunch of specials of varying impact and quality. There are your fly-by-nighters, which were briefly popular, then faded. (Like the late '80s Claymation Christmas.) There are the ones that never took but probably deserved to (like my beloved Very Merry Cricket). Finally, there are the utter catastrophes, which are surprisingly few in number, but mostly slid off the face of the Earth.
A Garfield Christmas uneasily straddles the first two groups. It was frequently paired with Charlie Brown when CBS owned the rights to both specials, and it seemed like it had really established a toehold, but by the late '90s, it had left the air. It hung in there longer than most, but now, its annual airing is no longer guaranteed. (Since you live in the future, you can watch it on Hulu.)
Some of this surely has to do with the central character. Garfield was a pretty cool cat in the 1980s (if you'll excuse the pun). His books lit up the bestseller lists, and merchandise featuring his visage was everywhere. People liked Garfield, but kids, especially, liked Garfield. And the strip, by and large, backed this up. It wasn't one of the best of all time or anything, but Garfield in the '80s is pretty solid stuff, with some good gags and some even better long-running stories. There was none of the depth of emotion that marked Peanuts, nor the innovation that marked Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. But there was a solid, workmanlike quality that wasn't hard to appreciate.
Ultimately, I think, that's why the Garfield TV specials faded from view. In general, they're quite good. Both the Halloween and Christmas half-hours follow standard plots carefully and skillfully, nicely aping horror movies and "the family gathers for a holiday" movies respectively. Other specials would play in other genres. This was something the Peanuts specials didn't really have, and that genre-hopping quality made for some pleasant fun.
But that really clashed with the strip that made Garfield famous, which was nothing like this at all. There were occasional forays into other genres, but by the 1990s, when it was much more of a merchandising concern, nobody was looking at Garfield to say, "Hey, I wonder what this would look like as a sci-fi epic" or anything of the sort. It was the comic about the fat cat, for better or worse.
So A Garfield Christmas, which is pleasant and sometimes even more than that, doesn't really feel like it features the beloved Garfield characters so much as it feels like they're acting out somebody else's story (similar to all of the properties that have done their own riffs on A Christmas Carol -- about which more tomorrow). For one thing, A Garfield Christmas is unapologetically SCHMALTZY. It concludes with Garfield saying that it's not the getting or the giving -- it's the loving. And it mostly means it! It acts as if this self-centered cat caught even the slightest whiff of the Christmas spirit, largely thanks to some adventures he was mostly incidental to.
So as a storytelling venture, Garfield Christmas leaves something to be desired. But as a tour of a traditional country Christmas, with the fat cat as our guide, it's much better. There is real depth of feeling in some scenes here, and a sense of family history. The special's evocative background paintings give the feel of a wintry country night, and the splotches of color here and there make everything feel a little faded, like an old photograph. The plot, such as it is, hinges on an older woman who's struggling to move on with her life after her husband died, and Garfield's kindest act is to reunite her with his memories, even though he's a cat who can't possibly know what he's just done. (He doesn't really know what the letters he finds are. He just hands them off.) It also doesn't hurt that she's voiced by Pat Carroll.
What A Garfield Christmas captures that I think lots of specials don't is the way that families grow and mutate over time, the way that we lose some family members and gain others. Jon and his brother, Doc Boy, revert to childhood versions of themselves, but Jon is still a relatively responsible city dweller with two pets. (Odie is technically Lyman's, but who ever talks about Lyman anymore?) That's taken him away from the bosom of his family. Christmas, then, is a chance to recapture what the Arbuckle family had at one time and has increasingly less now. Contrast this with A Garfield Thanksgiving (weakest of the Garfield holiday specials), which is much more centered on Jon's life in the city and his crush on Liz. This is about the yearning for childhood; that is about moving forward.
I don't want to put too much weight on this special, which is ultimately good but flawed. Yet I find its evocation of the ways that Christmas becomes a method of recapturing old family memories deeply moving, in its own silly way. Garfield only slowly comes to realize it, but he is part of a larger story that is being written all around him, and he will carry bits and pieces of that story forward as long as he is a live. And since he's a comic strip character, he will be alive forever. So that all worked out really well.
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