We’re doing something a little different today. Instead of looking at steaming services–okay, mostly just Netflix–encroaching into the world of film, we’re looking a double feature of a distinctly television event: The Christmas special.
A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writers: Sofia Coppola, Mitch Glazer, Bill Murray
A Very Murray Christmas isn’t exactly a variety show, but it’s not not a variety show, either. It plays on Bill Murray’s persona–a poker-faced prankster, with perhaps a vague sense of sadness. It’s an ironic, hipster take on the Christmas special–distancing itself from what a typical star-studded celebrity Christmas special would be, but still ending up as something similar, if more grounded. In some places it feels timeless, and in others it is very much an artifact of 2015.
The special opens with Bill Murray staring forlornly out a window, wearing plush antlers, before launching into a rendition of “Christmas Blues,” Paul Shaffer on piano. Murray is not in the Christmas spirit. He’s about to perform a live Christmas variety show, but a massive snow storm has essentially shut down New York–the roads, airports, and subways have all closed–so none of the promised ‘famous celebrity friends’ have shown up. Murray is not looking forward to putting out an entire Christmas show by himself, but as producers Liz (Amy Poehler) and Bev (Julie White) remind him, he is contractually obligated to do the special, or he will be personally liable.
So, off they march, from the hotel room to the studio, briefly stopped by Jackie the Talent Agent (Michael Cera), a reminder of that twilight period of Michael Cera’s career where he wasn’t really a star but would show up for cameos. Jackie seems to be setting up some sort of plotline, but he is never mentioned again. In a more traditional narrative, that would be odd, but most of the fun here is famous people showing up for little or no reason.
Murray gets to the studio, but is still despondent at the state of the special. Chris Rock randomly wanders in for reasons that are not explained, and Murray pressgangs him into a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear.” Will the show go on? With no plan and only relying on whoever wanders by, will Bill Murray find the Christmas spirit in time to put on a show and save his Christmas special?
No, no he won’t. Instead, the blizzard causes a blackout, and with no power in the studio, Murray is no longer obligated to put on a show. The producers cheerfully announce the hellish experience over and leave. Murray and Schaffer decide to head to the hotel bar.
With the meta ‘Christmas special about saving a Christmas special’ aspect over, A Very Murray Christmas shifts gears into an indie version of an actual Christmas special. Murray sings a duet of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Waitress Jenny Lewis (the 2018 version would probably cut this song) and lead the kitchen staff (the band Phoenix) to wheel the fancy hotel food out for a ‘the freezer is broken’ Christmas feast. Murray notices a distraught engaged couple (Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman) who had to cancel their wedding and honeymoon plans due to the blizzard and are having a fight. Murray inspires the chefs to perform “Alone on Christmas Day,” and intervenes with the engaged couple to get them to reconcile. Maya Rudolph shows up to sing “Christmas Baby Please Come Home,” because hey why not, and the couple falls back in love. Everybody celebrates by joining together to sing “I Saw the Light.” Midnight comes, and Murray rings in Christmas with tequila shots for everybody. Bartender David Johansen (aka Buster Pointdexter, but also of the New York Dolls) and Waitress Jenny Lewis sing a duet of “Fairytale of New York.” Then Murray passes out from too many tequila shots.
While passed out, Murray dreams of a classic Christmas special. Lines of dancers on a massive snow-white soundstage, flanked by Christmas trees joined by the biggest stars they could find, George Clooney and Miley Cyrus. There’s some stilted witty banter–”There was traffic so I got a sleigh” “And you brought Miley, too” “Yeah, it’s her sleigh” which is delivered with the cadence of joke but doesn’t really make sense–and there are climatic performances of “Sleigh Ride,” “Silent Night” and the funky “Santa Wants Some Lovin’.” Apparently Rick Ross was supposed to come in for a feature on the last song, but dropped out at the last second and George Clooney stepped in. This proves what I’ve always said: George Clooney is a poor man’s Rick Ross.
There really isn’t anything like a traditional story here. Murray’s ill-fated television special has the makings of a conventional plot, but it completely abandoned a third of the way in and never referenced again. You can maybe make out something of a character arc, with Murray despondent over the failing special, only to pick up his spirits to lead the snowed-in bar into a makeshift feast. It’s really a riff on the star-studded Christmas special, deconstructing it then playing it straight.
These specials usually have a “let’s put on a show” vibe, with the biggest stars of the day stopping by for skits and singing Christmas standards, but A Very Murray Christmas feels more indie. Less like giving celebrities fun Christmas things squeeze into a busy schedule, and more like scrambling whatever friends you can find together to make a movie over the weekend. This is very much a Coppola family production–in addition to Sofia Coppola writing and directing, her brother Roman executive produces, and it stars her cousin Jason Schwartzman and husband Thomas Mars, lead singer of Phoenix.
The heart of this is, of course, Bill Murray. It plays with his persona–part old curmudgeon, cynical to the ways of Hollywood, and part merry prankster, who can turn being snowed in with a random group of strangers into a opulent feast and reunite an estranged couple. At heart in Christmas stories is a kind of wish-fulfilment–the idea of a special day where kindness and goodwill rule the day. Instead of a family roasting chestnuts around an open fire, A Very Murray Christmas offers strangers in a bar singing The Pogues over tequila shots. I could think of worst ways to spend the holidays.
Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Hidden Gem.
Bojack Horseman Christmas Special: Sabrina’s Christmas Wish (2014)
Television Series created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Writer: Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Director: J.C. Gonzales
Did you know there was a Bojack Horseman Christmas special? It had appeared, without much fanfare, on Netflix in December 2014, less than 5 months after the first season dropped. Despite being an episode length 26 minutes, it is not listed on the show page. You might see it on the “More Like This” tab of Bojack Horseman. While inessential to the show–like most Christmas specials are–it’s not like it’s something to try to hide. But Netflix doesn’t have a special features section, and the special doesn’t really work as part of the series proper, so it ends up shunted off as some sort of weird spinoff, buried on the recommendation page of the show it’s part of.
The premise of the special is Bojack (Will Arnett), waking up hungover on Christmas day, is roped into watching a Christmas episode of Horsin’ Around with Todd (Aaron Paul). There are occasional cutaways to Bojack and Todd watching, but they are mostly a framing device for an episode of Horsin’ Around. While jokes about Horsin’ Around as a poorly aged late 80s/early 90s family sitcom are funny, the idea of a full length episode is a tough sell. Bojack Horseman is pretty clear that Horsin’ Around was not a good show in any real sense–even the characters that like it do so out of a sense of nostalgia, not any pretense there was some skilled craft on display there–but it takes it seriously, as the defining thing of Bojack’s career. A full length episode would have to be straight-faced enough to function as a real sitcom, but with enough ironic distance to fit in with the Bojack Horseman universe, where The Nazi Who Played Yahtzee is an Academy Award nominated film. The special mostly succeeds, mixing sitcom banter with the occasional knock on the 4th wall, and builds to a climax that is alternately genuinely affecting as an Horsin’ Around story beat, and clever as a Bojack Horseman joke.
The Horsin’ Around episode is from the first season, and finds The Horse preparing for his first Christmas with the three orphans–and the three orphans excited for their first Christmas ever. Olivia (Alison Brie) is pushing to get a stylish leather jacket to wear on the back of her boyfriends motorcycle. The Horse jokes about how we could chaperone her to prom and shows off his dance moves, foreshadowing “Escape From LA” in season 2 of Bojack. Sabrina (Kristen Schaal) has never even heard of Christmas before. It’s also later implied that Sabrina, who appears to be about 7 years old, is functionally illiterate–a reference to how the cute child characters on sitcom stayed in the ‘cute child’ stage of development for a disturbingly long time (there’s an apocryphal story of one of the Olsen twins asking why their character was so dumb during filming of one of the later seasons of Full House). The Horse tells her about Santa Clause, and decides to go all out to make it the orphans best Christmas ever. Ethan (Adam Conover) doesn’t really have much to do, except try and fail to make “yowza wowza bowbaza” a catchphrase.
The Horse gets wacky neighbor Goober (Fred Savage) to dress up as Santa Clause. Sabrina sees through it, but they hype up how Santa can bring whatever presents you can imagine to all the good boys and girls, and Sabrina wishes for Santa to resurrect her dead parents. This sequence–from Goober bursting into the apparently unlocked living room to Sabrina making her Christmas wish–is essentially just a standard family sitcom sequence, with obnoxious banter and a contrived maudling plot. I mentioned this in the previous review, but I just want to reiterate that “asking Santa to resurrect dead parents” is also a plot point in The Christmas Chronicles, which plays it straight and has a teenager be the one to make the wish. The Horsin’ Around parody version is actually more grounded. But anyway, the scene is undercut with a cutaway to Todd and Bojack arguing if the cop from Die Hard is the same character as the dad on Family Matters.
After some wacky scheming to try to get Sabrina to end up on the naughty list–how full on sociopathic this plan is, is never really addressed in Horsin’ Around or by Bojack, but man is it callous–Christmas day comes, and Sabrina gets a fancy doll set and a letter from her parents in heaven. Sabrina is upset that Santa didn’t bring her parents back and runs crying to her room. There isn’t any joke here, and Schaal plays Sabrinas’ reaction as totally genuine. Instead of pointing and laughing at a maudlin sitcom plot, the scene is played straight, to empathize with a little girl who wants to see her mommy and daddy on Christmas.
The Horse goes to comfort her, and Sabrina begins to rant about how, if Santa is all-knowing and powerful enough to deliver gifts to good people, why doesn’t he intervene to stop bad things from happening in the first place? Does Santa like watching people suffer? This scene is where the Bojack Horseman DNA most comes through on Horsin’ Around, as The Horse admits that Santa isn’t real–grownups made up the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful supernatural being to trick kids into being good, but really you should be good just for the sake of being good. The subtext is basically just text here. The sequence is such a break from the rest of the episode, it feels almost as if everything was a set up leading up to this odd left-turn of a punchline. There’s a bit about ‘who wrote the letter’ that implies Santa is real after all (and can also carry physical objects back from the afterlife). Todd wonders about that, but Bojack waves it off saying it was the 80’s and they were all on cocaine.
There’s also a subplot about the firm where The Horse works (a law firm? An advertising firm? Possibly an accounting firm?) wants him to come into work Christmas afternoon. The Horse wants to prove he still has what it takes to bring in the top accounts to the firm, but in the end decides to spend all Christmas day with the orphans. The takeaway from this subplot is that The Horse’s boss is never seen, played over an intercom by Horsin’ Around creator Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci). Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg also has a small role as unseen character–an obnoxiously loud Horsin’ Around audience member yelling out subtext.
The Bojack Horseman Christmas Special isn’t at all essential to the show. Seeing a full episode of Horsin Around is an interesting easter egg, but the idea of Horsin’ Around makes more sense glimpsed in brief, lightly absurd clips than a full, coherent episode. It doesn’t work as Christmas special on its own, but it is a worthwhile special feature for Bojack Horseman fans.
Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Hidden Gem.