TV Time: Underrated Feel-Good Christmas Episodes

After examining classic Christmas television episodes a few years ago in this column, then looking at family-oriented specials last year, I'd like to present some lesser-known but still potent examples of heartwarming holiday entertainment. So let's dive into the ClassicFlix catalog for some feel-good shows you might not have seen.

(As always, spoilers ahead, but I will tell you now, all of these shows will make you feel warm and Christmas-y.)

The Twilight Zone, 'The Changing of the Guard': Given the sentimentality of many of the most famous Zones, is it really a surprise when Rod Serling goes for the proverbial lump in the throat rather than the lump of coal in the stocking? I wrote about the more famous 'Night of the Meek' before, and while this one doesn't have the same cachet, it is a nice heart-warmer for the season.

Donald Pleasance plays a teacher at an upscale Vermont boys school. In the opening scene, he establishes himself as erudite and...well, old. If the heavy makeup doesn't give that away, the fact that he calls the class 'dunderheads' proves it. Only, Ellis Fowler isn't a crotchety old tyrant. We know this because when he calls the kids dunderheads, the camera zooms in, we hear strings in the background, and he clarifies that they are 'nice dunderheads and potentially fine young men.'

Unfortunately for Fowler, the school is 'asking him to retire,' kind of like how NBC let Jay Leno 'retire.' After 50 years at the school, the teacher is stunned. That night, he becomes increasingly despairing, muttering that he never made an impression on the world, that all his words fell on deaf ears.

Fowler wanders into the cold night intending to take his life but is interrupted by class bells. He then enters the Twilight Zone. Walking into his classroom, he encounters former pupils who give him earnest testimonials of what they learned from him. Touched, Fowler regains a new sense of self-worth and embraces the 'changing of the guard' he is undergoing, though it's more like a 'forcible removal of the guard in exchange for one about 40 years younger and cheaper.'

If this story doesn't sound all that Zone-ish, well consider that those ex-students who assure Fowler of his impact are all dead. Oh, they're not zombies who have risen from the grave to stalk the school's campus, but idealized versions of the boys as they appeared when they were at the institution. They went on to die premature but meaningful deaths, inspired to heroism by Fowler's wisdom.

I confess that there are moments when 'The Changing of the Guard' feels like it should have been a late-nineties Robin Williams movie, and I would have mocked that movie with its manipulative music and 'old guy' makeup. Pleasance is perfect, however, and what's wrong with a little manipulation around the holidays? I came on this journey looking for Christmas cheer, and I found it in this warm, emotional long as I ignored the blatant ageism by the school's administration and the unsettling realization that the inspired proteges who saved Fowler all died young!

Dennis the Menace, , 'The Fifteen Foot Christmas Tree': Two years ago, I wrote about 'The Christmas Horse', and there was so much going on that it distracted me somewhat from a sad, unavoidable truth about Dennis the Menace: It isn't the Dennis I grew up loving. That Dennis was not a scamp whose biggest flaw was the occasional irritating line reading, but an actual menace who, if I recall correctly from the vintage comic book stories I devoured as a child, almost caused nuclear war on several occasions.

Furthermore, Dennis' dad Henry Mitchell was an average gent prone to fits of rage at Dennis' antics, not the guy in the TV series, a man who is, as General Thunderbolt Ross once labeled Bruce Banner, a milksop. Finally, Mr. Wilson was not the basically decent man portrayed by Joseph Kearns, but a surly menace who never really harmed Dennis, but if his wife weren't around...

The TV show is not my Dennis the Menace, but it has its moments, and this Xmas episode has more than its share. In fact, it's not just a holiday tale, but an epic quest into the dark heart of America. It begins innocently enough when Mr. Wilson spots the Mitchells' newfangled tree and claims it's not suitable for a young boy. See what I mean about this George Wilson? The old softy spends the entire half-hour trying to ensure the pesky neighbor kid has a memorable Christmas.

The journey continues with Wilson engaging in a little gamesmanship to get a refund for the Mitchell's tree before he leads Henry and Dennis into the wild to chop down a 'real' one. They come across a giant well, and I believe the law known as 'Chayefsky's Well' tells us that if you present a well in the first act of a TV show, by the second act, one character had better end up stuck in it. I did have fleeting visions of an epic crossover with Lassie using precise barks to tell Alice Mitchell and Martha Wilson the men were trapped in the middle of the nowhere, but it's only George's car keys that plummet down the well.

That's bad enough, though, as the trio has to lug its new tree back to civilization on the bus. Before then, a man swindles Wilson out of a quick payday, claiming they're trespassing on HIS property. Then, as Wilson helps get the tall tree on the bus, he deals with its cranky driver. An awkward moment knocks him back into the lap of a lovelorn passenger who asks if they can get together sometime. Wilson replies that he's married, much to her chagrin, rounding out the single strangest thing I ever saw in the series -- and this is a show that would later quietly make George and Martha disappear without a good explanation.

Wilson breaks a rear window on the bus with the tree, then breaks much of the tree while trying to cut it to just the right size. In the end, he's forced to essentially buy back the one he returned at the beginning of his crusade, with nothing to show (not even that woman on the bus' phone number) for his descent into the metaphorical well of lost possessions, dishonest citizenry, and unrequited longing.

All is forgotten when the final scene shows the Mitchells and Wilsons popping corn in the fireplace and settling down for the evening. Dennis reminds everyone they've forgotten something, then leads the room in a rendition of Silent Night, a song guaranteed to bring Christmas-y feelings to any viewing audience. Series star Jay North is no Perry Como, but only a Grinch would be unmoved by this wrap-up, a charming sequence which proves the true meaning of Christmas doesn't come from finding the perfect tree, but from finding a piece of public domain music that doesn't have to be cleared by the producers.

Racket Squad, , 'Christmas Caper': I don't know how often I will be returning to Racket Squad in this column, so let's talk about it a little bit here. The crime drama depicting swindles, schemes, and other activities the old 'bunco divisions' addressed aired on CBS for three seasons in the early 1950s. The usual format was Captain John Braddock (Reed Hadley) addressing the audience to set up the week's story, then telling us all about what happened.

It was not particularly sophisticated nor lavish, but it was a solid enough half-hour, and Hadley's presence made for a solid enough authority figure. He's a rather bland lead, but isn't that for the best? I know if I saw a racket squad leader who was as charismatic and charming as Robert Redford or Paul Newman, I'd always be worrying about him playing both sides of the fence. No, better to trust on a dependable, kind of boring regular guy in that spot.

That's why I put in 'Christmas Caper' despite being wary of anything involving a combination of swindles, Santa, and children. When Braddock started telling us we were about to see one of the most unusual cases of his career -- the time he had to arrest Santa Claus -- I was worried it was gonna be a downer.

Racket Squad producers knew their stuff when they cast the role of a kindly older man who seeks to show a group of needy kids a wonderful holiday. Veteran Lloyd Corrigan has the requisite twinkle in his eye and the ability to project good, old-fashioned decency, and it's easy to imagine him doing anything he can to give the youngsters in his tenement a memorable Christmas.

After reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to the children, Corrigan's Charles Dooley stumbles when answering questions about St. Nick and why they never get presents. In an effort to raise funds to get them gifts, he takes a job as a charity Santa from two shady characters (I said Dooley was kindly and decent, not that he was bright) who plan to keep all the money collected.

After a vigorous regimen of crackerjack police work -- OK, actually someone from a legitimate charity just comes into the office and rats on Dooley -- Braddock arrests the crooks. Meanwhile, the hapless Dooley finally gets wise to the scheme and runs off with the day's take to get the kids their presents. So the Racket Squad has to arrest 'St. Nick.'

First, Braddock lets Dooley hand out his presents and get the kids started on a rendition of -- wait for it -- Silent Night. This time, the tune is so powerful it helps Braddock find an excuse to let Dooley go. The sound of the children singing meshes nicely with the tearful gratitude of 'Santa,' creating another memorable feel-good Christmas moment. You might want to skip the last scene, though, in which Hadley returns to address the camera with one of the series' standards tags: 'There are people who can slap your back with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. It could happen to you.' Gee, not exactly 'Joy to the world,' is it?

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, 'Jangle Bells': We begin in Mr. Pomfritt's classroom, where Dobie, Zelda, and Chatsworth are acting out Dickens' A Christmas Carol (as opposed to Magoo's A Christmas Carol). Far be it from me to criticize a teacher's desire to take it easy before a big holiday, but Carol must have been played out even in 1960. Even a group of restless high school kids might have preferred, oh, say, a pop quiz...or at least a nice filmstrip.

Maynard, embarrassed by strolling into class late, decides to make something of himself for a change by throwing a holiday bash in his garage. Hey, it's a start. He pours his heart into the planning of it, promising food, jazz records, and, like, all kinds of hep yuletide. Unfortunately, there's a big problem because Zelda has made Dobie commit to attending Chatsworth's own shindig so he can network with the movers and shakers who will be there. This is of course a big problem because it's in those difficult times before the advent of the car, an era in which quick transportation between two different locations in the same town was virtually impossible.

Wait, what? It's in 1960, well after the invention and widespread adoption of the automobile? Oh, yeah, that's right. Well, don't ask me why, then, but somehow this is a huge dilemma, to the point where Dobie suffers guilty nightmares based on the ghosts from, you guessed it, A Christmas Carol. He still goes to the Osborne party, but his conscience drives him to Maynard's, where he, Zelda, and his folks join the lovable beatnik for a celebration.

Dobie caps the impromptu party by sitting down, having Zelda pick up the guitar, and singing a thoughtful version of...Silent Night? No, he doesn't even sing a Christmas song, but rather a ballad called I Pass Your House because, uh, I guess someone thought Dobie! Songs by Dwayne Hickman was a great stocking stuffer for last-minute shoppers in 1960.

That bit makes little sense, but it matters not because a crowd shows up at the garage door to interrupt (giving ME an early Christmas present by ending Hickman's crooning). Turns out Chatsworth has been hit with the seasonal spirit and brought his whole party to Maynard's. He closes the episode by starting a round of Deck the Halls (You were expecting Silent Night?) as Maynard beams. It's not just a jolly ending. It's, like, merry and makes you, like, feel good, man!

Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.