Thursday, October 23, 2014

Culture Shock 10.23.14: 'The Great Pumpkin' is a test of faith

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" may be the first and most celebrated "Peanuts" TV special, but "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is the best by almost any standard.

The animation is smoother, the writing and acting are more assured, and the entire production seems more fully formed, which it is, given that CBS wasn't entirely sold on "A Charlie Brown Christmas" until after it aired and the ratings came in. In particular, CBS wasn't sold on using children as voice actors or the jazz score by West Coast pianist Vince Guaraldi and his trio. But the special's ratings triumph led the network to go all in on two "Peanuts" specials the following year: the seldom-aired "Charlie Brown's All-Stars" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."

"The Great Pumpkin" has more than snazzier production values going for it. It better captures the melancholy spirit of the comic strip. Of all the "Charlie Brown" specials in the world, it's the Charlie Browniest.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas," which first aired in 1965, is "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz at his most hopeful. Linus gives a soliloquy on the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown gives a ragged little Christmas tree a chance, and at the end even Lucy gives Charlie Brown a break, admitting he did pick a good tree after all. Everyone sings carols, and the special fades out with a happy ending — a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. God bless us, every one.

Premiering Oct. 26, 1966, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is Schulz at his most cynical. The Christmas special reaffirms his faith, but the Halloween special tears it back down. It isn't just happenstance that Linus, for once, ends up with his hopes dashed.

Charlie Brown is the receptacle of all of Schulz's insecurities, but Linus is his philosophical mouthpiece. "It's the Great Pumpkin" shows Schulz is keenly aware Linus can, at times, be more than a little overbearing.

Linus, who proselytized for Christmas a year earlier, is a prophet for the Great Pumpkin, who according to official doctrine, rises each year from the most sincere pumpkin patch and flies through the air with toys for all the good little children. Linus has little regard for the Great Pumpkin's more high-profile rival, "that fellow with the red suit and white beard who goes, 'Ho, ho, ho!' " He leaves Charlie Brown to sigh about how they are separated by "denominational differences."

Halloween becomes a test of faith for both Linus and Charlie Brown.

Linus, naturally, never sees the Great Pumpkin. But rather than question the object of his faith, he blames a momentary lapse. Even a little slip, he says, can cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by.

The Great Pumpkin is a jealous squash, and he leaves Linus literally out in the cold.

Charlie Brown fares even worse. He first puts his faith in Lucy (and a signed document) when he goes to kick the football she so temptingly holds for him. And once again, Charlie Brown is done in, this time not just by his faith in humanity, but by a legal technicality: the document wasn't notarized.

Yet the worst is to come. Charlie Brown goes trick-or-treating Halloween night and ends up with nothing but a bag of rocks. It's probably the funniest joke in all the "Peanuts" specials, yet it's also the most mean-spirited. We thought it was just his fellow kids who gave Charlie Brown a hard time, but no. Apparently the whole town hates him.

Audiences, however, still love the blockhead, and they love to see him miserable. ABC's Oct. 15 broadcast of "It's the Great Pumpkin" scored 6.3 million viewers and a 2.1 rating among adults 18-49, according to Entertainment Weekly, topping most of the other network shows that aired that night.

In all the gloom and doom of "The Great Pumpkin," one ray of hope cuts the darkness. Schulz eases up just long enough for Lucy to go outside in the early morning and bring her shivering brother to bed.

Sisterly love doesn't conquer all, but if even Lucy has a heart, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

Subsequent "Peanuts" specials don't go as dark, and by 1973's "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," Schulz is doing happy endings again. Staring into the abyss once a year is enough.

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