Holiday Treats is a wonderful idea that speaks volumes about TV sitcoms and their eagerness to note the Christmas season in a merry, fun, and ever so slightly poignant way. I only hope it inspires other studios to broaden their horizons and attempt other creative compilations instead of just repackaging the same popular movies or imploring people to buy them again in high definition.
A few observations specific to this compilation are easy to make. For instance, almost all of the selected episodes are from the shows' first seasons and thus have the feel of sitcoms still finding their way. The eldest ones, "Lucy" and "Honeymooners" revel in simplicity, keeping themselves close to the radio program format that often guided early TV. Later works such as "Taxi" and "Frasier" offer more complexity in characters and circumstances. The two centering on nuclear families, "Brady Bunch" and "Family Ties", tend to succceed largely due to their settings and group dynamic.
Regardless of how much you've seen of these eight shows in the past (and I'd imagine nearly everyone has seen, or at least knows, a bit), each becomes abundantly familiar in the course of its featured episode. You don't need context or full character backstories. This is just television comedy. It went down smoothly upon first airing and, for the most part, continues to do so today.
Here are synopses and information on the eight episodes of Holiday Treats:
1. I Love Lucy: "I Love Lucy Christmas Show" (26:04) (Originally aired December 24, 1956)
In between familiar sources of holiday laughs (Little Ricky's questions about Santa Claus, Fred's errant tree-trimming), clips from past episodes are broadly cued. The featured flashbacks are: Lucy (Lucille Ball) giving Ricky (Desi Arnaz) news of her pregnancy, Lucy's tuneless performance as part of a barbershop quartet, and the group's delivery room rehearsal and run.
Introductory text screens announce that this special was missing for 33 years before CBS found it and aired it in 1989.
It's presented in full here, even leaving a Sanka commercial message intact. The episode is followed by another long-lost-but-rediscovered item: 1951 excerpt "Jingle Bells" (3:18) from Season 1's "Drafted" that was recreated nearly shot-by-shot in the special's 5-Santa finale.
2. The Honeymooners: "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (26:00) (Originally aired December 24, 1955)
Gift exchanges are in order, as Ralph (Jackie Gleason) tries to sneak a glimpse of what wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) has gotten him. When he learns that his present for her is neither special nor unique, he does his best to correct it with no money and time running out. The episode ends with the cast wishing its audience a Merry Christmas, which is sometimes cut in syndication.
3. The Andy Griffith Show: "Christmas Story" (26:01) (Originally aired December 19, 1960)
Grouchy storeowner Ben Weaver (Will Wright) threatens the merry mood at Mayberry's police station. Meanwhile, sheriff Andy (Andy Griffith) enlists deputy Barney (Don Knotts) to play a skinny Santa.
4. The Brady Bunch: "The Voice of Christmas" (25:31) (Originally aired December 19, 1969)
Just days before she's due to sing at Church, Carol (Florence Henderson) comes down with laryngitis. While she's reduced to whispers and wearing a stinky neck wrap prepared by Alice, the other Bradys carry on with Christmas traditions: setting up the tree, a sit on Santa's lap, and presents talk.
5. Taxi: "A Full House for Christmas" (24:31) (Originally aired December 12, 1978)
Louie (Danny DeVito) is excited to have his estranged brother Nick (guest Richard Foronjy) visit for Christmas, but soon is angered by Nick's disregard of their mother.
To make things right, Louie bankrolls Alex (Judd Hirsch) in a high-stakes poker match against Nick. This is easily the disc's least Christmassy episode and probably its least mirthful one too.
6. Family Ties: "A Keaton Christmas Carol" (24:07) (Originally aired December 14, 1983)
Severely lacking in seasonal spirit à la Ebenezer Scrooge, Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) is visited by sister-ghosts (Tina Yothers, Justine Bateman) and shown a cheery Christmas past and gloomy potential Christmas future. They serve to adjust his outlook on the holiday.
7. Frasier: "Miracle on Third or Fourth Street" (22:12) (Originally aired December 16, 1993)
After an argument with his father, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) opts to spend Christmas Day not at the family log cabin but at work on his call-in radio show. It's a sad, lonely, and (in the "Frasier" tradition) not particularly funny holiday, despite guest callers including Mel Brooks, Rosemary Clooney, and Ben Stiller.
8. Wings: "A Terminal Christmas" (22:58) (Originally aired December 21, 1990)
The employees of Nantucket's tiny Tom Nevers Field airport all show up for work on Christmas only have to snow and a passenger cancellation keep them from their plans. Instead, they make an unannounced visit to Fay's (Rebecca Schull) house, where they help her get over the still-fresh death of her husband.
VIDEO and AUDIO
I'm fairly certain that the episode presentations here are identical to their appearances on earlier season set DVDs. Paramount may not be the best studio at bonus features or pricing, but their audio/video usually doesn't leave much to be desired. That's truer of movies than TV series, but the shows still look and sound quite good here, especially considering the age of the older ones. Of course, this isn't a disc you get to show off the picture and sound. But if you've ever bought a $1 DVD of vintage television in the public domain, then you'll be quite pleased by how much easier on the eyes and ears the content here is. Disappointingly, no subtitles whatsoever are provided, but closed captions are.
BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN
No designated bonus features are included here. While it would have been nice to get some kind of discussion of the holiday episode and its significance in sitcom production, the disc is quite filled to the brim already with 3 and a half hours of content.
And as even the best short featurette is likely to have less appeal than a popular TV show episode, the void of extras makes sense.
As does the lack of an insert, since the case back provides show and episode titles, synopses, and even original airdates.
It's worth mentioning that a couple of animated CBS holiday greetings spots fron the early 70's are scattered about. A one-minute one involves birds and a woodsman with a saw, while a 30-second one features an obviouly poverty striken girl's visit to Santa and her desire for his red coat ('tis better to give than receive). The prominent hiss of their soundtracks suggests they're old, but beyond that they're of indeterminate origin. Their inclusion is a very nice touch, but it would have been nicer with a few more similar promos being used instead of the same two being alternately repeated between each show change.
Though the static, silent menu is limited and fairly no-frills, it is cued by a very cool minute-long introduction that helps explain what this is with animation and the featured show's title logos.
Not everyone will see the value in Paramount's Holiday Treats DVD, but I think it's a pretty brilliant collection. The disc surveys forty years of TV sitcoms, provides eight distinctly different yet similar observations of Christmas, and entertains heartily doing both. I'd even encourage a buy by those who might already have two or more of the featured episodes in a DVD set. Note to studios: more DVDs like this, please. And let's not forget those great holiday variety show specials, too!