My friend and colleague Diane Werts has written a new book about Christmas on television. It's one of those ''gee, I wish I thought of it'' ideas, and one that Diane has been working on for years, and a topic that could call for regular, newly updated editions of the book.
When she gets around to a new edition, I hope she gives all praise to the Christmas episode of ''Everbody Hates Chris,'' which was about as realistic a portrayal of the holiday season as you can find in a TV show.
For those of you who missed it -- and you have a second chance to see it at 8 p.m. Monday -- it has Chris wanting a special gift for Christmas. But the family has an unexpected expense and can't afford it. Gifts have already been bought for Chris's brother and sister, so they won't suffer, but Chris has to be satisfied with an explanation of why he won't get his gift.
So what happens? Chris handles it. He accepts his situation, even puts on a positive face for the rest of the family. And -- this may be the best part -- he still doesn't get the gift. There's no phony-baloney, present-from-heaven ending on this. He just doesn't get it. In fact, the show ends with a moment of charity that is so wrong-headed to Chris's family, you can see that they don't mind doing without some things; they're still proud of what they have managed.
It's great stuff. There are also some laughs along the way, and a subplot about Chris's sister that is nicely handled, but I keep coming back to how well the show deals with Chris not getting the gift. (The replay on Monday is also the first of four ''Chris'' replays this week, at 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, so you have several chances to see the show if you haven't already.)
In doing so, it avoids a mistake a lot of shows make. They assume that there has to be a big, sentimental payoff, a gratification of a wish, a reward for a good deed. Life doesn't always work that way. We have to find our happiness in the life we have, and in the emotions we feel, and not in the stuff we get.
There's an old Richard Pryor routine about -- as well as I can remember it -- a mean dog. And one day, when Pryor is feeling bad, the dog actually feels Pryor's pain and is momentarily sympathetic. But the dog also warns Pryor that, the next day, he's going to be back on Pryor's case. Christmas is like that, too. We get a day that should be warm and fuzzy, but the next day, we're back to our old lives. So we have to forget about the stuff and hold onto those feelings that will carry us through the day after Christmas, and the day after that.
I mean, ''It's a Wonderful Life'' is the best Christmas movie ever made, and it has that happy ending, but like a lot of Frank Capra's work, it doesn't pretend that the world is suddenly all better. George Bailey has gotten out of a jam, but the savings & loan will still struggle. Potter is still out there, spinning his webs (and now he has some of the Bailey money to spin them with). George's vision of his impact on the world is also a reminder of how easily things can fall apart for people. But George has a good heart, and a strong will, and they will help him get through any struggle.
Chris's family is also strong and good. Their life is not perfect, but they have the hope, love and determination to get through bad times -- and to make even the bad times feel pretty good.