One thing about me – I only need one viewing to make up my mind about any Comfort TV episode. Each is quickly classified into one of these categories:
4 Stars: A classic, one of the show’s best episodes
3 Stars: An above-average episode that rewards repeat viewings
2 Stars: Nothing special, but still has its moments
1 Star: An episode I may never watch a second time.
In fact, in all the years (decades) I’ve been watching this stuff, I can recall only one time when I changed my opinion – and it happened on a Christmas-themed episode.
When I first watched “Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid” from season one of That Girl, it did nothing for me. After one viewing it was relegated to 1.5 star status and omitted from every subsequent year’s holiday lineup, unlike the show’s season three Christmas episode, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas – You’re Under Arrest.” That one earned a solid 3.5 stars on the Comfort TV scale and has become an annual viewing tradition.
But last year, after watching another episode on the same disc as “Hard Luck Kid,” I thought what the heck – and let it play again. And while I remembered the reasons for my initially tepid response, I also saw something poignant in the story that went unnoticed the first time around.
The episode opens with Donald visiting Ann while she works as one of Santa’s helpers in a New York department store. There she receives a gift from someone named Tommy, and before Don can get jealous she tells him how that friendship was formed a few years earlier.
In flashback, we see Ann before she pursued an acting career, working as a teacher at a private school for boys. All of the students are headed home for the holidays except Tommy, whose parents are shooting a movie in Europe. Ann can’t stand the thought of one boy alone in school on Christmas, so she cancels her holiday plans to stay with him.
If the voice of Christopher Shea, who played Tommy, sounds familiar, it’s because he also provided the voice for Linus when he told Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
I think what bothered me the first time I watched this episode was the impact Ann’s sudden change of plan had on everyone else. We only get so many Christmases we can spend with our families, so perhaps she should not have given one of hers up so cavalierly. Of course it was a nice gesture, but to me Tommy didn’t seem overly appreciative of her sacrifice. And as it turned out he wouldn’t have been alone anyway, since one of his friends lived close to the school and came by the next day to visit. Together they spent the afternoon playing and having fun, while Ann was relegated to being a third wheel.
Tommy then went to his friend’s house for a holiday dinner, leaving Ann alone in the school, missing her parents as I’m sure they were missing her.
There’s a feeling of melancholy that pervades the entire episode, and strangely enough I think that’s the reason I was more impressed the second time around. On your typical classic TV Christmas episode, you can always count on a happy ending: Cathy’s father will make it back to the Lane residence in time for Christmas; Carol Brady’s voice will return before she has to sing in church; Donna Stone discovers the meaning of Christmas she thought was lost; Keith Partridge gets the bus running so the family won’t be stuck in ghost town.
And that is as it should be. We look for comfort from these shows, and they rarely let us down. But sometimes you don’t get what you want for Christmas, and when that happens, like Ann, you can try to make the best of it, and the best way to do that is by giving more than receiving. There is ample room in the classic TV universe for that message as well.
One interesting trivia footnote about this episode: It was written by Jim Brooks, who later wrote the first season Christmas episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and titled it “Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid II.” Mary, like Ann Marie, has a magical holiday planned with her family, until those plans fall apart.
I guess Brooks enjoys ruining holidays for his characters. Here’s hoping your Christmas turns out better. Happy Holidays!