'Tis the season to be . . . inundated by TV Christmas specials. ABC alone has three of them in a row tonight. But none is very jolly.
The network's three-course holiday meal begins at 8 p.m. (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) with something for children, "The Christmas Toy," a new show from Jim Henson and his Muppet cronies about a group of toys that come to life when their human owners leave the room.
Save for bookend appearances by Kermit the Frog, the show features a fresh cast of Muppets--dolls, boats, motorcycles, robots, bears, even a catnip-filled mouse. The story takes place on Christmas Eve, when the toys--particularly a stuffed tiger named Rugby--must come to terms with the fact that their most-favored status with the children is about to change as a new set of toys is unwrapped.
Despite the promising premise and a funny running gag about a Barbie-type doll who can't decide which of her many outfits to wear next, "The Christmas Toy" doesn't stand up to the best of Henson's TV work--"The Muppet Show," "Fraggle Rock," "Sesame Street." The characters are bland, the story meanders and the ending is unusually tidy and unconvincing, the culmination of a saccharine quality that infuses the whole enterprise.
That makes it no worse than most Christmas specials for children--but no better, either.
Following at 9 p.m. is "John Grin's Christmas," a contemporary rendering of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" featuring an all-black cast, headed by Robert Guillaume of "Benson," who also directed and co-produced.
Guillaume, now sporting a beard, plays the title role, a Scrooge-like toy manufacturer whose refusal to support the community brings nocturnal visits from Roscoe Lee Browne as the ghost of Christmas Past, Ted Lange as the ghost of Christmas Present and Geoffrey Holder as the ghost of Christmas Future.
Unfortunately, Guillaume has directed in the same style with which he plays Grin: statically and with little soul. The characters go through the motions but there is no emotional resonance to the production. We don't even get to see Grin's transformation; he simply flees his death scene with Christmas Future and then begins giving out gifts the next morning.
On the other hand, "John Grin's Christmas" looks positively electric next to the show that follows it at 10 p.m., "The Perry Como Christmas Special." It's an old-fashioned variety show, shot on location in San Antonio and featuring an eclectic mix of guests: Angie Dickinson, opera singer Julia Migenes-Johnson and country singer George Strait.
The quality is pretty eclectic too. Migenes-Johnson's performance of "Angels We Have Heard on High" with the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra and Master Singers is absolutely rousing, and viewers get a refreshing look at some of the ways Christmas is celebrated among the city's Latino population.
But the vapid attempts at humor sound like they were improvised moments before the cameras rolled, and Strait's half-hearted effort at lip-syncing while walking around shaking hands with his audience is embarrassing.
Como is Como--mild-mannered and relaxed to the point of drowsiness. His mellow, soothing voice sounds fine on the prerecorded material but is overmatched in concert with the symphony and chorus. You can't beat the songs, though.