Oh man was I looking forward to this one. I love Pumpkin Ales. Easily my favorite beer variety, and also proof that summer has died and is dead.

The contenders

The contenders

A little pumpkin ale rant

Some pumpkin ales intend to be all about pumpkin flavor. Others try to do a lot of things, while mixing in some pumpkin flavor. I appreciate both, but definitely prefer the former. I like pumpkin anything. Pumpkin bread, latte, etc. Wait all year for it. Never get sick of it.

But this is not everyone, as became clear when we tried to decide what varieties to test out. The internet frequently does not know what it’s talking about when it comes to pumpkin ales. I don’t know how many reviews I read that started with “I don’t really like pumpkin ales, but…” WHY ARE YOU REVIEWING PUMPKIN ALES ON THE INTERNET, person who does not like pumpkin ales?

The thing is, I understand that pumpkin ales are not for everybody. So maybe if I was someone who didn’t really love the pumpkin flavor, I would seek out the opinion of someone who felt the same. I guess? Wait, this is stupid, too. Why would I even drink them if I don’t like them? Maybe I want to learn to like them. Maybe I want to know what the fuss is about. Wouldn’t I want to read a review that started with “I don’t really like pumpkin ales, but…” and ended with “…and this was the pumpkin ale that changed everything.”

Well anyway, I am not that person. I am a person who is obsessed with pumpkin ales, and I want to know the pumpkiniest pumpkin ale available. I want reviews that start with “I’ve tried all kinds of pumpkin ales and actually, am a well-known pumpkin farmer and home brewer…” (and go on to say “and I have free pumpkin ale for you, Josh Wilson”).

The contenders

After much debate and soul-searching:

  • Southern Tier Pumking – The undisputed internet champion, though I’d never had it. We had a little trouble finding this one. It gets scooped up fast, where available. After striking out at one craft beer shop, we called another before heading home. They said they had just a few left. We went there directly and bought two.
  • Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin (Pugsley’s Signature Series) – Another strongly-reviewed imperial pumpkin ale. The regular Shipyard variety didn’t have strong reviews, so we skipped it.
  • Harvest Time – a local favorite from Big Boss. I considered this my favorite pumpkin ale going in. Very nice, crisp pumpkin flavor.
  • Dogfish Head Punkin Ale – Very well-respected. Definitely in the category of “a whole bunch of flavors, and also pumpkin” though.
  • Blue Moon Harvest Moon – Mixed reputation. I actually kinda like this one and was curious to see how it would stack up against the more crafty varieties.
  • Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale – Another national brand. Hadn’t tried this one before. It came in a Sam Adams fall variety pack so we included it.

I felt pretty sure we could pick out the imperial varieties, based on the witbier test experience, and also because they had about twice the alcohol as the others. Most pumpkin ales are around 5%, and the imperials were 9-10%. The Dogfish Head could make things tricky though, sitting right in the middle around 7%.

Testing was performed by me and K, plus her brother and his girlfriend.

The results

As a group we preferred the more pumpkin-focused entries, so no surprise, the consensus winner was indeed Pumking. It had a really wonderful intense pumpkin flavor–its cup even smelled like buttery pumpkin pie crust. Pretty strong, too, but it adds to the overall flavor, I thought. We all liked this one a lot. If you can find it, get it.

Testing pumpkin ales

Note: snacks.

Wide agreement on Big Boss Harvest Time as the runner-up. One voter put this in first place, preferring the slightly mellower flavor to Pumpking’s tasty assault. This is a great lower-cost, easy to get (if you live in The NC, anyway), tasty pumpkin beer. Very nicely flavored. They clearly have an idea of what they want in a pumpkin ale and make it happen. It just so happens that I agree with their vision.

Rankings were more mixed further down the list. Everyone was pretty happy with Harvest Moon, and it placed third or fourth for everyone. It’s a solid, middle-of-the-road pumpkin ale that has the advantage of being available everywhere at least through Halloween. I think the internet generally hates this beer, but I submit that its branding plays against it for most craft brew drinkers.

Dogfish Head Punkin did well with hoppy-beer lovers (K and I, to be specific), not so much with others. It’s a little stronger-flavored. I actually wasn’t sure if it was one of the imperials at first. It’s not all that pumpkin-y, for sure. If you like a little but not a lot of that, with an overall strong flavor, this is a good choice. Sam Adams did pretty well for tasters who didn’t like the stronger hoppiness of Dogfish Head. They seem to be trying to do the same thing, though.

Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin was an oddball. It was definitely distinct. Strongly pumpkin, but sort of odd. If you’ve ever been tempted to taste canned pumpkin before it’s cooked, it tastes a little, I don’t know, soapy? It’s definitely weird. It needs to be infused with sugar and butter and cooked for it to be really edible, is what I’m saying. Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin kind of had a trace of that uncooked pumpkin flavor. None of us especially knew what to make of it. For the price, not really worth it.

Anyway, these tests are always educational. Either we learn that we can’t tell things apart, or we verify that we know what we’re talking about, and it’s good to know which is the case. I think the biggest takeaway with this test was that we found out we know our pumpkin ales. We guessed which all six were during testing. They are all pretty distinct, and that helps.

Not sure about the next test. Nothing planned at this point. It’ll be a good time for porters or stouts, soon, so maybe that.

Delicious Science I taught us that beer snobbery is good and right. Delicious Science II taught us that good beer is good. Delicious Science III taught us to care about the health of our beer. Also to read labels.

The Contenders

Six witbier bottles

L to R: Allagash White, Natty Greene Wildflower, Unibroue Blanche de Chambly, Weeping Willow Wit, Big Boss Blanco Diablo, Sam Adams Imperial White

We initially set out to do a wheat beer test, not really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. There isn’t just “wheat beer.” There is dark wheat and light wheat. There are German, Belgian, and American varieties (among others). If you list out ones you can think of that you like, you have a really long list really fast.

Anyway, after an initial research period learning just how much we didn’t know about wheat beer, we discussed doing a test that would include a sample of each variety – such as two American wheats vs. two hefeweizens vs. two witbiers (Belgian style white). Ultimately, though, we realized the ones we were most interested were almost all witbiers, so we decided to focus on that.

We had a small group of friends join the tasting this time, and after some discussion came up with a list of competitors:

  • Natty Greene Wildflower Wit (local to The NC)
  • Mother Earth Weeping Willow Wit (local to The NC)
  • Big Boss Blanco Diablo (local to The NC)
  • Unibroue Blanche de Chambly
  • Allagash White
  • New Belgium Mothership Wit Sam Adams Imperial White

Mothership Wit had to be omitted because…it doesn’t exist anymore. K and I remember enjoying this one and wanted to include it in the test, but learned it’s been retired. So we included a Sam Adams entry out of respect for the brand’s win in Delicious Science I.

The Tasting

Two of the entrants ended up being written off immediately, for different reasons.

Six beers and six people means, like, 100 glasses

Six beers and six people means, like, 100 glasses. Some of our friends brought these spiffy tasting glasses, though.

Beer #3 was, without mincing words, horrible. One nice taster said, “I don’t know if I like this.” I was mean and said it was like drinking beer out of an ashtray. I wasn’t being silly. It really did taste like I’d accidentally sipped from the bottle in which people have been putting their cigarettes out. Some of us finished our sample, some didn’t, but everyone said it was pretty poor.

On the other end of the spectrum, everyone liked Beer #6, but it was way darker, way stronger, and had a much different complexion than any of the others. Here’s where I learned an important lesson about reading labels. Or I guess more accurately, about understanding labels. I didn’t really know what “Imperial” meant, but as our expert taster (the guy who Knows Stuff about beer) pointed out, it means some pretty significant things. Like, that it makes a beer darker, stronger, and gives it a different complexion. So he couldn’t help but out it as the Sam Adams.

So, the remaining four comprised the crux of the test.

The Results

Our consensus winner ended up being Mother Earth Weeping Willow, a local favorite. Five of the six tasters rated it the best. There wasn’t a huge variety in tastes among the four, it was mostly a matter of degrees. They all tasted good and had similar flavors, this one just had more. The remaining top vote–not incidentally, from the expert among us–went to Allagash White.

Snacks!

Many snacks were consumed.

Opinions were mixed with regard to the ordering of the others. I personally put Allagash second, but there was a contingent of votes for Natty Greene Wildflower Wit as runner-up. I found it a bit watery, but others liked that aspect of it, feeling like it was a good, straightforward beer that was just doing what it was supposed to, without fancying up the joint.

#3 ended up being Big Boss Blanco Diablo. BUT, as a group we’d all had this one and felt that something was simply wrong with our sample. We bought a couple of single bottles from Total Wine, and there’s a good chance we just bought some old ones or Total Wine hadn’t exercised particularly good care in monitoring their well-being. Whatever the reasons, this test doesn’t really reflect on Blanco Diablo. (It probably reflects more on Total Wine, actually.) K and I will probably pick up some fresher samples and test them independently against at least Weeping Willow, just to round out the testing.

Lessons

  • If you’re in The NC and haven’t had any Mother Earth beer, it’s worth your time. We’ve been fans, but this was some nice confirmation. All of their varieties are good.
  • Elsewhere, Allagash is a good pickup but I’m not sure how easy it is to find. I don’t know that there’s a good national witbier, which reinforces the sad loss of Mothership Wit.
  • Six samples was the upper limit we established with the brown ale test, but it has another benefit, too. If a few samples go awry for some reason, you still have good sample for testing. So it’s probably an ideal number to establish both high and low limits.
  • I have a lot to learn about wheat beers.

As much as we enjoyed the first Delicious Science, we wanted to test a set of beers that were part of the same class, so as to do more of a traditional taste test rather than an opportunity to stick it to the Macrobrewers of America. We like all the major varieties to some degree, so it was just a matter of picking what to try next. We went with brown ales.

The six contendersBrown ales have a lot going for them. They’re tasty. There are a lot of  good local, national, and specialty varieties. They are generally variations on a theme, so we expected they’d be interesting to compare.

The Contenders

We went with three locals:

And three others:

I was sad to omit a Moose Drool from Big Sky Brewery, one of my Montana favorites, but I live a few thousand miles too far from its point of origin these days.

The test would again be done by me, the lovely K, and her brother M.

Predictions

Unlike the lager test, I really had no idea what to expect. All of these are good! This would not be a confirmation that good beers are good and bad beers are…less good. This would be tough. I wasn’t sure I would even be able to identify any of the drinks except probably the Newcastle. I figured I would know that one, and like it the least, but I was genuinely prepared to be surprised. M and K had similar feelings, though M thought he’d be able to identify both Newcastle and Turbodog, which he cited as favorites.

The System

I won’t rehash the Setup, you can get a detailed explanation in Delicious Science I. But we did the same thing this time.

The Testing

tasting

K samples her drinks while the doomed snacks await their fate.

We pretty quickly realized we were going to need some snacks to keep our palettes cleansed between tastings. On the first pass, I was flummoxed trying to differentiate them.

The snacks helped, but we all spent several minutes carefully trying everything and making notes and generally shrugging a lot about trying to make any kind of guess about which beer was which. The colors were even hard to differentiate.

It was tough, as predicted. I felt pretty sure I knew which was the Newcastle, which I liked but definitively less than others, but wasn’t sure at all about what the others were. I had a definite favorite, though, and guessed it was Dogfish Head. The other four were tough to tell apart. After lots of tasting and palette-cleansing, I picked one as my second-favorite, but still struggled to decide between the other three.

The Results

The lager results were interesting but we largely knew what they all were, with just a few twists. This time, the reveal was a lot more informative.

K and I agreed completely on the order (we are pretty much beer twins, it seems, which is odd considering the differences in our non-beer palettes). There was a clear favorite and second favorite, both were hoppy and flavorful. Then three grouped so close that did didn’t really matter (I ordered them, but it was nearly arbitrary), then a last. Like the last test, M didn’t like the hoppier entries, so he thought the two we liked best were the worst. He succeeded in ordering the others and said he felt pretty good about his placements.

Per K and I, the winner was Dogfish Head. It had an extra dimension that we liked a lot, making it more rich and malty than any of the others. We also agreed that Duck Rabbit was the second best. I managed to guess the brands correctly, with a fair degree of certainty about the DH, but getting the Duck Rabbit right was admittedly more of a guess. Having particularly fond feelings towards it, K had guessed that Sweet Josie might have been the favorite, and Dogfish Head the second favorite.

K didn’t order the next three because she felt they were so similar. I went ahead and ordered them, and they turned out to be: Sweet Josie, Bad Penny, Turbodog. But I didn’t feel strongly about that at all. If I tried them again right now, It might go in any other order.

Newcastle was the least-favorite. We both correctly guessed its identity. It’s a fine beer, but definitely distinguishable and not in the same league as the others.

M had an entirely different order. He rated Bad Penny the best, to his surprise. He went in feeling confident about Newcastle and Turbodog, both that he’d be able to pick them out and that he’d like them the best. They did place second and third, but he wasn’t able to identify them from among the others. Sweet Josie took fourth. He put Dogfish Head and Duck Rabbit fifth and sixth, and did not especially like their extra hoppy flavor.

LessonsFer shootin or rock throwin'-at

  • Brown ale is good, particularly Dogfish Head. Yes, have some. But you can’t really go wrong with any of these.
  • I was certain I’d be able to pick out Newcastle strictly by color. I thought it was a lot lighter. Nope. It comes in a clear bottle, and the rest come in brown. That’s probably all there is to it. They are all even more similar in color than they are in flavor.
  • K found a new respect for Duck Rabbit, which she hadn’t thought about much before. If you’re in The NC, give it a try.
  • Per my taste, if I have the option between Sweet Josie, Bad Penny, and Turbodog, I should pick the cheapest. Or bail on Turbodog and support the local guys. If you’re not in The NC, and you are curious what Bad Penny or Sweet Josie taste like, just have a Turbodog.

Next: we might do wheat beers if we get around to another test during the summer.

SCIENCE. It is a thing where you learn through experimentation and alcohol consumption. At least it was in a recent case, when K, her brother M, and myself recently undertook a taste test of beers; specifically lagers. Though not the most exciting or flavorful of beers, the concept would address at least two important questions:

  1. Have K and I become hopelessly irredeemable beer snobs?
  2. Can I honestly say I can tell the difference between a delicious and expensive top shelf craft brew and a traditional blue collar American macrobrew, or have I been marketed into a corner of self-delusion from which I can never escape?Five beers from various socioeconomic backgrounds

The idea for the experiment came from a few places. First, we have long suspected we have gone overboard on the beer snobbishness. To the point that we have genuine fear not having enough disposable income to afford it. “What would we do?” This is a discussion we’ve had driving home from the grocery store more than once. If we only had one income, could we still have Dogfish Head or would we still have any dignified quality of life with only New Belgium? Second, we ended up with a couple of Sam Adams Boston Lagers in the fridge after we’d started out with a whole variety pack, which we invited people over to consume. Like a particularly well-adapted species of antelope, the plain janes survived the predatory hunting and consumption of all the more tempting offerings. And we wondered aloud how we would dispose of them. Because, when would we be compelled to drink something so gauche as the humblest variety of the largest craft brewery in the country. (See point number one, beer snobbery).  Third and finally, we have had great, great amusement at the commercials we see for national brands, like the one for Miller Lite or some such national brand winning a probably fictional award for being the best “American-style light lager.” Or whatever the heck Bud Light Platinum is supposed to be and for whom such a thing could possibly be intended.

So we would pit the Sam Adams, probably among the best of its kind, and another of its kind, against some of the mass-market varieties in a blind taste test. Here, I give you learning.

The Setup

We decided to bring in one more craft variety, settling on Bell’s Lager, to compete against a Budweiser and a Bud Light. The field of five was rounded out with a Yuengling. It would be a blind taste test, so we wouldn’t have any identifying information except color, scent, and taste.Five varieties times three people

Skip to the next section if you wish, as I will now geek out a little and painstakingly describe My System. Yes, I have a System for things like this and was excited to employ it. Here’s how it works:

  • Everyone leaves the room but one volunteer, Person 1, who pours each drink into portions for each taster. The drinks get temporarily labeled by letter, A through E (or however many letters you need) by placing tags on the table, as shown in the picture. Person 1 writes down which drink goes with which letter and pockets the information to keep it secret. Also, don’t leave the drink containers sitting around in the same order they were poured–this could inadvertently tip off Person 2 as to which letter goes with which drink.
  • Person 1 leaves the room, Person 2 enters.
  • Person 2’s job is to encrypt the letters by randomly assigning numbers 1 through 5 (or, again, however many numbers you need) to each letter. Person 2 writes down which number goes with each letter, and keeps that information secret. Use a sharpie or something to label the cups by number, toss the letter tags. Person 2 then brings the drinks out to the testing area–do this in random order to avoid inadvertently correlating the numbers with the pouring order to Person 1.

I love this system. Person 1 knows which beer goes with what letter, but that information is encoded into the numbers. Person 2 knows which letters go with which numbers, but has no information about which drink was associated with each letter. At the end of testing, both keys are revealed to find out what’s what, and everyone can participate without anybody having to sacrifice delicious testing to be the organizer.

The Testing

We sampled the beers in order, together, discussing each, then ordered them from favorite to worst. K and I put them in the exact same order:

Number 4: The most complex and hoppy, and quite tasty. M rated this one lower, not being a fan of the stronger flavor.

Number 5: Similar to #4 and also very good, though a little less interesting to me. M rated this one the best.

Number 1: Definitely different than 4 & 5. Good, but certainly a different class than those better entries. Still drinkable and good. We liked the darker color and aroma. K and I had this one right in the middle, M put it second, above #4.

Number 3: A significant drop-off here. A creepy dandelion-yellow color that seems more and more wrong with time. Very little flavor at all, and entirely odorless.

Number 2: Also pretty bad. Really hard to tell 2 & 3 apart, but we arrived at a consensus that this one was slightly worse. I described it as “vaguely not water.”

The Reveal

We were sure that 4 & 5 would be Sam Adams and Bell’s, in some order. We were right, but the surprise was that 4, my favorite, was Sam Adams. I like Sam Adams, but assumed Bell’s would beat it out. Good job, Sam. Proof that a mass-market craft beer is doing a pretty swell job.

We assumed 1, the good but not great one, was Yuengling, and we were right about that. Yuengling is pretty distinctively good but not great. A good lesson here: Yuengling is exactly what you expect it to be.

2 & 3 were not surprisingly Bud & Bud Light. But again, a twist! Though they were really similar, we definitely felt like 3 was a bit better, and this turned out to be Bud Light. Budweiser was the weakest of this whole bunch. It’s not saying much for Bud Light, but interesting that it’s actually sort of better.

Lessons

First and foremost, my beer snobbery is real and authenticated. I understand craft beers are not for everyone. They can be really strong tasting (my Mom calls them “too yeasty” whenever we are home and having them) or just have a lot more alcohol. K noted a few times that macrobrews are for people to drink a lot of, for cheap. That’s fine. I generally don’t care for them, but I understand their purpose.

Second, yes we can tell the difference. That’s not a huge surprise but it’s good to have confirmation.

Third, taste tests are fun and beer is good.

Thank you for your time.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Probably the quintessential Christmas classic.  Rankin/Bass hitting on all cylinders here: memorable characters, songs, animation, a moral, and a story that actually makes some sense in the end.  If you watch it objectively it truly is weird, but it’s agreeably weird.  The difference between this and some of the other Rankin/Bass specials that aren’t good is subtle.  It seems like their strategy was to have a kind of silly adventure story where a strange character eventually finds acceptance and redemption.  They throw a lot of crazy ideas and situations in the protagonist’s way, and sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s just odd.  I think the difference between when it works and when it doesn’t is simple: humor and good characters.  Rudolph’s friends are:

  • Hermie the Elf, who doesn’t want to make toys but wants to be a dentist (further: they meet when Rudolph sits on a snowbank that Hermie is apparently just hanging out in)
  • Yukon Cornelius, a prospector with a sled team comprised of random dog breeds like poodles and dachsunds, and who determines if there are valuable minerals around by licking his pickaxe, and who never actually finds any minerals (he is apparently outwitted by a squirrel for the only gold nugget shown)
  • A bunch of misfit toys like a Charlie in the Box.

Somehow it’s all funny and amusing.  Some other Rankin/Bass entries like Nestor The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey aren’t funny.  Rankin/Bass are actually quite funny but not so effective at drama.  I mean, it’s not like we didn’t know how things would turn out for Rudolph.  So it’s that factor, or it’s just whatever you see as a kid you will like and everything else is bad.  Overall: you don’t need me to tell you this is one of the best Christmas specials ever.

Jack Frost

Compare another Rankin/Bass entry, Jack Frost.  I’d never seen this one, and I never quite bought into it.  Possibly because it’s not funny enough.  Because unlike Rudolph, we don’t know where this is going.  So: Jack Frost is the invisible personification of a magical elf that starts winter, and it turns out he’s part of a whole frosty crew.  There is Father Winter, who is the boss, and Snip the snowflake maker and a host of other laborers who produce winter, ostensibly by hand.  It’s amazingly inefficient and you wonder how winter ever happens.  Anyway, the story revolves around an Eastern European village where a beautiful girl enchants Jack by saying how much she loves winter and Jack Frost, but more the concept than the actual dude.  (Understandable: I have had more than one ex-girlfriend with the same feelings towards me.)  Jack takes this literally and asks Father Winter to make him human so he can meet her.  For some reason Father Winter OKs this provided Jack obtain a wife, a house, a horse, and a bag of gold to make his being human official.  These rules are not explained more but I went along with it.  In the end the story actually comes around in an interesting way.  I liked it, actually.  It didn’t end as I expected and there are some lessons about relationships that make sense.  Though I did have an issue with Father Winter’s powers.  At one point Jack gets trapped and things aren’t looking good.  So, he just bails on the whole human thing and asks Father Winter to let him come back, which is done.  Then a bit later he has a good opportunity to be human again, so Father Winter lets him right back down there with the same conditions as before.  I think this is a classic example of drama having no stakes.  It’s like Jack has a reset button that brings him back to a convenient save point.  Two other thoughts: there is a sort of unnecessary framing story about Pardon-Me Pete, the Groundhog charged with overseeing whether winter comes.  It’s a little tacked on but I liked it anyway.  And: there were a lot of characters in this with goofy voices, namely Jack.  I know goofy voices are fun, but not all animated characters need squeaky goofy voices, please.  Overall: Fun, worth a watch.  Not a classic but worth the time.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

This is my all-time favorite Christmas special.  It’s got everything: muppets, good songs, humor, a good story.  It’s about Emmet and his Ma, a couple of poor river animals working to get by in the wake of the passing of Pa, still an inspiration to both of them.  Unbeknownst to each other, they both enter a town talent contest in an effort to win some money to buy each other Christmas presents.  Further, they both risk a lot to make it happen, giving up some of their few valuable possessions to make their entry work.  I won’t give away the ending but things work out because they are good souls, in true muppet fashion.  The characters are really memorable, such as The Nightmare, the hard rock band from River Bottom, who steal the show in the talent contest.  I kind of wish they weren’t so awesome because they’re actually total punks.  Hmph.  Typical celebrity attitude, I guess.  I also like the mysterious Pa.  We know only that he died and was a snake oil salesman.  But Emmet and Ma constantly use his example to seize the day.  They clearly miss his presence, although we must wonder if his recklessness is the reason he’s not around anymore.  To be objective, it doesn’t sound like Pa always made altogether great decisions.  Anyway, this special ultimately really works because it creates a completely believable fictional world the animals live in, but it has some of the same problems as ours: the rich, privileged, and uncaring generally get what they want and the poor and humble do not.  But it’s not all sad, it’s funny and there are fantastic songs.  Overall: my favorite Christmas show, and a yearly watch.

Frosty Returns

The best Christmas specials have this irreproducible inspired weirdness, the worst try to simply re-capture this, without the original inspiration and probably without any real budget, and it shows.   Frosty Returns is just such a mess.  There’s not much in common with the original, other than the fact that a few kids befriend a magic snowman.  This time, it’s a lonely girl with only one hopeless nerd for a friend.  That’s about all there is to say about her.  Her relationship to Frosty has little point and is not developed; instead, the story ends up being about how great snow is, and how evil a local inventor is for developing an aerosol spray to get rid of it.  Mostly the show has an environmental health message, that mindlessly spraying chemicals all over snow to get rid of it is ultimately not a good thing.  The townsfolk are convinced of this through a song.  Then Frosty feels his work is done, I guess, because he leaves.  The whole thing is weird.  The inventor’s sole motivation is that he wants to be King.  Which seems an anacronistic yet overly ambitious reward for inventing a helpful spray, but later we find out that he just means King of the Winter Carnival.  Only that’s still weird because how are you going to win Winter Carnival King points as an inventor of a spray that ruins winter?  More baffling is that Frosty apparently just exists now, without the aid of any magic hat.  He wears a hat, but evidently just for fashion because he freely takes it off to gesture with it while dancing, and even gives it away at the end.  Overall: stay far away.

(Note: this is the second special so far involving Mark Mothersbaugh.  He did the music (I liked it).  He made a cameo on Yo Gabba Gabba! to draw stuff in the “Mark’s Magic Pictures” segment.)

A Charlie Brown Christmas

A Charlie Brown Christmas would never get made today.  (Even ignoring the dated things like a lack of diversity and inclusion of an actual Bible passage.)  The animation is choppy and unpolished.  It’s 90% depressing.  There are no celebrity voices or potential hit songs.  And ultimately, it’s a giant rant against commercialism.  On network TV, mind you.  Actually it’s a wonder the thing ever got made, but it did, and it’s totally unique on the Christmas specials landscape.  There’s no Santa or magic or triumphs.  Charlie Brown is feeling blah about the holidays, and eventually he finds a good reason not to.  His peers (can’t really call them his friends, save for Linus) help him get there in the end, but most of the time they’re just making him feel alienated.  Ultimately he just sticks to what makes him happy, like adopting a pathetic dying branch as a Christmas tree, and successfully dodges commercialism until he feels better again.  Overall: a must-watch.  (Do today’s kids still like this? Or is it now just boring and weird?)

It’s a Wonderful Life

Somehow I have become a total sucker for this movie.  I feel no shame over it.  No other film gets me closest to crying.  (I have never actually cried at a movie.  I am a robot.)  The characters and story are just about perfect – it’s funny, touching, well-constructed.  It’s still very modern.  Now, some questions.  I’m not religious at all, so why would I like a movie so much with such an overtly spiritual message, that angels will help you out in times of crisis and prayers are heard?   Another interpretation is that it’s fantasy.  The angels aren’t seen as heavenly beings, they are seen as galaxies talking to each other.  One of these beings, Clarence, appears and the appropriate time and proceeds to bring George to an alternate reality in which he didn’t exist.  It’s more than an illusion: George is really in that place that does not exist on our plane, no one knows him, and the town is entirely transformed.  Clarence has the power to appear and disappear from that reality at will, and when George wants out, he’s returned just as easily.  Clarence proclaims to be an angel from heaven but isn’t that just done for George’s benefit?  George isn’t much inclined to believe even that story, but certainly it’s more plausible to him than a super-galactic being showing up to help him.  I guess these beings are helping George out maybe because they’re universal peace-lovers and fighting against tyranny wherever it lurks, such as in Bedford Falls.  It really doesn’t matter how you look at it, whatever suits you is valid I think.  Overall: interpret it how you want, but it’s an all-time classic.  Unless you think it’s corny.

Though mine is black and has a picture of Artie on the screen.

  1. Signal strength indicator. Shows access to the data network, unless you are moving, indoors, or outside a major metropolitan area of the United States. Also shows access to the phone network, which drops to zero when call is placed.
  2. Volume buttons. Conveniently located except when phone is in use.
  3. Battery indicator. Reads 100% full unless the phone has been used, in which case it turns red and requires recharging.
  4. Voice activator. Placed in a position that will guarantee repeated accidental use. Never used on purpose.
  5. E-mail application that duplicates all of your Gmail messages.
  6. Browser application. Generally crashes immediately upon use.  Occasionally loads 99% of page, then crashes.
  7. Other primary applications. Never used.
  8. Access to all applications. Use to access Blackberry store to search for apps. Abandon search when no suitable apps with better than 2-star user reviews are located.
  9. Button of mystery. Function unknown.
  10. Cancel button. Uses: (1) Press once to end call. (2) Punch hard to cancel crashed applications.  (3) Frantically press repeatedly to cancel voice control [see #4] before anything weird happens.
  11. Scroll wheel.  Occasionally fails to scroll up.  Chance of complete eventual failure: 100%.
  12. Receive call button.  Never used. 🙁
  13. Keyboard. Conveniently designed to press as many keys as possible simultaneously.

A Flintstone Christmas

A standard Christmas special plotline in cartoons is that Santa needs help, so the familiar characters help, and it’s the best Christmas ever.  That’s pretty much what happens here.  Santa sprains his ankle on Fred’s roof, so Fred and Barney are called into action to save Christmas.  Turns out it’s pretty easy to do: the reindeer know where to go, the sleigh is magic, the toy bag is magic.  They have a mishap and accidentally dump all the toys out over China, so they radio Santa (of course his sleigh has a CB, in prehistoric times, as does the Flintstones’ house, apparently) who tells them to just hit the North Pole and get a toy refill.  They drop by and the elves just whip up a whole new batch of toys without complaint so the journey can continue.  Then they wrap up their route by just dumping the toys at the houses for the rest of the night, rather than actually entering the houses and leaving them under the trees, the animators and producers wanting to get this turkey over with as fast as Fred and Barney.  Oops!  They’re late for the work thing where Fred was playing Santa and the boss and wives will be mad!  Warning: extremely dated wives being mad at oafish husbands humor.  Oh, don’t worry, they make it.  I’m getting bored just recapping this.  Overall: really bland and boring and adding nothing to the Christmas specials canon. Skip it.

Olive, the Other Reindeer

Hadn’t seen this one before.  Turned out to be a lot of fun.  The story is about Olive the dog, who hears on the radio that Blitzen is injured and won’t be able to fly, possibly meaning that Santa will have to cancel his trip, unless he can make it with “all of the other reindeer.”  Mishearing this as “Olive the other reindeer,” she undertakes a journey to the North Pole to help out.  She makes a friend–Martini, the somewhat crooked sales-penguin–and an enemy, an evil mailman bent on getting Christmas canceled so he can be relieved of his annual holiday catalog burden.  The show was consistently funny and imaginative.  Really interesting animation.  Lots of great voices: tons of people from Futurama, Michael Stipe as Blitzen.  Overall: a good one that seems underrated, keep an eye out for it.

Yo Gabba Gabba!

If you were to tell me I am too old for a TV show, particularly a holiday special, I would tell you to guess again.  Though once in a while you would be right, and this is one of those times.  I’ve only seen a few episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba! because I am most definitely too old for it.  It’s worth a laugh though, anyway.  For a while.  It gets a little tedious unless you are four and dancing along, I think.  From a 33-year-old eye, it’s just pretty crazy.  Lots of colors and bizarre songs and stories that feel like they were made up on the spot by kids (wait–they probably were).  The holiday special is only sort of a holiday special.  It’s the usual YGG! fare but with some winter and gift-giving stories.  The creatures all apparently like both of these things.  Well, to be clear, the robot didn’t like winter at first, but his friends’ song convinced him it was all good.  Overall: pass.  Unless you are four.

We are watching many holiday specials this year through the magic of Christmas (and Tivo).

A Very Special Family Guy Freakin’ Christmas

I don’t like Family Guy much but I happened to see a bit of this a few years ago and have to admit it’s got some good things going for it.  Namely, the interspersed Kiss Saves Christmas fake Christmas special bits.  Those alone are worth the time spent watching it and navigating the otherwise hit-and-miss humor that is standard Family Guy fare.  Read: the comic timing is amazing but no show is more willing to trade clever for crass.  Overall: just in over the line of being worth the short time investment.

Frosty the Snowman

I haven’t seen this for years, if ever.  Love the corny animation and narration by Jimmy Durante.  It’s really for kids and a fittingly random plot ensues where the kids use a magician’s hat to bring Frosty to life, then the magician wants his hat back and therefore becomes the bad guy.  Most of the events in the show are dictated by Frosty being too warm or his human companions being too cold, and the ultimate lesson is that Frosty can’t be with people or he will die.  But he never really dies, because he’s magic, or Christmas is, I think.  Also there are extended bits with Hocus the rabbit hamming it up.  Overall: Watch it.  Lovable but weird.

Scrooged

Hadn’t seen this one in a while, but still found it really enjoyable.  The corporate humor made more of an impact on me this time around, which just gave it another layer.  It’s really a great update to the classic story, with a good balance of keeping important things from the original but modernizing other parts.  The frequently-running AMC version cuts out a fair number of funny (though nonessential) bits so watch through another medium if possible.  Lots of good cameos.  Overall: still really good.