Last month, 11 million people tuned into It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the Halloween perennial in which Linus stages an all-night vigil while Charlie’s out getting rocks in his trick or treat bag. Next Tuesday, when ABC airs A Charlie Brown Christmas, a similar crowd will thrill as Charlie confronts his Yuletide melancholy. Last night A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (ABC)—a humble cousin to the other two specials—sidled into view for the 25th consecutive year. It looked a bit richer and weirder this time around, coming in the wake of the David Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts, a new book that merges a biography of the depressive cartoonist with an interpretation of the round-headed children (and the ebullient beagle) to which he devoted his ink. Schulz’s mantra, his explanation of why Charlie Brown never got to kick the football in his endless and lopsided power play with Lucy, was “happiness is not funny,” which sounds reasonable enough. Witnessing the principle in action last night inspired some ready-made nostalgia and some ritualized pleasure. It affirmed the conviction that Charlie Brown is not just a good man, but a beautiful loser.
The Thanksgiving special begins with a scene of Charlie and Lucy and the football. Lucy promises that, for once, she won’t swipe the ball away at the last moment, and Charlie’s gullible heart swells with confidence: “This time I’m gonna kick that football clear to the moon!” He barrels toward it, and she, of course, swipes the ball away at the last moment, and he tumbles through the air with a cry before crashing his head on the earth. Poor Charlie Brown, condemned always to heartily strive and mightily fail. Something dark and awful in his heart will always lead him back to be Van-Pelted with insults. It’s a G-rated dominatrix session.
The central plot concerns the efforts of Peppermint Patty to invite herself, as well as Franklin and subservient Marcie, over to the Brown house for dinner. I’d forgotten both what a freeloader Patty was and how much it stings when she calls Charlie Brown out of his name. “Chuck,” “Chuck,” “Chuck,” she addresses him, aggressively, with a salesman’s false familiarity.
Linus advises Charlie to host one meal before heading off to his grandmother’s house for another; Charlie, forever eager to please, adopts this course of action despite a manifest lack of cooking know-how. What follows are a couple of classic set pieces that proceed according to a rhythm totally alien to contemporary TV, with its SpongeBob snappiness and insistent verbal spew. With the funk on the soundtrack playing sweet and lazy, Snoopy, tasked with setting a table for the feast, first wins a rally of pingpong (he’s playing against himself), and then loses a brawl with a pugnacious folding chair. The dog then gets into the kitchen, where he shuffles toast and disappears in a cloud of popcorn. Patty, scorning the meagerness of these victuals and still unable to relate to people away from the baseball diamond, berates Charlie for a while, and then amends are made, and the gang piles into a car bound for Grandma’s. Everything should be swell, but the program closes with Charlie anxious about fitting the whole crew in his grandmother’s condominium.
Last night, after the Thanksgiving special wrapped up—the credits rolling over a mirthfully gluttonous scene of Snoopy and Woodstock chomping on pumpkin pie—something called He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown appeared on the screen. Bully, which Schulz worked on but didn’t complete before his death in 2000, debuted last year after the Thanksgiving special and has stayed there, despite its summertime setting. Here, our yellow-shirted hero, away at summer camp, stands up to a bully by squaring off against him in an epic game of marbles. Is it a violation of Schulz’s laws—indeed, a betrayal of the whole Peanuts universe—that Bully shows Charlie Brown first training like Rocky Balboa and then emerging victorious? “Charlie Brown? A winner?” says incredulous Lucy. “No way!”