A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: Animated prime-time special featuring the characters from the “Peanuts” cartoon strip. First aired Nov. 20, 1973, two days before Thanksgiving, and has been shown annually since. The 10th “Peanuts” prime-time special and the last of the Holy Trinity of “Peanuts” holiday specials (the others being 1966’s It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas).
And here’s why I like it:
1. A quick death. Thanksgiving is lousy with football — from high-school rivalries to embarrassing Detroit Lions losses — so it’s appropriate that this one opens with the Lucy-holds-the-football gag. Offered the chance to kick the football, Charlie Brown responds:
“Hold it. HA! You’ll pull it away and I’ll land flat on my back and kill myself.”
So, thirty-one seconds into the show, the Everyman lead character with whom we are all supposed to identify is already contemplating his own death.
Yes, I know he is speaking metaphorically. But he picks the ugliest, bleakest possible metaphor — he doesn’t say, “I’ll land flat on my back and hit my head.” When you’re as put-upon as Charlie Brown, why not take every situation straight into the crapper from the get-go?
I love “Peanuts.”
2. The theme. Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas is rightfully celebrated, but it’s not his only memorable music.
I’ve long liked the theme song to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The main theme reminds me of a Moebius strip; its return to the home chord makes perfect sense, and yet the path it takes to get there never fails to surprise me. And the gentle, drifting middle section reminds me of leaves falling, or even early snow.
(Guaraldi also gets extra points for some tasty, desolate Fender Rhodes-ing elsewhere in the show, as well as for the clavinet-driven “martial” music that accompanies Snoopy and Woodstock’s pilgrim scene.)
3. With friends like these. We all know how Lucy and Peppermint Patty, ostensibly Charlie Brown’s friends, dump or impose on him at various points in the show.
But it is Linus, the one character reliably on Charlie Brown’s side, who gets him deeper into trouble by suggesting the idea of holding a special dinner just for Peppermint Patty and her self-invited guests.
Better answers might have included: “No, Charlie Brown. Call her back and make yourself heard if you ever want to stop getting stepped on,” or, “Tell you what. I’ll talk to her and get her off your back, and you can owe me a box of Zingers for my trouble.”
But nooooooo, for all his book-learnin’, the middle Van Pelt sibling can’t provide the necessary backbone when his friend needs it.
In that same conversation, Linus also gets off one of the best diss lines in the televised “Peanuts” canon:
Charlie Brown: I can’t cook a Thanksgiving dinner! All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast.
Linus: (thoughtfully) That’s right, I’ve seen you make toast. You can’t butter it. But maybe we can help you!
4. The (first) supper. There are all kinds of ponderables here:
- Even in the suspend-your-disbelief world of “Peanuts,” I love that they said: “Cook and serve Thanksgiving dinner? We’ll have the dog do that.”
- The dog who’s human enough to cook knows what humans eat for Thanksgiving dinner. He cooks himself a nice turkey at the end of the show. But, pressed into service to cater to his master’s guests, he serves toast and junk food. (Charlie Brown and Linus make no effort to redirect him.)
- What’s in the cherry-topped cups at the table? I don’t believe we see the kitchen crew assemble those, and they tend to get left out when people recall the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving menu. Wiki would have us believe it’s vanilla ice cream, and perhaps it is.
- We don’t actually see the mystery ice-cream cups arrive at the table; they simply appear while everyone is blinking at each other, trying to come up with a suitable grace to say.
- Snoopy is awfully quick to cower when Peppermint Patty berates him about his cooking. A more delightfully puckish, yet still totally characteristic, response would be for him to shrug and start eating her unwanted jellybeans.
- A station wagon that seats six kids comfortably in the wayback is my kind of car. But where’s Lucy?
5. Skies of America. One of the great things about Great Pumpkin is the backgrounds — wild, lurid autumn skies of orange and red and lavender and star-streaked dark gray. Most of the outdoor scenes in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving can’t compare, with the skies the same uniform color of washed-out blue-gray.
At the end, though, Snoopy and Woodstock enjoy their own holiday meal al fresco, under a gorgeous salmon-pink sky gently shot through with clouds. (In a nice if probably unintentional touch, the sky gets gently darker when the turkey is served and stays that color throughout the closing credits.)
For the last two-and-a-half minutes of the show, there is no human speech — just a small-group arrangement of that wonderful theme, while two best friends enjoy a meal in an autumnal wonderland.
With no disrespect meant to Charlie Brown’s grandma, I know which dinner I would have wanted to attend.