FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE: THE BESTEST PRESENT
Why was it such a misfit?
Lynn Johnston's For Better or for Worse was a Canadian comic strip that gathered enough popularity to result in a Canadian Christmas special. Fans of the strip who haven't seen it might be wondering if they would like it. Well....did you like Full House? Do you like The Christmas Shoes? Do you believe Sarah Palin is the greatest mind of our time? Then you oughta love this one.
I really hate to put it in such context, but when For Better or for Worse was at its peak -- about the time this was made -- it had a real edge. That edge is completely diluted in this cartoon. Instead of the honest portrayals of real family struggles, the TV adaption revolves around hugs and adorable things children say, and the snug warmth of predictability.
The tale unfolds when Mike Patterson arrives home from school, soaking wet due to all the puddles he deliberately jumped into. For all this special gets wrong, at least it gets Mike right. Elly is dragging her children to Philpott's Department Store to shop for Christmas presents, and then to a restaurant for supper (because I guess they still said "supper" in Canada in 1985).
"Can we have junk food?" inquires Mike.
"We'll see," Elly replies.
"Does 'we'll see' mean yes or no?" says Mike.
"It means it all depends on your behavior. Do you think you can last an entire two-hour shopping trip without getting into trouble?"
A dark sort of smile curls around Mike's chin and he says, "We'll see."
Folks, meet the real Mike Patterson. This character, as he got older, would eventually decay into a bland, vanilla, Deanna-marrying snore of a man. The true Mike, the 80's Mike, half the source of the strip's appeal, was Bart Simpson before there was a Bart. He was awesome while he lasted.
Mike's little moment in the car on the way to the store is even better. He asks his mom if it ever snowed during Christmas when she was a little girl. "Sometimes...." she reminisces, and tells the expected stories about building forts and making snow angels. "Yeah?" Mike responds. "Maybe we'll get some of that this year!" Then he leans in very close to his mother's shoulder, gets The Grin on his face, and says....
Too bad you'll be too old to enjoy it.
What's a kid this funny doing in a cartoon like this?They go inside the store and talk and run and clown around until Lizzie drops a stuffed rabbit on the floor, which the camera lingers on. And you better believe the rest of this cartoon will revolve solely around getting whatever that is back.
The famiy doesn't notice the rabbit is gone until they've left the store, eaten at the restraunt and have returned home. Lizzie begins bawling and Elly feels terrible. The weather's too icky outside to go back and get it -- what would happen to her hair?
John, the dad, volunteers to take the trip back to Philpott's and search. He's this selfless because Lynn still loves the real man he's based on; later the strip would be rebooted after Lynn's divorce and poor John would face harsh wrath from above.
While John's looking around, under shelves, making bunny-ears with his fingers on his head while he's describing the toy to retail workers....the rabbit is actually in plain sight on the floor, propped up next to a shelf. John actually walks down this very aisle, stands RIGHT IN FRONT of the rabbit, and still doesn't see it. You fail at life!
John eventually gives up and returns home, and from the look on his face Elly knows he failed (if only she knew how badly). "I don't know what we're going to do!" Elly sighs. "It's irreplaceable! That rabbit was made by my grandmother! She sleeps with it every night!" Lizzie, not the grandmother.
John figures at that moment that he should probably check on Liz in bed and give her a little comfort. So he walks into her room, he sits beside Lizzie, he opens his mouth, and HE SINGS AUGH NOOOOOO
He sings this really sappy lullaby, illustrated by images of him and Lizzie running around and hugging in a field of daisies....and even that wasn't enough for Lynn, who pours on the syrup without mercy when John leaves the room and Lizzie says quietly to herself, "I love you, Daddy," then adorably sucks her thumb and goes to sleep. If I wasn't aware of the fan demand for Misfit Specials every year, I would never sit through things like this. You people owe me one.
Meanwhile, back behind the closed doors of Philpott's, the Scrooge-like night custodian is sweeping up and griping about how shallow the Christmas season is when he finds the rabbit on the floor. Suffering from a lack of company this December, he takes the rabbit with him into his small office and sets it on his desk next to a photo of his dead mother, then starts having conversations with it. (This is not played like he's crazy.)
The next morning, Mike is trying to think of a way to find Lizzie's rabbit. "How do grownups find something important they lost?" he asks his mother. "Well, they usually put an ad in the paper, I guess," Elly answers. "Then that's what we need to do!" says Mike. Elly is skeptical anyone is going to care about a stuffed animal so much that they'd answer, but she's not going to stand in Michael's way. So Mike writes a classified ad in pencil with misspellings galore, plunks it in the mailbox, and then...it's time for a completely unrelated snowing montage!
The next scene is Mike and Lizzie playing in a fort and throwing snowballs at Farley, who sees a beautiful blue bitch and makes a run for her, only to keep crashing into objects. The only real purpose of this scene is to illustrate another song, which also has no business in the special proper.
Back to the actual episode....the curmudgeonly custodian sees the classified ad, and he makes the connection, but his response is "Feh! Lousy kids, can't take care of their toys! Things were never like that in my day!" Looks like Liz will never see her precious bunny again; it's going to remain a conversation object for this weirdo forever.
One transition shot later, the mailman is delivering the Pattersons' parcels. They've gotten a few presents from relatives via mail, but won't open them until Christmas, so they place them under the tree. Farley thinks one of them smells mighty interesting.
Stop tape. This little bit here isn't a hint. It's a blatant giveaway, and this is a problem Lynn had with her storytelling that only got worse in her later years. I remember comics readers being shocked -- shocked! -- that she killed off Farley, despite the sequence of strips earlier in the year where Farley got another dog pregnant and the family kept one of the puppies. When I saw that storyline appear, I knew exactly what was happening next. A strip where the characters age; a dog that's now in double-digits; a sudden puppy that's a near dead-ringer for Farley...a first-grader could have done that math.
It's finally Christmas morning in Canada-land. The Pattersons open their gifts and perform weak jokes with them (Elly gets a scrub brush, then pretends to scrub her back with it, eliciting laughter). Lizzie gets a giant stuffed giraffe. "Hey, it's a new friend for you to sleep with!" Elly subtly suggests.
"Yeah, to make you forget about that rabbit!" Mike says, blowing the whole plan wide open. Lizzie gets upset."Wait, there's one extra present!" says Mike. "That one addressed to Lizzie..." Could it be a Red Ryder BB gun wih a thing that tells time?
NO, IT'S THE RABBIT! And you know what it also is? "This is my BESTEST PRESENT of ALL EVER!" Lizzie says as cutely as possible. Yes, it's the title present too.
Elly and John are wondering who at Philpott's could know their address (it wasn't in the ad; how did Mike expect anyone to respond?) "You're friends with the assistant manager, aren't you?" says Elly. "We don't know each other THAT well," says John. "But he IS friends with the night custodian....."
That evening, the happy Pattersons are diving into a delicious turkey dinner. And guess what else isn't a surprise? The old man has been invited to the table, ending his holiday loneliness! "Aaaaaaaaaa-wwwwwwwww."
Why didn't it fit in?
I so wish this special was better. In the 80's, FBOFW was a much better, much funnier, and much more intelligent comic strip than this cartoon lets on. There is one other special based on this strip, which we'll be getting to next, but it was made post-April, which doesn't raise my confidence....
FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE: A CHRISTMAS ANGEL (ctv, 1992)
Why was it such a misfit?
Yes, there's more than one. There were a lot of For Better or for Worse TV specials, and even a full TV series. Eventually they had to go back to Christmas again.
This one is set a few years later than "Bestest Present," and opens with the dad and kids (now in their teens) driving home with a Christmas tree tied to their roof, as so many millions of others do. "She's a BEAUTY!" exclaims John, the dad.
"How can you tell it's a she?" asks Elizabeth, the sister.
"Easy," says Mike, the brother. "Big on the bottom, not much on top." He's referring to Lizzie, not to all women in general....at least I hope.
Unfortunately, as sometimes happens in Christmas stories involving trees, they picked one that was much smaller-looking outside than it is within the house. They have to collectively shove hard to get it through the door, and once it's in the stand, it needs a little trimming. A LOT of trimming.
Elly, the mother, was told by John they were just going out to get groceries, not a tree. It was supposed to be a pleasant surprise, but it made a mess everywhere and it falls to the ground as soon as Elly walks in. She slaps her forehead and groans, "This...is Christmas." She found the true meaning at last!
One establishing shot of the house later, Elly is sweeping up the last of the needles while two-year-old April crawls around. Lizzie wants to decorate the tree now, but Elly says to wait because she has too many other things to do, including keeping an eye on April. As she's saying this, April digs out an object from the ornaments box. Elly turns around, gasps in horror, yanks the package away immediately....and scolds Liz for not watching her. You just said that was YOUR job, didn't you, El? Way to pass the buck.
"You know I've had this angel for years!" explains Elly. "It's my favorite ornament!" Is it going to get lost at Philpott's, then? Is this just going to be a repeat of Special #1?
Not quite. Elly's angel suffers a different fate. No one else wants to help Lizzie decorate, and on top of everything else Elly saddles her with April and won't take no for an answer. While Liz is stringing the lights around the tree, April reaches for the package again and takes out the angel. Lizzie turns around just in time to see it fly through the air and smash into oblivion.
"HOW COULD YOU, ELIZABETH?? HOW COULD YOU LET THE BABY AROUND THE TREE?" Well, gee -- you wouldn't listen to her, you wouldn't help her, and then you gave her the baby despite seeing what happened earlier -- you're lucky April isn't in pieces. This is hardly Lizzie's fault. Yet she gets treated like garbage in this cartoon, especially by her mother. Despite the fact that Elly's negligence is to blame, Liz vows to make it up to her by obtaining another angel somehow. Everyone must appease Lynn -- I mean, Elly at all times.
In The Bestest Present, Elly's family was voiced by Lynn's family. The brother, the sister and the husband were all played by the people who inspired them. This one has different people. "Mike" gained a noticeable Canadian accent after puberty. "See all dat sneww? Dat's big box, babee! I'm gonna make COOOLD HERD CASH clearing driveweys! You betcha!" How much money can you really make from driveways? In Mike's case, about $100 in 1992 dollars.
"What are you gonna get with it?" says his friend Gordon, who's never heard of so much money in his life. "A bunch of Christmas presents?"
"Yeah, I might get some Christmas junk...." states Mike, "but what I really want is some CDs or maybe some cloooze or something." It's within his character to be selfish, but I'm not sure many teenage boys look at a wad of cash and think, "Oh boy, CLOTHES!"
You want to know who's actually playing Mike? Vic Sakay, who would go on to become Lester on "Chuck."
Elizabeth tries to make amends by creating a construction paper angel. It's not nearly as fancy, but it should relieve a bit of her parents' current fury with her. That is, until her dad walks in and sees April on her floor eating a glue and glitter buffet. Now this one really is Lizzie's fault -- she was the only one around to watch the baby until this moment. But she takes the heat as yet more proof in court than nobody in her family appreciates her, so she leaves the house to look for someone who will.
Good timing -- up from the street comes Dawn Enjo, Liz's best friend and the only Asian person in the entire country. Dawn invites Lizzie to go sledding on Dead Cliche Peak, and she could really use something to take her mind off all the abuse, so she happily agrees.
Nope -- she can't catch a break here either. By the time she gets to the toboggan, it's packed with people. Dawn fits on, but Lizzie just bounces off the end, and everyone else protests the "extra weight." WHY-IS EVERY-BODY ALWAYS PICKIN'-ON-ME?
Fine, then! Lizzie will just go sledding by herself! Here's a hill NO ONE is sliding down! And it looks PERFECTLY SAFE!
No joke...Lizzie really sees nothing wrong here. She even taunts the others Kevin McAllister style while they're out of earshot: "I JUST FOUND A HILL NOBODY IS USING, WANNA COME?? OKAY, MORE FOR ME THEN!!"
It doesn't work out.
She blasts through a prickly briar patch, zooms through a log, spins in circles out of control, and much much more. In what may be a first for a cartoon character, she slides across a pond of thin ice and it only cracks and breaks AFTER she's reached the other side. This is the first lucky thing that's happened to her all day; maybe life is looking up? Maybe not, as she ends the ride by bashing into a tree and knocks herself out.
By the time she wakes up, darkness has fallen....and she got here so fast, she doesn't know where she is or what direction would lead to anyplace familiar. She's lost in the woods, and it's getting colder by the minute. Enough is enough; stop bagging on Lizzie, cartoon, or you're going to kill her.
Fortunately, Liz finds a log cabin for shelter. An old lady with an Irish brogue already lives inside, but she's more than happy to invite Lizzie in and warm her up with some hot chocolate and/or a roaring fireplace.
As for what happens inside the cabin, these next two screencaps speak more than any words can..... (The screencaps feature the titular angel apparently either having an epileptic seizure or a Storegasm while singing a horrible song.)
This is credited as a "song" Lynn wrote, but it's more like a rhyme recited in rhythm while Lizzie and the lady dance and stomp around. It's embarrassing stuff, to be sure, but Lizzie learns through its educational lyrics that her family still loves her, even though they treat her like moose manure.
The old granny leads Lizzie across a bridge, and she starts to recognize where she is. Elizabeth walks up the path to her house and goes inside, but only Farley is there because everyone else is out looking for her. Liz turns around one more time to thank the old woman.
Wait a doggone minute....she just disappeared from view, and the horizon is too far off for a woman of her age to reach in that time span. And how did she know where Lizzie lived? And....wait a minute, there was no log cabin there at all! She was an ANGEL! A CHRISTMAS ANGEL! Well, happy Snowflake Day, angel! Happy Snowflake Day EVERYONE!
John and Mike are still out by the river, looking for Elizabeth. When they find her woolen hat, they fear she must have fallen in. The whole family races back to the house to call 911, but as they're about to dial the second 1, Lizzie appears around the corner wondering what's going on. Happy Hugs for everyone!
There is one more scene before the credits, but it's just the family opening their presents and saying corny things, so I don't feel like elaborating. They didn't forget about Mike's subplot -- guess what, he decided to spend the snow-mow money on his family, BIG surprise. Even if it's out of character for Mike.
Why didn't it fit in?
It's not as sickeningly saccharine as The Bestest Present, but it is just as predictable. More worrying than that, it's an early hint of the kind of character Elly Patterson would eventually become. As the years passed she became more of a Lynn Johnston expy who got whatever she wanted and barked orders that everyone obeyed without question. By the year 2000 the strip had lost its uncanny power of observation and became a fantasy about the way Lynn wanted the world to work. It was sad