TV treats for the holidays

Amid the standard Christmas fare are a handful of shining stars

Longtime seasonal family favorites like "It's a Wonderful Life" (NBC, Dec. 19, 24) and "A Christmas Story" (TNT, for 24 hours, Dec. 24) light up the tube each December, amid less-inspiring fare such as the usual run of Santa cartoons.

Many weekly series will have a special Christmas or Hanukkah episode too. And nearly every year a new television film or two reinforces traditional messages of faith, forgiveness, and family.

The best of these this year is A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart (TNT, Dec. 5, 8-10 p.m., and repeated, see page 13), a lavish, smart retelling of Dickens's classic ghost story.

But there's also something to be said for Hallmark Hall of Fame's A Season for Miracles (CBS, Dec. 12, 9-11 p.m.). Implausible it may be, predictable it surely is, but this story about an angel saving a sad little family is gracefully told.

Laura Dern plays a drug-addicted mother who is about to lose her two children to the welfare system - the very system she grew up in - unless her sister Emilie (Carla Gugino) can find a way to keep them safe.

Emilie is the best person to care for the children, but she is broke and unemployed. So she runs away with them in her old jalopy, winding up in an idealized small town called "Bethlehem." Her car needing repair, the law on her trail, she pretends to be the long-lost owner of the town mansion - the niece of the former owner - so she and the children can have a place to stay.

Everything in the town, including the interfering angel and the local hunky sheriff (David Conrad), conspires to keep her there where the children are happy and safe. It's a formulaic story, but the performances are honest and bright.

"Home Alone" meets "It's a Wonderful Life" in Richie Rich's Christmas Wish (Fox Family Channel, Dec. 5, 8-10 p.m.), minus the screwball humor of the first or the intelligence of the second. Still, it's a harmless enough entertainment for kids as the richest child in the world makes a wish that he was never born, only to learn he has a real role in life.

A much better choice is If You Believe (Lifetime, Dec. 6, 9-11 p.m.). The protagonist of this cheery picture is a female Scrooge who has to learn to love her inner child before she can learn to love others. It may sound a bit new- agey, but Ally Walker charms persuasively as a book editor who is running out of friends, work, and time until she rediscovers what really matters, and in doing so rediscovers Christmas.

The best children's film this season is Good Night Moon & Other Sleepytime Tales (HBO, Dec. 6, 7:30-8 p.m.). Susan Sarandon reads the story, based on the exquisite picture book by Margaret Wise Brown. Delicate animation makes the book come sweetly to life. Real children then comment on sleeping and dreaming. Billy Crystal reads "There's a Nightmare in My Closet" and Natalie Cole reads "Tar Beach." Lullabies and other songs link the interviews with children, and the family special comes together in a gentle, poetic whole.

For those interested in current cultural studies about the "reason for the season," The Unknown Jesus (A&E, Dec. 19, 8-10 p.m.) makes a few well-worn historical points about Jesus' times. But most of the scholars quoted are associated with the controversial "Jesus Seminar," "The Jesus Conspiracy," and others who believe the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of faith. The odd thing is, with all the presumptions about who Jesus "must have been" - as a mere product of his culture - allowances are not even made for extraordinary human goodness or intelligence.

Plenty of music specials dot the season as well. For Celine Dion fans, And So This Is Christmas (CBS, Dec. 6, 10-11 p.m.) is a sentimental journey down a secular Christmas lane. Harry Connick Jr., Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, and Charlotte Church talk about what Christmas means to them ("family and friends") and sing their seasonal favorites.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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