Smart dramas, stellar classics help decorate holiday season

"Tis the season to be jolly. Too bad so many TV executives opt for dour dramas better suited to Halloween than Christmas.

Though a handful of stars glimmer through the schmaltz and glitz of the TV holiday season ("A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" is on NBC tonight - a perfect gem in the Jim Henson tradition), most of the new movies are so politically correct, which is to say secular, it's a wonder they bother with seasonal dressings at all.

The very best of the new holiday dramas is an understated tribute to a man most of us may never have heard of. The Man Who Saved Christmas (Dec. 15, CBS, 9-11 p.m.) was a toymaker, the inventor of the Erector Set, A.C. Gilbert. Jason Alexander plays a gentle, decent man who struggles with his conscience over whether or not to retool his toy factory and make munitions for the war effort.

Asked to renounce Christmas itself by his government during World War I and to encourage other toy manufacturers to do the same, he comes suddenly to the realization that the feds are wrong.

The sweet story revolves around the value of play - how the imagination freed in play springs new ideas. A.C., too, learns from his brilliant young son the value of individual exploration. Once he lets the child play on his own, the boy invents the first home chemistry set.

If only the rest of the TV offerings this holiday season were as smart or inventive as the inspiring A.C. Gilbert.

Take the soapy The Christmas Shoes (Dec. 1, CBS, 9-11 p.m.) starring Rob Lowe (who should have stuck with "The West Wing") and the ever-darling Kimberly Williams ("Father of the Bride"). Two families, one rich and one poor, find their lives intertwining at Christmas. Rob Lowe is a workaholic lawyer whose dream of owning a status house is undermined by his wife's determination to become a teacher rather than returning to the corporate world. Shopping late on Christmas Eve, he meets a child who is trying to buy a pair of lovely red shoes for his dying mother (Williams) so she can be beautiful in heaven.

With this sudden change of perspective, Lowe instantly mends his ways and becomes a better husband and father. The maudlin film has some charm because the actors are themselves worth watching - particularly Maria del Mar as Lowe's wife. She projects intelligence and self-knowledge as the one character who really knows what life is all about.

A more heartwarming choice is The Locket, another Hallmark Hall of Fame offering (CBS, Sunday Dec. 8, 9-11 p.m.) that tends toward sentimentality, but manages to touch on reality.

Vanessa Redgrave stars as an elderly inmate of an exclusive nursing home. A troubled young man, who drops out of college to nurse his mother, gets a job at the nursing home and befriends Esther (Redgrave). She longs to see her first love one more time, and Michael tries to help her. In the disappointment that follows, Esther and Michael realize a different kind of love - a friendship anchored in understanding and mutual approbation. So when he is accused of a heinous crime, it is Esther's faith in him that makes him cling to the truth.

It could have been maudlin, too. But it resonates with us because it's far more concerned with creative answers to the difficulties of daily life (and even to extraordinary malice) than it is with manipulating us. Redgrave is magnificent, making up for assorted inadequacies by others.

Some of our old favorites return with glee: A Charlie Brown Christmas airs Dec. 8 (ABC, 8 p.m.). TCM picks up the winning A Christmas Story, Nov. 29 (TCM, 4 p.m.). Rugrats' Chanukah plays on Nickelodeon Dec. 2, 8 p.m. The Cartoon Network comes through with the best Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Dec. 2-5). NBC champions one of the great Christmas movies of all time, It's A Wonderful Life, on both Dec. 7 and Dec. 24. And TNT presents Patrick Stewart as the venerable Scrooge in A Christmas Carol on Dec. 15, 9 p.m.

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