So I was thinking about Christmas specials the other day, because apparently I’ve become trapped in some bizarre time warp that keeps me perpetually three weeks in the past, and a thing occurred to me. And that thing is that to the best of my knowledge regarding television Christmas specials for the children, Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas is the grittiest Christmas special, ever. Seriously, I mean it’s not like some sort of gripping blood bath or anything, because after all, it IS a Christmas special, but as far as those things go, that thing gets raw and stays that way.
Like right from the beginning, it’s all about how Emmett and his mom are up to their necks in hard times, all having to work shitty jobs just to barely scrape by, the the point where the only good thing in their lives is that there aren’t any holes in their wash tub. Their wash tub, in a time and place that’s like the late 70s or early 80s in a world where the Prairie Home Companion is more southern and filled with Muppet animals, where an electric washing machine is a thing that has existed for several decades. Their fucking wash tub. And why is this? Because Emmett’s father – a freaking snake oil salesman, for the record – is dead. And they don’t even let you down easy in that cartoon-for-the-children way, where they’re all like, “oh, I wish your father was still here,” and letting you mentally fill in the blanks. No, they straight up say the dude is deceased, gone, buried, six feet under, and he can’t feed his family, because all he’s feeding right now is worms. Mr. Otter is an ex-otter, and his family is screwed, because all he left them was alone. That is some some ill shit for a children’s special, you know?
Anyway, the harsh lessons about the brutality of life don’t stop there, and to encapsulate the middle of the thing in a sentence, Emmett and his mom both want awesome presents for Christmas, but they’re both dirt-ass-poor and can’t afford anything, so Ma Otter hawks Emmet’s toolbox and Emmett punches a hole in the fucking washtub to make a gutbucket, thereby destroying the family’s last remaining sources of income, so they can both try to win the local talent show and win a bunch of money, each without the other’s knowledge. So the ending seems at least semi-apparent, I suppose. Somehow, either Emmett’s jug-band or Ma’s solo act win, or they both win somehow, because they know the true meaning of love and friendship and Christmas and Jesus and Freedom, and everyone goes home happy. Oh wait, no, once the talent show/battle of the bands thing starts, absolutely none of that happens.
So yeah, Ma Otter’s song goes over huge, and so does Emmett’s band, even though the thing they played sounded more like hippie folk music than actual folk music. (Seriously, it sounded like something that should have been playing while Lava lamp looking stuff was projected behind them and a chick with a tie-dyed dress and a creepily blank stare just danced around, not actually contributing musically. I mean, yeah, there’s already enough heaviness going on where you can’t have them drop some high lonesome shit about dying in a coal mine or whatever, but they could have at least saved that song about barbecue for this part, you know?) But then, these dudes show up who had been hassling the dude who runs the music store in town earlier, and even though they showed up late and technically shouldn’t have been allowed to participate, they get to anyway, because life isn’t fair for anyone, especially Emmett Otter and his mom. And here’s the thing: after all the country and folk and hippie jug bands that have been playing that were all appropriate to the local area, these guys are a rock band. And you know what happens from there? Do they lose, because cheaters never win and good old fashioned music from the heart is better than big-city devil-rock? Is it a tie that comes down to a final showdown, where Emmett and his Mom join forces to show everyone the true meaning of love and friendship and Christmas and Jesus and Freedom? Oh hell no, people, the River Bottom Nightmare Band busts out some crazy song that sounds like the unholy offspring of Deep Purple and Venom, and they blow the good guys smooth the hell off the stage:
So after the big talent show, Emmett and Ma are left with absolutely goddamn nothing, no tool box, no wash tub, and no money for Christmas Presents. Their lives are ruined, and what’s worst, they’ve been ruined by their own mutual betrayal. I mean yeah, there’s eventually a happy ending and all, but when you watch it, you can’t help but think that it got tacked on at the last moment, like Jim Henson realized that mentally destroying whatever percentage of a generation of children had access to HBO at the time wasn’t worth preserving his artistic integrity. But even then, there’s that loose thread out there that the Nightmare dudes were all a bunch of sociopathic borderline criminals who still got to win the talent show and as an ass-kicking rock machine, probably have a brighter future than any mom-and-son jug band that plays the local tavern could ever have. Thirty years later, Emmett probably still lives with his mom, and The Nightmare are sitting in mansions right now, looking at their platinum records and supermodel wives. If anything, the lesson on this show was less about the power of love and family and happiness and more that assholes always finish first, the world is a cruel and terrible place, and no matter how much from the heart your song is, no one will give three-fifths of a damn about it if you don’t have flashing lights and killer riffs.