Is there a word, maybe in German, for the phenomenon where a show’s main character sucks all the life out of the room? Everything’s going well, the cast is having a good time, and then BAM! The protagonist comes along and says something so awkward it’s like your uncle mentioning immigration at the Thanksgiving table. The conversation stops, sidelong glances are exchanged, and all everyone can do is wait for the moment to pass. Well, whatever the term for that particular phenomenon, The Santa Clauses suffers from a near-terminal case.
It’s too bad because there’s fun beneath the Tim Allen of it all. He plays Scott Calvin again, a Chicagoan who became the Claus after knocking the previous title holder off the roof. He grew into the role and, after nearly 30 years in the sleigh, is having performance issues that suggest it’s time for a new Santa. Mrs. Claus (Elizabeth Mitchell) is thrilled to rejoin society, as is second son Cal (Austin Kane), though daughter Betty (Elizabeth Allen-Dick, Tim’s real-life daughter) is less excited about the move. A perfunctory search for a new Santa includes as candidates Scott’s first son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), Peyton Manning, and Simon Choksi (Kal Penn), a widowed toy genius and wannabe Jeff Bezos with a young daughter. Can Scott’s family adjust to civilian life, and can a new Santa solve the North Pole’s mysterious problems in the wake of reduced Christmas Spirit? Undoubtedly. The bigger question is if the next Santa will be better suited to the job because Scott Calvin is kind of a dick.
After Disney+ dropped the first 2 episodes last week I decided to watch the third before writing my review because the pilot, “Good to Ho,” was so bad it had me rooting for a true War on Christmas. In it, Santa bemoans the loss of Christmas Spirit right before holding a star chamber review of the Good and Bad lists in which he complains about the kids he’s not allowed to call naughty anymore. Seriously; the earthly embodiment of generosity is pissed he can’t be mean to kids. (Click the jpg for legible subtitles.)
Call me a filthy liberal if you want, but I thought the point of Christmas was to celebrate the good in the world. You know, peace on earth, goodwill toward men, and all that hippie nonsense. Most of the pro-Kringle propaganda over the years suggests Santa’s entire purpose is to bring joy to children. Even 1970s claymation classic Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town featured a Saint Nick who thought kids deserved compassion. Apparently not, though, if it means Santa can’t make a few bad kids feel like dirt. Maybe this is what Allen meant when he said The Santa Clauses would put Christianity back into Christmas; what is organized religion if not the capricious judgment of an authoritarian beard? The whole scene is as awkward as being cornered by a great-aunt determined to tell you her opinion on free college and abortion rights and felt so mean-spirited it nearly put me off from the series entirely. All it’s missing is a diatribe about pronouns.
I don’t know how much of the pilot’s script came from Allen himself, because while the second episode is a mess, it quickly moves away from Santa’s animosity towards the 21st century’s expectations for children. Much of the focus shifts to the rest of the family and the potential new Santas, and it’s a big improvement. Mrs. Claus is ready to have her own identity again that doesn’t revolve around her husband — she doesn’t even have a first name as far as the North Pole is concerned. The kids are by turns excited by and frightened of the return to a civilization they’ve never known, like Amish kids visiting the big city. The elves, particularly spouses Betty (Matilda Lawler) and Noel (Devin Bright), have their own conflicted feelings about the big change, as well as fears for the future. Simon Choksi is determined to make his daughter happy at all costs, even if that might not be the best thing for her.
I’m an easy audience when it comes to holiday fare. Give me snow, elves, maybe an anthropomorphized reindeer, and a musical interlude and I’ll suspend disbelief for as long as it takes. Like 1994’s The Santa Clause, the show’s at its best when it focuses on the comedic potential found in a joyous fantasy world that runs on equal parts holiday spirit and sucrose. Even Allen’s good when he acts like his original character rather than pouting about kids these days. I want The Santa Clauses to be good. It’s Christmas, dammit! We deserve nice things! But halfway through The Santa Clauses’ 6-episode run, it’s impossible to tell whether it qualifies. The show rushes through some moments — the search for the new Santa for example — and drags through others. The laughs are few and far between, and Allen’s fake beard is frankly terrifying. Right now I’m watching out of a morbid curiosity to see the promised religious turn it’s supposed to take. I’m excited to see how much more awkward than the pilot it can be. The Santa Clauses has potential, but Santa’s such a bitter old bear I can’t recommend it to anyone.