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The Ogre That Changed Christmas Specials?

By Adam Shuler


It’s no secret that the content of prime-time programming has seen a decline in standards over the years. One area where content has remained decent over the years is the world of Christmas specials. These stories, showcased each holiday season by the networks, have been established to be safe family programming. Whether it was a perennial classic (A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) or a modern tale (Olive, the Other Reindeer), it was never a question that the content would be completely clean. Now, an ogre may change that perception.


Shrek has proven to be a popular and profitable film franchise. Three movies have been released in the series thus far, each grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. The franchise is also notable for making PG-rated children’s animated films extremely successful. The crude humor employed by Shrek and its imitators may not be depraved, but it’s still a far cry from G-rated fare (which continues to have proven success). Having established prominence in theatres, it’s natural for the studios to showcase the character in other areas; this year, ABC did just that by airing Shrek the Halls on November 28. The feelings generated by the special echo those of its film counterparts: it’s not that Shrek the Halls isn’t suitable for children or families, but when compared to holiday specials of the past and recent-present, one can’t help but feel the standards have been lowered.


In his latest adventure, Shrek realizes that he does not really know how to celebrate Christmas, as he never bothered to do so himself. But with a family now in tow, the ogre feels he needs to make their first Christmas special. Unfortunately for him, their friends also seek to celebrate Christmas together. Donkey, in particular, riles up the crowd and drives Shrek to his boiling point when chaos erupts at his cabin. Ultimately, Shrek realizes that, even though he just wanted to celebrate with his immediate family, his friends are just as important and deserving of a holiday celebration.


At the heart of the story lie themes familiar to a typical Christmas special: love, friendship, selflessness and unity. However, Shrek the Third sullies these themes with lowbrow humor. This is evident from the very start. The show opens with a shot of what appears to be a snow-covered green mountain. But appearances are deceiving, and the sight turns out to be the rear end of one of Shrek’s babies covered in powder. More gross content later in the special includes Fiona burping in a snake’s face to make it stiff and Gingy throwing up a chocolate chip, which Donkey happily eats. The grand finale of grossness occurs when Shrek tells his own version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” During the story-within-a-story, Fiona and the babies are seen passing gas in their sleep, Shrek colors the house green with a massive belch and he picks his nose as he departs into the sky. Feels more tasteless than the Christmas tales of years past, doesn’t it?


Despite the copious amounts of gross humor, the most concerning moment of Shrek the Halls is one that could surely frighten young children. Donkey and Puss have each shared their interpretations of the magic of Christmas and Santa Claus. Gingy interrupts these romanticized tales with one of fear. He recalls sitting with his girlfriend when Santa loomed over the two. From Gingy’s perspective, Santa is seen as a monstrous, towering figure intent on destruction. With scary music and ominous lighting, this scary-looking Santa grabs Gingy’s girlfriend and eats her. Gingy cries as crumbs shower above him. It’s bad enough that the elements of the scene could easily frighten children, but to have Santa as the monstrous antagonist is very unsettling. Adults and older children obviously get this joke, but younger children may just be fixated on the sight itself. The Grinch was certainly never presented in such an unnerving manner.


The lowbrow content of Shrek the Halls is the most notable example of a trend by the networks of showing Christmas specials with questionable content, but the trend has its roots. In 2005, The Happy Elf premiered on NBC. This was the story of Eubie, a jubilant elf who nonetheless is a nuisance to many around him. He learns about a town called Bluesville which, as its name implies, acts miserably everyday. Eubie wants to spread the Christmas cheer to the town and give its residents hope. The special is mostly clean, but there is one scene that raises eyebrows. Eubie is cornered by the children of Bluesville, who hold pieces of coal in their hands, armed and ready to throw them. Eubie evades many of these tosses, but one piece hits him right in the groin and he doubles over to the ground. This is not objectionable material per se, but it is not the kind of behavior found on specials of the past.


A year later, ABC aired Holidaze: The Christmas that Almost Didn’t Happen. The special told the story of Rusty, a reindeer cast-off who helps a boy believe in the spirit of Christmas and saves the day when chaos at the North Pole threatens to cancel Santa’s delivery. The special (notably rated TV-PG, a rating uncommon for this type of program) features two questionable scenes. The first occurs very early as the narrating elf suggests if you’re thirsty, you can reach down and melt some snow. As he reaches down, he recoils in disgust and makes a reference to reindeer droppings.


Later, as Rusty talks to a disgruntled actor playing a department store Santa, this exchange occurs:


            Rusty: “You’re supposed to be one of Santa’s helpers!”

            Kringle: “I am not one of Santa’s helpers, I am a thespian!”
            Rusty: “Oh…my Aunt Roberta was one of those.”


The reference is veiled enough that children are likely not to understand what it means, but the fact that this innuendo is present in a holiday special is a bit unnerving, as it’s not the kind of content that should have been written in the first place.


Shrek the Halls (also rated TV-PG) continues the snowball effect of gross behavior, but raises the discourse to such a degree that the question of its effect on future Christmas specials must be relevant. In its initial airing, nearly 20 million viewers tuned-in to the special, making it one of the highest-rated new Christmas specials in years. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, will specials with similarly-themed content follow in the years to come. Let’s hope not. It would be a shame if the age of the clean, decent Christmas specials has already ended.

TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.

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