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TV with all the trimmings

Bah! Leave it to television to sentimentalize and trivialize the holiday season as much as possible. Whether it's dreaming of a white Christmas or exposing Santa Claus as a neglectful parent to his only son, TV tends to revel in humbug this time of year.

Most of your favorite episodic programs, dramas, and sitcoms will have at least one holiday show (see listing, page 16) - Christmas trees or menorahs in the background for atmosphere - and tacked onto the story, no doubt, a conventionally sentimental message.

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Humbug much of it will be, but among all the empty, glitzy, goofy amusements, a few fine films and thoughtful programs will surface to un-Scrooge television's flagrant commercialization of the season.

Among these are tales of redemption and hope in which an individual gets another chance to do and be good, to learn gratitude, and to celebrate the blessings of his or her life. All of these are about caring for neighbors, undoing petty cruelties, and learning forgiveness.

JoBeth Williams stars in the original film A Chance of Snow (Lifetime, Dec. 7, 9-11 p.m.), a well-written, unusual comic drama set almost entirely in a snowbound airport.

A divorcing woman with two children and her sister are off to visit grandma on Christmas Eve when a storm hits and all the planes are delayed. The woman's husband is caught there too. The airport is a perfect setting for the story - wide open and boxed in at the same time - a place where the woman must confront her resentment and choose her future. And her husband must confront his mistakes and court his wife again. Fine performances make this film one of the better made-for-TV movies of the season.

Many modern Christmas stories involve the healing of grief (and the most maudlin of these are often about death itself). In pop culture, life-and-death crises are often used as the catalysts of change, to rivet attention on what really matters.

The Christmas Wish (CBS, Dec. 6, 9-11 p.m.) stars Debbie Reynolds as a grieving widow who finds a reference to a mysterious "Lillian" in the diary of her late husband, a man of otherwise extraordinary virtue. Fearing the woman might have been a lover, the widow asks her grandson (Neil Patrick Harris) to find Lillian, and the search for her takes the young man down many a blind alley.

Along the way, though, he discovers how great a man his grandfather was - and how much he wants to be like him. There's a bit of "It's a Wonderful Life" about this film in its ordinary-man-is-capable-of-extraordinary-goodness theme. At the end, a delicate twist of the plot reveals the real meaning of the story - and makes the whole film worth our time.

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Another serious, involving picture is Houdini (TNT, Dec. 6, 8-10 p.m.). Not really a holiday film, it still carries a spirit of goodwill. And if the sum of its parts doesn't quite add up to a whole (unified) work, it is still an homage to an extraordinary man who called himself an "illusionist," not a magician. His name is a household word, synonymous with brilliant theatrical magic tricks. He was as famous as Elvis. But what many people may not realize is that he also dogged the trail of fake spiritualists, unmasking their cruel tricks to save the public much grief. Johnathon Schaech gives a bright performance in this Pen Densham ("Moll Flanders") original TV film.

It just wouldn't be Christmas without It's A Wonderful Life (NBC, Dec. 19, check local listings). While it is showing exclusively on NBC this year, you can see snatches of Frank Capra's masterpiece on AMC's truly delightful documentary, The Great Christmas Movies (AMC, Dec. 15, check local listings). This charming history narrated by Shirley Jones includes all the great favorites - so many of which will air in full through the season.

If "It's a Wonderful Life" is the quintessential American Christmas Eve redemption movie, the essential British Christmas redemption story, is of course, Dickens's A Christmas Carol - the best of many movie interpretations being the 1951 version with Alastair Sim (AMC, Dec. 24, check local listings).

This definitive film is perhaps the only one to capture the religious dimension of the story. And it features superb performances by a stunning cast, with Sim giving a truly inspired performance. Scrooge's redemption brings him joy that is tempered only by his deep repentance for a life misspent in greed and self-concern - and Sim more than any actor in the role makes us feel the possibility of a life redeemed by love. The magnificent expressionist lighting lends terrific character to the ghostly tale, and the writing is as close to Dickens as any screenwriter has yet come.

The ghosts in this story have only one purpose - to show a man what he has become in order to reform him. Reformation always brings with it happiness. Of the many versions, among them the updated Bill Murray's "Scrooged," "An American Christmas Carol," and "Ms. Scrooge," is this year's TNT Western version called Ebenezer (Dec. 10, 9-10:30 p.m.) with that veteran of many a villainous role, Jack Palance, playing the title character.

In the spirit of ghostly redemption stories, The X-Files will repeat last year's two-part tale (Fox, Dec. 20 and 27, 9-10 p.m.). Loosely based on "A Christmas Carol," Scully learns something valuable about her life and how she lives it.

This year's "The X-Files" Christmas episode (Dec. 13, 9-10 p.m.), written and directed by creator Chris Carter, is another ghostly tale for mature X-philes. FBI agents Scully and Mulder stake out a haunted mansion. Of course, the pair get separated and the ghosts go to work on each of them, playing on their weaknesses and emotional needs. But in the end, a little more self-knowledge leads to a little more humility in Scully and a little less self-righteousness in Mulder.

Speaking of Dickensian themes, BBC America celebrates the season with A Dickens of a Christmas - four stories beginning with a stunning "Martin Chuzzlewit" (Dec. 17-24, check local listings), starring the Brits' best, Paul Scofield.

PBS offers Christmas Glory with Kiri Te Kanawa (Dec. 11, check local listings): One of the world's greatest sopranos sings the great Christmas music and Prince Charles will read the Christmas story from the Bible at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

On Dec. 24, TNT is offering 24 hours of back-to-back airings of A Christmas Story, one of the funniest of all the Christmas movies about a little boy who dearly wants a BB gun for Christmas. The Disney Channel presents Holidays in Concert (Dec. 5, 8:35-9:35 p.m.), a pop music fest starring Shawn Colvin, Tatyana Ali, and N'Sync.

And then there's Pax TV's original offering Chicken Soup for the Soul (Dec. 14, 9-10 p.m.). Talk-show host Leeza Gibbons narrates this often poignant, sometimes clunky, but oddly encouraging string of stories. What may surprise you is that stars like Jack Lemmon, Paula Abdul, Martin Sheen, and Meredith Baxter have lent their considerable talents to this modest film.

Though "Chicken Soup" tends toward the sentimental (and there are manipulative moments), it manages, as so many of these programs do, to feed the spirit of the season a little. And that's no humbug.


ALLY MCBEAL: The Christmas office party. (Fox, Dec. 14)

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: Angel is visited by Christmas ghosts. (WB, Dec. 15)

EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND: Ray tries to please everybody. (CBS, Dec. 14)

FRASIER: Hanukkah and romance capture Frasier. (NBC, Dec. 17)

HOME IMPROVEMENT: The prodigal returns. (ABC, Dec. 15)

JUST SHOOT ME: Kelsey Grammer stars as a Dr. Seuss-like narrator for "The Finch

Who Stole Christmas." (NBC, Dec. 15)

LITTLE MEN: An abused woman takes shelter at the school bringing unexpected blessings. (Pax TV, Dec. 12)

MILLENNIUM: A mob hit man finds redemption. (Fox, Dec. 18)

THE MYSTERY FILES OF SHELBY WOO: Shelby solves a charming restaurant mystery with a Christmas theme. (Nickelodeon, Dec. 20)

PARTY OF FIVE: Charlie and Daphne celebrate baby Diana's first Christmas at home. (Fox, Dec. 16)

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