Bah Humbug! Why Are Most Christmas TV Specials So Bad? How the Grinch Stole Christmas airs tonight — and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It's one of a rare few watchable Christmas specials. Why is it so hard to make a good Christmas special?

Bah Humbug! Why Are Most Christmas TV Specials So Bad?

Bah Humbug! Why Are Most Christmas TV Specials So Bad?

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How the Grinch Stole Christmas is celebrating 50 years of being one of the few good Christmas TV specials. ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images hide caption

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ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is celebrating 50 years of being one of the few good Christmas TV specials.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

You know it from the first few notes of Thurl Ravenscroft's barrel-chested performance — singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" with the same flair he brought to playing Tony the Tiger in Kellogg's cereal commercials — Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a holiday classic.

The animated film turns 50 this year, airing on NBC about three weeks before its actual birthday. And it is, admittedly, a little weird to call a 26-minute cartoon about a green guy who learns not to steal Christmas presents an enduring masterpiece.

But The Grinch, which CBS debuted on Dec. 18, 1966, did everything right. It had a great pedigree; Seuss alter-ego Theodor Geisel produced the project with legendary Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, who served as director.

It had a cheeky story which appealed to kids and grownups. And it had a kitschy narrator in horror movie king Boris Karloff.

So why can't modern Christmas TV specials make this kind of magic happen more often?

To be sure, there are cute animated specials with modern cartoon characters, like the Toy Story crew and a certain green ogre named Shrek. (I do love the moment in Shrek the Halls when the gingerbread man reveals that Christmastime is less heartwarming and more heart-rendingly dangerous for cookies like him.)

But those bits come off more like crafty moments of corporate synergy than a special holiday treat. I was encouraged when I heard Disney had a new holiday special planned this year for ABC called The Wonderful world of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebration.

But then the promo for the show aired, with this tagline: "During the show, don't miss an exclusive look at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in theaters December 16."

Just like that, a fun special became a giant commercial for a Disney-owned movie franchise. (And we all know how badly the Star Wars Holiday Special turned out, don't we?)

Even the shows that are supposed to be lame aren't quite lame in the way they intended. Exhibit A: Bill Murray's Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas; which couldn't decide if it was making fun of holiday specials or celebrating them in a very weird way.

One scene features Murray trying to talk showbiz pal Chris Rock into doing a Christmas special with him.

"So you're doing a live special in the middle of the biggest blizzard of the year?" Rock says to Murray, screaming his lines like he's doing a voice over for Madagascar. "That is so you, Bill. That is so you."

"But now you're here," Murray says. "And it's us!"

"No!" Rock answers. And he ends up going on camera, anyway.

That's not lame in an ironic way. It's just kinda lame.

At least Empire stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard had the good sense to bring on singers like Mary J. Blige, Patti Labelle and John Legend for their White Hot Holidays special last year on Fox.

The powerful vocal performances helped distract from awkward dialogue between Howard and Henson that often felt like an update of lines from an old Sonny and Cher special.

"Why the long face?" Henson asks Howard at one point in the show.

"Because I never get what I want," he answers.

Henson's response seems straight from the Cookie Lyons playbook: "Well ... what are you doing that's naughty?"

"I was always a good kid," Howard responds. As the audience and Henson express their disbelief, he drops the punch line. "I didn't say nothing about being a good adult. I was a good kid." That's a looong way to go for a couple of chuckles.

Henson is doing the special by herself on Fox next month. Perhaps the holiday was a little too hot for two stars to share.

As a critic, I've always been drawn to the Christmas specials that surprise with a little unexpected absurdity. When David Bowie joined Bing Crosby to croon a mashup of Peace on Earth and the Little Drummer Boy on a Crosby TV special, I loved the sense of rock 'n' roll's future showing respect to an old school showbiz icon. (Of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas and the related Peanuts holiday specials are in a class all their own.)

And when the toy-making elf Hermey informed his boss he'd rather be a dentist in stop-motion animated classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, I felt the kind of pride misfits everywhere experience in seeing one of our own let his freak flag fly a bit.

Ultimately, the best holiday specials have a unique balance of nostalgia, surprise, creativity and holiday spirit. Pulling all that off in a one-time TV event often requires a Christmas miracle.

Which may explain why we see so few great ones on TV after all.