(Re)Watch Jim Henson's "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas," Appreciate the Subtle Narrative Trajectory
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have no idea if this TV special is actually enjoyable or not; it was made in 1977, and screened several years running when I was little, and so I watch it not as a fully-functional 21st Century human, but as a larval 1980s proto-being sitting rapt at the foot of the broadcast-only television set that largely raised him. I believe that, when I first saw Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas our television remote control was still literally a clicker, in that it actually clicked. This was certainly in the days before VCRs, consumer-grade satellite television, or the cable company reaching our heavily wooded Metro Detroit suburb. On re-viewing, I've discovered that this "special" (as we then called them, presumably because they were advertised as "special broadcasts" or "special programming" in the TV Guide) left deep traces in the folds of my forming brain--for example, I realized during this recent re-viewing that the cigar-box ukulele I've included in my upcoming DIY book is quite clearly modeled on the cigar-box banjo the muskrat plays in Emmet's band.
Anyway, maybe this show is only truly enjoyable through the lens of nostalgia, but watching it with my 21st Century children the other night, I realized that not only is this a weirdly inside-out "Gift of the Magi" (in that Emmet and his mother hock *each other's* prized possessions in order to get together the money to enter the contest to win some money to give each other presents--it's like O'Henry if it had been rewritten by Quentin Tarantino), but also really interestingly nuanced storycraft: Once the contest starts and Emmet and his mother realize they're competing against *each other,* there's only one outcome that *isn't* devilishly tragic, and that outcome is inherently a downer. Nonetheless, Henson pulls it off in a masterfully balanced way, making for a humane, moral, and powerful piece of storytelling.
But what *really* struck me was how much this story reminded me of O'Conner's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"--not in an obvious way, as with the echoes of "Gift of the Magi," but in its overall mood, its sense of rural down-in-the-holler isolation interfered with by a briefly glimmering, chaotic criminal element that comes careening into the scene from somewhere far out of their normal ken--hell, out of their goddamned orbit, like malignant meteorites--just to fuck shit up and then zoom away again.
And, of course, the thing that those chaotic, quasi-criminal "River Bottom Boys" do that fucks things up is insert actual rock into the prevailing old-timey folkery. I remember, as a kid, identifying with Emmet--who was the obvious Good Guy™--but also being uncomfortably drawn to and fascinated by the River Bottom Nightmare Band's music, which wasn't *good* music in the way that Emmet's and his mother's was (those are, in fact, perfectly sturdy little folk/bluegrass tunes), but was *powerful* music. I know that other folks my age had a similar experience back then, and was surprised when my wife looked up from her work as we all watched this (on our discarded dead-pixelated flat-panel TV that's hooked to no cable and can receive no broadcasts, but instead gets its signal from a half-broken laptop computer--a rig that is functionally a million times better than the TV I watched for, easily, 6-hours a day as a child, and which my children rarely even think to ask about turning on) and commented absently that she really liked the Nightmare Band's song and schtick.
The Nightmare Band is dressed as arena glam-rockers, but they really are, truly and at their core, punks. And, of course, that punk got into me and all the other little footie-pajama-clad proto-humans staring into their family TV sets back then, when "Winter Break" was still called "Christmas Break," and everyone was a little less guarded in their seasonal microaggression and microinvalidation . I doubt this was Henson's intent, but we rarely end up actually accomplishing what we set out to do--which I'm pretty sure is the motto *actually* written on Lady Liberty's tablet.
For those who aren't students of Hebrew or the Torah, I'l just note now that EMET translates to "truth." Just sayin'
OUTTAKE (via @dhelder):