Holiday shows none too cheery

I never thought I'd write these words, but I sure do miss old-fashioned Christmas specials like Kathy Lee Gifford's annual self-promotion spectacular and Martha Stewart's icy exercise in holiday perfectionism. This year's Christmas-themed programs are a decidedly uneven lot. And three of them make their debut tonight.

CBS presents the 1999 British feature "Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire" (8 p.m., CBS) followed by its 2002 sequel "Robbie the Reindeer in Legend of the Lost Tribe" (8:30 p.m., CBS). For reasons that say a lot about Hollywood insecurities and network marketing, these specials have been redubbed (from their original English!) by more familiar voices, including Ben Stiller, Hugh Grant (who is British), Britney Spears, Jim Belushi, Brad Garrett, Leah Remini, Jerry Stiller, James Woods, and CBS sports announcers Dan Dierdorf and Dick Enberg.

Both specials feature the animation technique made famous in "Chicken Run" and the "Wallace & Gromit" cartoons. They also take a pretty unsentimental look at the North Pole. In "Hooves," young Robbie (Ben Stiller), the son of Rudolph, has to contend with fierce and mean-spirited hazing by Blitzen (Grant), who vows to "crush him" and threatens him with a broken beer bottle. In the second feature, Blitzen is sent to prison. Not exactly visions of sugarplums.

But that's nothing compared to "The Santa Trap" (7 p.m., Pax). In this predictable 2002 Christmas comedy, it's Santa who ends up in the slammer. Shelley Long stars as a recently relocated New England mother who can't stand the torrid southwestern U.S. Christmas season. When her bored son (Brandon Michael DePaul) tells his sister, Judy (Sierra Abel), that Santa Claus is a myth, Judy sets out to ensnare the jolly old guy just to prove that he exists. Her plan works a tad too well, and Santa (Dick Van Patten) ends up in jail, where he befriends an amiable biker (Stacy Keach). Corbin Bernsen rounds out the cast as the police chief. Maybe this should have been renamed "Ghosts of Reruns Past."

Nobody ends up in jail in "A Scooby Doo Christmas" (7:30 p.m., WB). But the gang does unmask the twisted genius behind the headless snowman who has repeatedly ruined Christmas in the backwater town of Winter Hollow. Believe it or not, this is the first Christmas special for the cartoon, now in its fourth decade of Saturday-morning sleuthing.

Of course, viewers who care enough to watch the very worst Christmas movie of the year can catch the repeat of "Christmas Rush" (7 p.m., TBS), starring Dean Cain as a disgraced ex-cop who returns to action when a crook (Eric Roberts) takes over a mall, kidnaps Cain's wife (Elena Eleniak) and turns Christmas Eve into a hostage standoff. Charming.

  • With so many poor Christmas specials to choose from, it's no wonder viewers return to old favorites year after year. And tonight, there are three old chestnuts to cherish. The voice of Boris Karloff enlivens the 1966 favorite "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (7 p.m., WB). Burl Ives sings several favorites in the 1964 special "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" (7 p.m., CBS). And Linus explains it all in the 1965 cartoon "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (8 p.m., ABC).

Tonight's other highlights

  • William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy star in the 1986 sequel "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (7 p.m., UPN)
  • Los Lobos guest stars on a Christmas episode of "Greetings From Tucson" 8:30 p.m., WB).
  • Scheduled on "48 Hours Investigates" (9 p.m., CBS): Teenage boys murder a Secret Service agent's son.
  • A murder investigation leads Goren on the trail of a European con man on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (9 p.m., NBC).
  • Scheduled on "20/20" (9 p.m., ABC): Barbara Walters interviews President Bush.


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