Retro Watch – “For Better Or For Worse: The Bestest Present”

Merry Christmas Eve, friends!

I’ve talked about Christmas specials that are timeless for a reason, and others that fall by the wayside, not quite made of the glory of the classic specials, but are still hidden gems of the holiday season.

It’s those hidden gems I enjoy writing about, especially when some aspect of it has a personal connection.

I’ll talk about that later in this article, but first…

The (Short, I Promise!) History Of For Better or for Worse

For Better or for Worse is a comic strip by Lynn Johnston, a Canadian cartoonist who wrote and drew the strip from 1979 until retiring in 2008, which still runs in over 2000 newspapers in the United States, Canada, and twenty other countries. Focusing on the Patterson family, who live in the fictional Toronto suburb of Milborough, the stories tell of the lives of parents Elly and and John, as well as their two (later three) children, Michael, Elizabeth, and April, and sheepdog Farley (and later, Edgar). Their friends, relationships, and lives evolved over the course of the strip’s twenty-nine years, with the characters initially based on Johnston’s own family, with significant changes. While her children (Aaron and Katherine, or Katie) were young, she asked their permission before depicting something from their lives, with only one serious storyline coming from a real-life experience involving Johnston’s son Aaron (the inspiration for Michael). Johnston’s infertility resulted in April, the Patterson’s surprise third child (surprising, since Elly was nearing menopause), who was born on April Fool’s Day in 1991.

Once the series ended in 2008, the comic was sent into reruns, with retouches to the dialogue. This was dropped in 2010 in favor of straight reruns, with minor alterations. The series started over again from the beginning, and as of 2016, reruns from 1987 were appearing in newspapers.

The Patterson Family made the leap from the Sunday Funnies to animation in the mid-1980s, as well as several animated specials in the 1990s. It is that first special, a Christmas story from 1985, that is the subject of this Christmas Eve Retro Watch.

The Specifics

For Better Or For Worse: The Bestest Present was a 1985 special animated by Ottawa-based Atkinson Film-Arts, they of the first two Care Bears specials, as well as the animated syndicated series based on Worlds of Wonder’s The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin talking bear and book series. The special originally aired on CTV in Canada, and HBO in the United States, before moving to The Disney Channel.

Promo from CTV’s CJOH (Ottawa’s owned-and-operated CTV station), 1988. Upload via robotsea2009

This actually came up on my “Recommended” list on YouTube in – of all times, July – so I watched it on my treadmill. I’m not sure if I’d ever seen it prior to then (I only had the Disney Channel once it became a regular part of the cable lineup, but that was in the mid 1990s), but I kept it in the back of mind for Christmas writing.

So, without anymore further ado than the “ado” I’ve already put out there, the story of the Patterson family and “the bestest present!”

The Bestest Present

The opening credits of The Bestest Present are a montage of clips unrelated to the story, played under a song saying that “Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m nuts. I wouldn’t trade it for anything better…or for worse!” as the Patterson family goes about their daily lives – Elly tripping with the laundry basket, Michael reading under the blankets under the guise of sleeping, Elizabeth brushing the “teeth” of her plush rabbit (and Farley!).

There’s Farley drinking out of the toilet, Elly ripping the arm of her own shirt, while mending something for Elizabeth (as Elizabeth laughs), husband John closing his dental practice for the night, only to have a patient show up, Michael contemplating blowing out a candle, only for his sister to do the honors, all wrapping up nicely for the title card of the special.

It’s cute because it is all relatable.

As the actual story begins, Michael is on the bus, coming up on his stop, when he offers up a moldy orange to the other kids. Seriously, did no one check his lunchbox…ever? He takes to squeezing it in his friend Lawrence’s face, before getting off the bus in the rain.

Michael hops over the fire hydrant and hops in a puddle on his way into his home, where he tracks in plenty of water in his boots. It is the last day of school before Christmas break, and with John working later that evening, Elly informs the kids that they will be eating dinner downtown, and going to a pre-Christmas sale at Philpott’s.

As Elly prepares the kids to go out, Michael asks if they can have junk food, and if Elly will buy him something. The response to his questions is a simple, open-ended “we’ll see,” to which she asks Michael if he thinks he can behave himself shopping for two hours.

Michael’s response?

Yup, you guessed it.

“We’ll see.”

Maybe in the Patterson house, or in animated holiday specials, this kind of stuff flies. But in the Venezio house, certain twins saying this wouldn’t. But then again, I never liked this response from my parents either. It was always easy for “we’ll see” to become “heck no” super fast.

Anyway…

Elizabeth realizes she almost forgot her bunny, and grabs it off the floor and leaves the house with Elly and Michael. The kids argue over the front seat, and both wind up in the back, which is exactly how this type of situation would have been handled in my house.

Score one for realism, friends!

Michael asks Elly if she had snow at Christmas, and she tells the kids about what she did when it snowed – played in it, carolled on it. Michael says that maybe they’ll get some snow this year, but too bad Elly is “too old” to enjoy it.

Whoah, this kid! This is definitely realistic enough, but man, what a brat!

She responds equally sarcastically with “get lost, kid.”

Score one for mom!

In Philpot’s, the store is bustling with Christmas spirit and shopping, and Michael gets to go look at the toy section, where he runs into Lawrence, and they look at a train together. Michael pulls his mother’s shopping cart (she’s conversing with Lawrence’s mother, Connie) closer to the train display, so Elizabeth can see, and in the process, her bunny drops out of the cart. But this goes unnoticed, as the children can each buy something under three dollars, and they’re going to dinner at the coffee shop. The kids are happy with all of this, and they leave Philpott’s, and Elizabeth’s bunny, behind.

Back at home, Elizabeth declares that they got “lots and lots of stuff!” when they see John has arrived home. John asks Elly “are you sure you didn’t forget anything,” to which Elizabeth reacts in shock “my bunny!” and begins to cry. John agrees to go find her bunny. In the hustle and bustle of the department store, the bunny gets kicked around, and eventually placed on a toy shelf, where it slips off. John investigates the store, and asks around. He even walks past the bunny, siting on a floor near shelves of toys, but overlooks it. The store closes, and he has to leave without it.

Back at home, John tells Elly about his no avail search, and tucks Elizabeth in, with the reassurance that even without her bunny, everything will be ok. He sings her to sleep, and despite the difficulty without the bunny, she does fall asleep.

Meanwhile, as Philpott’s closes, a store janitor laments over the condition of the store and how kids behave at Christmas. It is during his sweeping that he finds Elizabeth’s bunny, and knows it was made by a Grandma, and that it “looks how he feels.” He takes it to his desk in the back of the store, and puts it with a picture of his wife, where it promptly flops over. He knows that this bunny is missed.

The next morning, Farley wakes up and begins sniffing the ground, before running into Michael, who tackles Farley to play with him. Elizabeth walks past in a sad, thumb-sucking state. He tries to help, mentioning decorating the tree and that Elizabeth can have his teddy for five or ten minutes (what a nice brother, I guess), but wishes there was something he could do to help his sister.

While preparing the ornaments for the Christmas tree, Michael asks Elly what do adults do when they lose something. Elly informs him that they put an ad in the paper, in the lost and found column. Michael reads through the section, and suggests putting an ad in the paper for Elizabeth’s bunny, to which Elly replies that those kinds of ads are for valuable lost items. Michael believes Elizabeth’s bunny to be valuable, so Elly says she’ll help Michael with sending an ad to the local newspaper. She reminds him that it might not work, and Elly says she’ll have to find something to replace the bunny for Elizabeth.

Michael writes the ad:

“Big Reward! If anyone found my sister’s white toy bunny, lost at Philpott’s Store, please return it to Lizzy Patterson.”

He includes the address and emphasizes “Big Reward!” a second time. Of course, he spells it “Reword,” but the effort is what counts most. Michael convinces an initially resistant John to bring the ad to the newspaper office during his errands that day. His agreement makes Elly happy.

Meanwhile, the radio announcement earlier said that there would, in fact, be a white Christmas, and sure enough…

A montage of snow play comes with the happy voices of children singing about nothing being more wondrous as a first snow. Even Farley likes the prospect of fresh snow…and romance.

It is after this snow play that Michael and Elizabeth run home, and the newspaper on the front porch opens to reveal Michael’s plea for Elizabeth’s bunny’s safe return.

The ad is read by the janitor from Philpott’s, who contemplates why anyone would put an ad in the paper for a lost stuffed bunny, and who would bother sending it back. He says to himself that if the person couldn’t look after the bunny properly, then they don’t deserve to have it back.

Meanwhile, the mailman arrives with a few packages, and Elly wishes him a Merry Christmas, but she’s clearly annoyed with Michael not getting up to answer the door. John comes into the room and reminds them it is Christmas Eve, and to argue about it some other time. Michael feels relief at being saved by his dad.

Meanwhile, Farley sniffs the packages, and senses something familiar about one of them.

On Christmas Day, the family is opening presents, and Michael is excited over his new toy robot (which Farley hates), John likes his new exercise equipment, Elly loves her back scratcher, and Elizabeth gets a new stuffed giraffe. Elly tells her that she now has something new she can take to bed at night, and the bunny seems forgotten momentarily, until Michael says it can “replace her bunny,” which brings up sad feelings again. She likes her bunny!

Michael counters by saying that there’s one more present from the previous day’s mail, addressed to Elizabeth. She opens it up to reveal…

The Christmas Miracle!!!!

The package had come from Philpott’s, and John calls a friend of his, the assistant manager at the store. Elly gets him to call his friend to let him know the bunny was found. He tells Elly and Michael that there is an older man, a night watchman that works there, and also cleans up the place, named Walter. Mark, the friend, provides John with a phone number and address for Walter, to which Elly insists John call him.

And despite resistance (he’s two-for-two on resisting, and we’re not even done with the cartoon yet!), Elly gets John to call Walter to let him know how happy he made Elizabeth. After hanging up the phone, Walter tells his wife’s picture that it was nice to make someone happy. And because “thank you” is not enough, the Patterson family invites him to join them for Christmas dinner.

Elizabeth declares that getting her now-cleaned up bunny back is the “bestest present all the whole day.” Michael reminds them that Walter needs a reward, to which Walter feels being with special people is more than he could ever ask for.

As the credits close out on a view of the Patterson house, the family talks about the holiday, and Farley gets let out, because Elizabeth was feeding him mashed potatoes.

Walter declaring this to be a “happy day” rounds out Christmas with the Patterson family…for better or for worse.

See what I did there?

Home Media

For Better Or For Worse: The Bestest Present wasreleased to home video in 1986 by Family Home Entertainment, having previously debuted on December 5, 1985 on HBO, and December 14, 1985 on CTV. Like many specials of its time, it has fallen out of rotation of “classic” holiday specials, but has since found life on YouTube, where home video copies of it are published. I actually found my print of the special on archive.org. The special also aired on The Disney Channel in the 1980s, after its initial broadcast on HBO, but I’m not sure when that stopped, or how long it was shown on CTV. Aside from the Family Home Entertainment release, and any corresponding release in Canada, there has never been an official DVD release.

The Funny Pages

Grandma and Grandpa, 1961

My grandfather was a huge fan of Sunday Funnies (and Popeye cartoons!), and I loved spending time with him reading the Funnies together – I would read some of the ones I could understand the best, and he would read his favorites to me. It was one of those bonding experiences we had when I was younger. He liked For Better or for Worse, and even though I didn’t understand the stories, spending the time with him as he read The Asbury Park Press was always time well spent. He loved his comics, and I loved the opportunity to listen to him, and to his amused laugh when something struck him funny. Twenty years after his passing (he died in October 2000, at 86 years old), the Sunday Funnies is still one of my favorite memories of him. Not understanding For Better or for Worse is one of those great memories.

Reaction

I’m still not sure if I ever watched The Bestest Present as a kid. As I said, I didn’t have The Disney Channel until the mid 1990s, but we had HBO in the mid-1980s. I just don’t recall having seen this before it showed up in my “recommended list” on YouTube. Of all the For Better or for Worse specials, the only one I’d seen prior to this one was A Storm in April around the time I got The Disney Channel. There are several specials, and apparently a season’s worth of short episodes. The latter have had a proper DVD release. I’ll have to eventually take a look at those, I really do like this special, as it hits on the “true meaning of Christmas,” while not being overly saccharin and preachy. The comics, like this special, dealt in realism, and never made anything look unrealistic. Can’t say that about most Christmas-themed cartoons.

The dialogue is so much better than most Christmas specials, as it never relinquishes the “realistic” tone the comics are known for, the animation is standard 1980s (and Atkinson Film-Arts), and the story is cute. We all have that one very special gift we got for Christmas (think about it, you know of something!) that we would consider “the bestest present.” What kid couldn’t relate to this?

A Second Christmas for the Pattersons

Another Christmas special fell into the sequel specials released in the mid-1990s. As Atkinson Film-Arts folded in 1989, those special were produced by a different Canadian animation group, Lacewood Productions. The second Christmas special, A Christmas Angel, premiered in December 1992 on CTV and The Disney Channel. From a cursory look, the animation in this special is much better than that of the Atkinson Film-Arts version (which always had a distinct animation style). By this point, Michael and Elizabeth are older, and April is part of the family. There is even a short segment (6 1/2 minutes) from the 2000 For Better or for Worse series, “Eggnog and Nutmeg,” that depicts the Patterson family at Christmas in the late 1990s.

So they’ve celebrated Christmas a few times, but of course, there had to be a first special, and it truly was special…in a good way.

And if you’re looking to recapture the memory of seeing this one (or want to watch it for the first time), it is on YouTube for your enjoyment!

Upload via Robert Coates Returns

Merry Christmas!

I actually wrote this (and both Throwback/Flashback articles) earlier this week, in anticipation of my own Christmas Eve and Day celebrations. My blog would almost feel incomplete without something Christmasy and…recappy. I really enjoyed writing this, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it.

If you have any memories of seeing this special, I’d love to hear them, or of any seemingly obscure Christmas specials. I’d also love to hear about your “bestest present” too!

We’re one day away from Christmas, and Allison’s Written Words isn’t finished yet!

Have a great day!

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s