Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Very Merry MeTv Blogathon Presents: MacGyver S5:E11 The Madonna!

Director: Michael Caffey
Writer: Cathleen Young
Originally aired on December 18, 1989

 Father Lafferty brings on the shine!
There was a Madonna there just a minute ago
During its first two seasons (from 1985-1987), MacGyver was one of my favorite TV shows. It was the only hour-long American TV show I watched regularly during my childhood. For reasons that I still don't fully fathom, I could not handle 60-minute shows when I was younger. However, MacGyver was different. He was the hero I wanted to watch on TV. He was the non-violent James Bond with awesome, awesome hair. He was Indiana Jones but in the thick of the 1980s. The show knocked me out every week. I stopped watching it in 1987. Mac left my life. But, his memory hasn't. So, when I got the chance to return to the show...  and to have it be with the Christmas episode...  I was in. All the way.

But, something had changed since I last watched it. And, even though it had been 30 years, it wasn't me. It was MacGyver.

 Mac! The Mullet is getting a little long...
"The Madonna" tells several stories over the course of one day, I think. It's probably Christmas Eve. (The timeline is a little wonky even when the heart and soul is there.) A hand-carved wooden Madonna goes missing from St. Mary's church. The Challenger Boys & Girls Club, a downtown mainstay for the kids of the inner city, is about to close down due to the constraints of a new lease. An old homeless woman named Carol is assaulted by two punks who try to steal her shopping cart. Mac is feeling melancholy because he lost his mom at Christmas a long time ago. There is a disaffected young man named Breeze who, if he only focused, could keep all the kids at the Club together but he's fading. There is a little girl named Violet who gets stage fright playing an angel during the Club's big Christmas Pageant. And, the folks at the Club can't figure out how to get the stage set up properly. These stories (and a few other bits) dance around one another tied together by Mac and Pete trying to bring everyone a Merry Christmas, via lots of gifts from the Phoenix Foundation.

 Pete and Mac loading the truck
 Carol in the alley
 Carol attacked by two very calm thugs
As one might guess from those plot-lines, there are no mad computers trying to destroy Mac in underground installations. There are no South American dictators trying to prevent him from leaving their country. There are no daring escapes made off of huge clifftops. Mac never hangs from a bridge. In fact, he does none of the things that the opening credits montage of this episode promise. The episode is actually a series of stories about people in the inner city trying to survive a semi-rough Christmas with MacGyver and Pete hanging around. Mac only has one moment where he does something "MacGyver-like" and that's when he helps the kids move the stage. I thought the episode would involve Mac going deep into Vatican City to rescue a kidnapped child or retrieve a painting or something. What was going on? Is this a different MacGyver? His mullet is much longer here but that could just be the late 1980s. Were there two shows named MacGyver at this time?

 Mac is shopping Outside The Box

So, I watched the episode that aired before "The Madonna" and the episode that aired after it. I thought that absorbing some context might help me assimilate this oddness. The episode before "The Madonna" features Audrey Landers as a Lita Ford-esque rock star singing about getting everyone off drugs. (For fans of SOV, this was made a few years after Audrey and her sister Judy were in the very odd German action film Deadly Trigger.) The episode after it, "Serenity", features Mac dreaming that he's in the Old West after Pete and him have a fight. There were moments in them that I recognized from the MacGyver I knew but I was still confused. I could find no evidence of the Challenger Boys & Girls Club in either of them. Were all these characters brand new to the show? Were they regulars? The MacGyver Wiki was no help. So, I did this...  I imagined that we hadn't seen these characters before and got on with my life.

 Outside The Club
 Breeze and Cynthia

This sounds like poor research on my part. In one way, it is. In another, it isn't. Because this is a Christmas episode. Because at Christmastime (which I dearly love) I watch all sorts of shows that I never ever watch except at Christmastime. For example, Bewitched. I only seem to watch this show in December and it is only the Christmas episodes. So, I have no idea if I'm getting an accurate representation of the show. I am, however, getting an accurate representation of the show as it sees itself at Christmas. So, "The Madonna" is MacGyver at its optimum for the holiday in Season 5. So then, if Mac isn't saving the world or a country or doing crazy stuff...  if he is in fact caught in the middle of an episode of, I don't even know, Family or The Facts of Life, how is it? Is it good?

 Plot Point! And such a good one...

Well, I'll start with the fact that it is very modern-day paced. Several plot-lines going at once. Each plot thread gets a few scenes. Each scene is important. Almost everything that happens is important. Some plot-lines are slightly underdone, like what exactly is wrong with Breeze. Some go a little overboard, like Cynthia's problems keeping the club open. Some are slightly vague...  what is the full story with Mac and his mother? The pacing works to the episode's advantage. Plot elements are touched upon and then it moves to the next bit. Certain scenes, like Violet giving Mac a gift, seem like sweet unrelated moments that pay off later. The episode is structured as tight as a drum. The Madonna portion of it is a little vague (partially because it is lifted from one of the Dragnet Christmas episodes) but that make perfect sense in the end.

 There's where the emotion begins!
This Santa is gamey.. 
Harry & Billy didn't look this rough...

The problem with the episode is the same problem a lot of Very Special Episodes had in the 1980s: they are incredibly overwrought. It's all extremely melodramatic. Father Lafferty at the church has an Irish housekeeper who is Very Irish. Cynthia and Breeze immediately have a confrontation about his not being more help to the club and him not caring. But, as mentioned, his general disaffection is left vague. Mac's problems with his Mom at Christmas hang over the episode, heavy. Three people (Mac included) have bad memories of Christmas and lost loved ones. Three! Soap operas don't go that heavy. The music is over dramatic. They're losing the club. The Madonna is gone. The...  it's a bit much. And, pivotally, I could not imagine how MacGyver could save the day here. Even if he had a ball of twine, some super glue and a bag of frozen chickpeas, some people would go home unhappy.

Mac Does His Stuff! 
Weights under the stage! 

The thing that the episode does beautifully is manipulate my emotions. I could almost give you the exact time when my walls broke down and the tears started flowing. (Not actually something that happened in the first two seasons of the show.) It was when Mac encounters Mr. Battaglia in the church. The actor who plays Mr. Battaglia is in a vacuum because he isn't actually involved with much of the rest of the show. His moments are very powerful and the reveal of what he has stashed away in a box is fantastic. That scene with him and Mac brought on the tears...  that's the one that worked. The eternal struggle between how wonderful Christmas is and the sadness of dreams that don't come true. Prayers that are unanswered. There's the heart breaker.

 Mac talks to Stage Fright Violet

 "I loved you in Stargate!"
 "I loved you in Ginger Snaps!"

And the rest of the episode works from there. The pageant, the angels, Breeze, the songs, the reveal of what happened with the Madonna...  and the final moments...  And here is where I have some reviewing problems. The whole episode is wrapped up and worked out quite beautifully. What seemed like a ripoff of Dragnet turns out to be a riff on Dragnet.  The one clue we have towards the missing Madonna is a trick and then a trick on a trick, which is so smart and so well done. What seems overly-sentimental is still overly-sentimental but effective. Pauline Kael said (I forget in which review) that it is perfectly acceptable for a movie to bring you to tears while, at the same time, you damn the film for manipulating you to those tears. That's how I felt here. Tears flowed from my eyes. I cheered once or twice. The closing moments made me shiver. It was perfect audience manipulation. Did I appreciate it? Yes. Yes, I did. I watched the episode three times for this review and even when I knew what was going to happen...  the episode works. That is a successful piece of television. However overwrought or embarrassingly overemotional it is. That's a good thing. I don't deny the saccharine setup. But, I do applaud the payoff. Look at the first Back to the Future. Overdone setup leads to beautiful payoff that we still celebrate today. Even moments of It's A Wonderful Life (which Back to the Future is a strange inversion of) are like this.

Loves Lost

Is it good MacGyver though? That I can't say. The Mac Wiki says that in Seasons 4-7 the show was more about social ills rather than James Bond style adventures. So, this episode and the two around it are good representations for what the show had become. But, why did the show become that? Who wanted Mac to become a Big Brother and deal with the War Against Drugs? It wasn't me. But then, I left the show. Maybe it was mad at me? The majority of the show occurred when it had this format...  something must work here. It's time to revisit.

 Light on cash!
 Will a song save the day?

Is it a good Christmas episode? Well, it's not snowy, which is a drawback. But, it is cold. Breath is visible. As the episode is set in California, in December, that's a rarity during the day. So, Mac got a good season for this. There is a lot of Christmas going on. And that's nice. But, it does get buried in all the plots. The Breeze plot isn't very Christmas-like. But, Violet as the angel is. Losing the Club isn't Christmas-like. But, Mac's trouble, linked with I'll Be Home For Christmas, is. I think they could have made a much more Christmas-feeling episode of the show. I really do. But, this is what we have. And, for what it is, it works.

 Mac's Heart Breaks during "I'll Be Home For Christmas"

I've rambled on quite a bit about this episode. I did that because it did have a strong effect on me. It did touch me. But, it also manipulated me, shamelessly. I don't think I expected an episode of TV from 1989 to twist me around this much. I love Mac. I love what he gets up to. I didn't expect the riff on Dragnet. I also didn't expect all the kitchen sink drama. As mentioned, I watched this three times. Each time I had a slightly different response but, in the end, I had tears in my eyes. I smiled at the fact that the spirit of Christmas got to me again. Got to me from a different place. From another spot that I didn't expect. That's why I love Christmas. Each year's nostalgia builds upon nostalgia of the previous years. So every year one brings the emotions and memories of previous years into the season and builds on them with new emotions and memories. "The Madonna" will be something I come back to in the future. That is a good thing. That is joy. That is Christmas.

I don't want to fully spoil the ending
but here are some images...

I had wanted to ruin the ending because I have a theory about what happens. Well, I gave out that theory on an episode of the Made For TV Mayhem podcast. As soon as it comes out, I will link us there....

Update! December 12, 2015: I am part of a podcast called The Made-For-TV Mayhem Show. In Episode 7, which should be posted during Christmas week, I give my theory about what happens in the ending. Hearing me say it...  I was convinced. As soon as the show goes up, I'll give a link and the minutes when I talk about it. (Although, you should listen to all of it.)

Update Update! Go to the 84 minute mark of the podcast. That's where I start talking about this episode...  and where I give my theory on what is happening.

Made-For-TV Mayhem podcast Episode #7

Merry Christmas!
Standby for Happy Days Christmas during Christmas Week!


  1. I agree with your thoughts on nostalgia. These Christmas episodes of TV shows we watched as children seem to grow with emotion and meaning as we get older. Thank goodness MeTV is airing them again.

  2. It certainly was a different MacGyer episode, but--like you--I applaud the show's makers for going for the emotions in a holiday-themed outing. This one doesn't pop up on TV much, which makes it extra fun.