I don't know what other Christmas-celebrating TV critics want from Santa, but somewhere after "world peace" and "quick loss of unsightly belly fat," I'm hoping the Netflix special "A Very Murray Christmas" will turn out to be a back-door pilot for new variety series hosted by Bill Murray.
Obviously, I'm not talking a weekly, live, audience-participatory, prank-heavy, give-away-laden "extravaganza" like Neil Patrick Harris' "The Best Time Ever" (which, if there is a god, no one will try to emulate). No, I'm thinking more along "The Carol Burnett Show" lines, but in the key of Murray, which is to say dolci yet dolente with moments of capriccio. Also occasional, as in "when the mood strikes him." I mean, what's the point of all these streaming services if they can't vary the definition of "series" a little more than they have?
Clearly Murray, a performer known for only doing things he really wants to do, misses at least the festive version of the variety-show genre. "A Very Murray Christmas," which he co-wrote with previous collaborators Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation") and Mitch Glazer ("Scrooged," also in need of a renaissance) is both paean and spoof of the classic holiday special in which beloved performers —Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Andy Williams, the Osmonds — spend an hour or two singing and dancing with equally talented friends who just happen to "drop by." (For those interested in the perils of live television and Christmas in an alcoholic family, "The Judy Garland Christmas Show" is hard to beat.)
In this version, Murray, playing himself, has agreed to do a star-studded Christmas special live from the Café Carlyle, itself a cabaret tradition. Unfortunately, a blizzard has paralyzed New York, which means none of his A-list guests — George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, etc. — can show up. Instead, he is left with an room filled only with seat-assigning placards (Pope Francis next to Iggy Azalea) and two slightly demented producers played by Amy Poehler and Julie White. Only the redoubtable Paul Schaffer on piano offers any aid at all.
As the evening devolves, an assortment of famous guests appear, some as themselves, many not. Michael Cera plays a young man making a hilarious pitch to be Murray's agent (he famously does not have one), Chris Rock is wrangled into a touchingly ragged version of "Do You Hear What I Hear" until the power goes out. "Force majeure," Poehler's producer cries as she scuttles off (possibly the first time that phrase has been uttered in a holiday special), leaving Murray to wander the dim recesses of the hotel mixing it up with waitresses, mending love affairs, eating the defrosting food and offering folks, including Jenny Lewis, Maya Rudolph and the Pogues, an opportunity to sing songs singed as much by torch as Yule log.
There's a dream sequence, of course, in which Cyrus and Clooney show up and the show gets shinier, funnier (Murray and Clooney goof off in fine Bing and Deano-style before singing "Santa Wants Some Lovin'") and, with a lovely rendition of "Silent Night" by Cyrus, briefly solemn.
Directed by Coppola and infused at every turn with Murray's plaintive deadpan and fine melancholy tenor, it's prickly and sweet, familiar yet abruptly non sequitur and gently, surprisingly modern. It's also less than an hour, which makes it more chaser than feast and leaves you wanting more.
Like the holiday spirit, the Murray variety hour is something we should probably experience year 'round.
'A Very Murray Christmas'
When: Anytime, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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