Christmas Comes to Pac-Land generally finds itself atop lists of weirdest and worst holiday specials. Ignoring most of the tropes associated with seasonal programming, Pac-Land is pretty upfront with its intentions. Essentially a 22-minute commercial for the Pac-Man video game series, Hannah-Barbara must have felt beholden to the game’s central plot, offering Pac-Man little or nothing to do outside of collecting power-pellets, fending off ghosts, and locating Christmas presents. Without any interest in contributing to the tradition of holiday television, Christmas Comes to Pac-Land teaches children to consume as quickly and gluttonously as possible.
In the 1980s, anything from cat-eating Aliens to Adolf Hitler could be turned into a TV show. The awkward partnership among television, movies, and video games turned the television landscape into an advertising old west, with plenty looking to cash in on the latest fads and trends. 1982 featured two of the era’s most memorable failures. The video game adaptation of the popular boy/alien rom-com ET left players in a pit of digital despair. After several months of sitting on shelves undisturbed, the millions of unsold ET cartridges were discarded into their own pit: an undisclosed landfill in New Mexico. Clearly, a franchise without content doesn’t equal success, but that wouldn’t stop the spread of Pac-Man fever and its cure, Pac-Man chewable multi-vitamins.
Christmas Comes to Pac-Land capped off a big year for Pac-Man. In January 1982, his spouse, Ms. Pac-Man, hit arcades across America. By March, novelty music masterminds Buckner & Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever” cracked the Billboard top ten and some thirty million active users played the game in the US alone. There were shirts, cookies, card games, and anything that could be made to fit the image of a yellow circle with a wide triangular mouth, so it’s no surprise that Hannah-Barbara saw potential in Pac-Man adventures to round out Saturday morning lineups.
Though the short-lived Pac-Man series is largely forgotten, the holiday special exemplifies shameless Christmas commercialism, and the paper-thin plot does little to hide it. Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (rebranded “Pepper” for the series), Pac-Baby, and Pac-Dog enjoy the wintry wonderland of Pac-Land. They walk through the forest collecting power-pellets and attack a mischievous gang of bumbling ghosts along the way. These scenes are pretty much all you could want, expect, or ask for from a show based on Pac-Man — there’s even an over-the-head god’s-eye view shot to evoke the video game — but since it’s Christmas, Hannah-Barbara shoehorns Santa Claus into the episode by way of a malfunctioning navigational system and a broken sleigh. With time running out on Christmas Eve, Pac-Man fixes Santa’s sleigh and goes in search of his bundle of Christmas toys. Unlike holiday classics like Miracle on 34th St or A Charlie Brown Christmas, the importance of presents really takes center stage here, which makes it the perfect precursor to a conversation with your parents about wanting Pac-Man for Christmas.
The show personifies all things Pac and shows them through a distorted lens. Pac-Land is made up of Pac characters with arms, legs, eyes, and as one ghost references, bones, calling attention to the anatomy of Pac-Man, which, frankly, disgusts me. Their days mostly consist of chomping power-pellets or ghosts, who also seem interested in chomping. The ghosts attempt to eat the Pacs and vice versa. It’s a sick system when personalities are added to the equation, particularly when the ghosts, so taken by Santa’s toys, are probably the spirits of children.
Christmas Comes to Pac-Land never understands what it's toying with nor does it bother to. Christmas specials exist to save Christmas and promote the spirit of the season. Got a mom or dad that needs to work late on Christmas? Maybe he or she should learn that career isn’t everything. Need a successor to your role as guardian of holiday cheer? Perhaps you should enlist the help of Tim Allen or Ernest. The point is, that when someone saves Christmas, they do so in ways that celebrate ourselves, the characters, or the holiday. These specials remove the sting associated with shopping, Black Friday, and all things Krampus. Pac-Land doesn’t even bother with anything of this nature. In true video game fashion, the show has simple rules: just get the toys back on Santa’s sleigh before time runs out.
Unwrap this lump of coal here:
Matt Schimkowitz is writer from NJ. Follow him @borntoslug.