i got a rock

Free The Great Pumpkin, You Ghouls

Sally Brown, captured at the exact moment she realizes Linus van Pelt is full of crap, in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Photo: CBS

More than a week has passed since Apple TV+ announced that it acquired the rights to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, as well as the other “Peanuts” holiday specials, and I’m still upset. Because of this new deal, the Halloween animated favorite, which has aired on broadcast television every year since 1966, will not be viewable there for the first time in 54 years. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and A Charlie Brown Christmas, broadcast-TV staples of the holiday season, also won’t air on either of their previous homes, ABC or CBS, this year. The only way to see them is on the streaming platform that gave us The Morning Show and Dickinson.

It is a gargantuan understatement to note that there are far bigger issues to be upset about right now than the relegation of children’s animated shows to a subscription streaming service, especially since Apple TV+, at least for this year, plans to make the specials available free to nonsubscribers for short windows of time around Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. But I am still upset about it. Evidently, I am not alone; nearly 200,000 people signed a Change.org petition demanding that the specials be restored to the more accessible airwaves. Is the semi-absence of Linus and his obsession with a sizable winter squash as pressing as the upcoming election or the rise in coronavirus case numbers? Of course not. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s this: It is possible to be outraged and distraught about a vast number of things at the same time.

There are a few reasons why this decision, sprung upon an unsuspecting public midway through October, when they were just blissfully assuming they’d be able to watch Charlie Brown say “I got a rock” at some point before Halloween, is upsetting. The “Peanuts” holiday shows are a long-standing tradition. Yes, for quite some time, you’ve been able to watch them on DVD or Blu-ray, but the fact that they would be broadcast often twice before the relevant holidays they commemorate made them available to everyone, regardless of whether they could afford a streaming subscription or a device that provides access to Apple TV+. As long as you had access to a television of any kind and a basic antenna, you and your family could watch.

While it’s nice that Apple is offering some amount of complimentary access to these shows, that still isn’t enough to make them accessible to everyone. The pandemic has made what should have been clear long ago abundantly so: that some families cannot afford the same technological luxuries — and yes, that includes things as seemingly basic as high-speed internet and Wi-Fi — as everyone else. Given the financial hardships that the pandemic has wrought, even more people may be cutting back on unnecessary expenses, including digital devices and subscriptions.

Watching The Great Pumpkin or A Charlie Brown Christmas is a ritual for a lot of Americans, one that parents — or at least baby-boomer, Gen-X, and some millennial parents who grew up watching them — relish sharing with their children. To take away that ritual during a year that has been filled with so much turmoil and heartbreak, when even trivial customs have felt sacred and special, just seems cruel. And even if you happen to own these half-hour programs in hard-copy form — full disclosure: I have all three of the core “Peanuts” holidays specials on DVD as well as Blu-ray — there was always something special about seeing them on TV in prime time; knowing they would be on at a specific time turned them into appointment television. While my son was in preschool and elementary school, those ABC broadcasts were our reminder to make sure we watched every year.

There’s another reason why 2020 feels like an especially important time for everyone to watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and that’s because of the messages it conveys. As I wrote in this piece four years ago, compared to A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Great Pumpkin is the much more honest and cynical piece of work, which is one of the things I admire about it. It tells the story of a young man who has faith in something so fervently, to the point that it may be indicative of mental illness, and who is completely mistreated by those closest to him.

But in 2020, I see The Great Pumpkin in a different light, because only a truly enduring classic can be interpreted through multiple lenses over time. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, as viewed in the context of our current climate, is actually the story of a young man who believes a conspiracy theory and will not listen to the many, many people who tell them he’s buying into some major fake news. Linus believes that an inspiring creature who radiates the color orange (clears throat) is going to bring him and everyone he knows tons of presents and spread joy throughout their American suburb. He’s the member of a cult of one, although he tries to double that following by recruiting Sally, which almost works until she realizes that Linus, that poor, trusting sap, has no idea what he’s talking about. (“What a fool I was!”) Unlike the defectors from the NXIVM cult, she doesn’t report his activities to legal authorities. She does threaten to sue, though.

(Speaking of which, which “Peanuts” characters do you think would join a cult, based on the evidence presented in the “Peanuts” holiday specials? Charlie Brown? Definitely. This is the kid who keeps running up to kick footballs that are pulled away from him; he would totally get sucked into something like that. Lucy? Yanker of footballs, sidewalk therapist who charges money for crackpot psychological analysis, total narcissist? She’d be a leader in the cult. Linus would consider it, then bail when he was told that the only way to truly give himself over to the organization was to let go of his security blanket. At that point, he’d gracefully bow out, then start texting his friends who were still in the cult and telling them about how Jesus Christ is still there for them. Snoopy would check it out, immediately sense that something about the whole enterprise seems off, then rescue everyone from the cult with the help of Woodstock. Together, they would bring everyone to a safe shelter, then treat them to a meal consisting of popcorn, toast, and fresh jelly beans.)

Sorry, I digress. But I am semi-serious about the value that The Great Pumpkin possesses, at any time, but especially this one. While Linus can be viewed, on the one hand, like a crusader for what he believes in, a guy who never loses hope — “Just wait till next year, Charlie Brown. You’ll see! Next year, at this same time, I’ll find a pumpkin patch that is real sincere!” — he can also be viewed as someone who refuses to consider logic, who ignores the science behind the Great Pumpkin, and who winds up missing out on the joy of being part of his community on a special night.

Linus van Pelt also observed something about the divisiveness between human beings that was true in 1966 and remains true now: “There are three things I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

This is a long way of saying that the insights and the simple pleasure that come from watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are as vital now as they were when the special first debuted. But to experience them in 2020, Americans will have to make more of an effort. In a year when just about everything has required extra effort, I’m sorry, but that just seems like a pumpkin patch too far.

Free The Great Pumpkin, You Ghouls