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It’s hard to find a lousy episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but a good place to start would be the third season’s Christmas show, “The Alan Brady Show Presents,” in which the usual precision-tooled wit takes a holiday break and the lets the cast flounder in some self-indulgent variety-show routines.  If ever a series earned the right to phone one in during Christmas week, it’s Carl Reiner’s masterpiece.  But “The Alan Brady Show Presents” is part of an unhappy tradition, in which shows that should know better put their usual formulas on pause and pander to the season with religiosity and cheap sentimentality.  That’s how you ended up with Bewitched’s pagan Samantha and skeptic Darrin not only celebrating Christmas, but spending it in blackface.  Bah, humbug!

But every rule has an exception.  There’s one nearly forgotten Christmas-themed entry that may actually be the best episode of the series it was part of.  Called “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve,” it first aired in December 1966, during the second season of Run For Your Life.

A lower-stakes knock-off of The Fugitive, Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life starred Ben Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer who goes on a well-heeled walkabout after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.  “Time and a Half” strands him in a small town where he knows no one after some Christmas Eve engine trouble forces his flight to divert.  Stepping away from the other passengers to make a phone call, Bryan returns to find the terminal unexpectedly empty; everyone else has already caught a ride to a motel.  That moment of disorientation hints at “Time and a Half”’s true subject: it’s about being alone, literally or otherwise, during the holidays.  Bryan catches a ride with Harry Martin (Ernest Borgnine), a cab driver so hearty verging on overbearing that he hauls over to the side of the road and shows the Salvation Army Santa how to ring his bell harder.  (It’s a perfect role for Ernest Borgnine – another variation on Marty Piletti).  The pair end up in Harry’s favorite bar, a run-down dump that’s expectedly empty except for Sam (Charles McGraw) and Jeannie (Melanie Alexander), the bartender and waitress who pass for his best friends.  Although they’re fond of Harry, they’re not ready to party all night with him; Sam has a family and Jeannie a boyfriend, something the cabbie didn’t realize, or pretended not to.  As they close up the bar, Jeannie gives him a look and says something about “fifty miles north.”

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Harry is a proud loner who praises himself for having avoided the “traps” of ordinary life that burden other people.  Fifty miles north turns out to be where the wife and child he abandoned years earlier now live.  Urged on by Paul, who senses Harry’s deep-seated unhappiness, they pick up some last-minute gifts and undertake a road trip to find out what happened to the lost family.  That way lies heartbreak.  “Time and a Half” ends on an upbeat note, albeit a brief one, following a troubling climax which suggests, through a sharp metaphor, that suicide may lie in Harry’s future.  A. Martin Zweiback’s teleplay (from a story by Daniel L. Aubry) is full of wry details and smart dialogue.  Bryan learns of the airplane’s distress before the captain announces it because he happens to be sitting next to an airline engineer who hears the engine struggling: exposition dissolved in humor.  The walls of the podunk airport are adorned with a cheesecake calendar and a “Worms For Sale” sign.  “‘Bob,’ he asked disappointedly?” is Paul’s response when the stewardess he’s trying to pick up tells him she’s engaged to the pilot.  Although Paul Bryan was a ladies’ man through-and-through, this is one of the few episodes to acknowledge how casually he’s on the prowl; the script isn’t totally clear, but as Gazzara plays the scene, it sounds like the Christmas engagement he has to break is with another random hook-up.  Gazzara’s natural pensiveness makes him the perfect foil for the voluble Borgnine; the script never requires Bryan to call bullshit on Harry’s self-deceptive posturing, because the mix of amusement and pity playing across Gazzara’s face makes it plain that he knows the score.

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Directed by Michael Ritchie, soon to make acclaimed films like Downhill Racer and Smile, “Time and a Half” pushes the limits of how much visual creativity could be expressed on the Universal backlot.  Nearly all of the episode takes place at night, and the interiors are dark too, punctuated by pools of harsh artificial light that prove just as gloomy as the shadows.  (John L. Russell, who shot Psycho for Hitchcock and who would be dead before Christmas dawned in 1967, was the cinematographer.)  At least half a dozen familiar carols adorn the soundtrack, either as instrumentals or source music, and seasonal iconography – wrapped gifts, Christmas trees, lights on suburban houses – abounds, all with a conscious sense of rubbing it in.  The relentlessly Christmassy atmosphere is ironic, not festive.  Never sour or hostile, “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve ” is a still a pretty morose sort of holiday fable.  It’s Christmas from the point of view of the outsiders and introverts who will never be a part of the warmth and inclusiveness that most of television’s Christmases take as a given.

The best thing about “Time and a Half” is that it’s not a departure from the series’ premise but an ideal realization of it.  At its outset, Run For Your Life proposed a quest of self-discovery.  It was a show about a dying man who wants to figure out how to live – a great concept that allowed for Hemingwayesque excursions into physical daring, but also promised introspection.  In practice, of course, introspection is hard to pull off in prime time.  Run For Your Life never wholly abandoned its existential side, but too often it slid into espionage stories and other generic action formulas.  “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” is one of the few episodes that omits any element of physical danger whatsoever, an exception it was probably able to claim only because it was a Christmas episode.  Run For Your Life should have been that kind of show every week – but Huggins and Company only got away with it once, when all the flights were grounded.

Although it’s been shown on RTV recently and there’s a short clip on YouTube, “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” remains hard to find.  In the meantime, you might cue up the Bill Murray special A Very Murray Christmas – a new classic with an air of melancholy that reminded me of this episode.

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