With the C.D.C. advising against faithful friends who are dear to us gathering anywhere near to us, it’s understandable that we all might need some extra assistance getting into the holiday spirit this year. One of the few bright spots of the season, though, is the abundance of new Christmastime musical specials, helmed by some of our most beloved and benevolent divas. Thank the streaming wars, in part: HBO Max, Apple TV+ and CBS All Access have all jockeyed to get a different A-list angel atop their trees, perhaps in hopes that they’ll persuade you to subscribe to one of their services before your long winter hibernation (or at least forget to cancel before your free trial is over.) Whether gaudy, glorious excess or down-home simplicity, each offers a different take on a perplexing question: How do you stage a Christmas spectacular in decidedly unspectacular times?
First up is Carrie Underwood, whose “My Gift: A Christmas Special From Carrie Underwood” is streaming on HBO Max. A companion piece to her recent first holiday album, the stately and reverent “My Gift,” Underwood’s special finds her fronting an orchestra led by the former “Tonight Show” bandleader Rickey Minor. Featuring duets with John Legend and, adorably, her 5-year-old son Isaiah (whose pa-rum-pa-pum-pums are impressively on point), “My Gift” is relatively light on pizazz — save for the eight (!) increasingly dramatic costume changes. As Underwood’s stylists told “People” magazine in an article devoted entirely to all of her different “My Gift” outfits, the fact that the country powerhouse wouldn’t be moving around the stage much gave them an opportunity to “break out these giant confections of tulle and sequins that would never really be appropriate for any other event.” The most memorable is a crimson-tinged Diana Couture dress-and-cape number that suggests a cross between a bridal cake-topper and Jude Law on “The Young Pope.”
The splendor and stirring purity of Underwood’s voice is powerful enough that even a plunging ball gown adorned with literal angel wings cannot overshadow it. Underwood’s most sublime belting, though, doesn’t come until the penultimate set of songs, when she absolutely blows the roof off “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night.” It’s enough to make the relative restraint of the rest of the show pale in comparison. “We really wanted this special and my album to be something that people would return to year after year and not feel dated,” she told “People” and, accordingly, there’s nary a nod to 2020 in sight. It’s a safe choice in a production so full of them that, despite its ample cheer, ends up feeling a little hermetic and snoozy.
An offering not as worried about time-stamping itself is “Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special,” a star-studded entry from Apple TV+ in the Yuletide streaming wars. It’s certainly the most plot-heavy of the bunch (a neurotic elf played by Billy Eichner must restore Christmas cheer to a world low on tidings by booking an impromptu Mariah concert, or something), and the one with a wardrobe that most frequently luxuriates in the lack of F.C.C. oversight of streaming content. Perhaps when she wrote “All I Want For Christmas Is You” she was singing to double-sided tape.
Though a tad convoluted, Carey’s special is full of one-liners and knowing winks; when the elf has trouble tracking her down, she informs him, “It’s called elusive, darling.” Woodstock makes a brief, animated cameo (perhaps to remind us that Apple owns the streaming rights to the “Peanuts” specials, too), which provides a segue into Carey’s gorgeous, sultry rendition of “Christmastime Is Here.” A lot happens throughout these overstuffed 43 minutes, and the special could have done without some of the bells and whistles. The whistle notes, however, are another story.
The most diva-licious moment of the whole affair comes when Carey is joined by two very special guests, Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande — who she stages behind her, so that they end up looking like the Supremes to her Diana Ross. Classic elusive chanteuse. By the song’s finale, though, she’s invited them both to stand beside her and riff. It provides the opportunity for something the world has been waiting for ever since a young Grande earned the nickname “Baby Mariah”: They look at each other respectfully, inhale deeply, and harmonize their whistle notes. This must be the exact sound heard when the Covid-19 vaccine enters one’s bloodstream.
A woman who might know is Dolly Parton, generous Moderna vaccine trial donor and star of the heartwarming CBS special “A Holly Dolly Christmas.” An hourlong show originally made for Sunday-night broadcast on CBS (and now streaming on CBS All Access), hers is the most traditional of the bunch, and hardly the flashiest: “It’s not a big Hollywood production show, as I’m sure you’ve noticed,” Parton says, gesturing around a set meant to look like a homey church. But she also specifies, “We have managed to do this show safely …. testing, wearing masks and social distancing.”
Parton is such a charismatic presence that she doesn’t need guest stars, plot twists, or costume changes to keep this a transfixing show. Whether she’s hamming it up during “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” or filling the spiritual “Mary, Did You Know?” with empathic emotion, her special offers the crackling warmth of a hearth. Before singing her classic “Coat of Many Colors,” she tells a moving story about her late mother’s selflessness, her painted eyes brimming full of tears the entire time. Just try not to cry along with her.
Earlier in the fall, Stephen Colbert showed just how tall an order that is, when he was reduced to tears after Parton burst into a ballad a cappella during their televised interview. “Like a lot of Americans,” he explained, “I’m under a lot of stress right now, Dolly!” It’s nothing to be ashamed of, though: Plenty believe there’s something deeply cathartic about Parton’s voice and her overall demeanor. As Lydia R. Hamessley writes in her recent book “Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton,” “For many listeners, the restorative effect of Dolly’s music seems to flow to them directly from Dolly herself, so they often experience her as a healer.” Which sounds like something we could all use right about now. As Parton spins yarns about her humble beginnings and sings songs of enduring faith in the face of despair, “A Holly Dolly Christmas” might, actually, be an effective cure for the 2020 holiday blues.