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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Overcast
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Christmas Incorporated
The holiday sells out in The Year Without a Santa Claus
Santa and his wife become a toy-delivery division of  SantaCo.
Santa and his wife become a toy-delivery division of SantaCo.

Filmmakers always think they're being clever by putting Santa Claus in a contemporary context. But it's become the Christmas season's most common cliché: the jolly old elf dealing with a cynical modern world that doesn't believe in him anymore.

For the first half-hour, The Year Without a Santa Claus (Monday, 8 p.m., NBC) squeezes a few laughs from the familiar scenario. Against his will, Santa (John Goodman) has become corporatized. 'I'm not Santa Claus anymore,' he complains to his wife (Delta Burke). 'I'm a toy-delivery division of SantaCo.'

Santa's manager is Sparky (Chris Kattan), a fast-talking elf so heartlessly opportunistic that he gives Entourage's Jeremy Piven a run for his money. Sparky is obsessed with Santa's market position and insists on making him relevant to today's kids. He pushes a new action figure called Extreme Santa, a cross between Tony Hawk and Spiderman. 'He's ripped,' Sparky tells Santa excitedly. 'He wears a skintight green jumpsuit and flies around on a snowboard powered by the magic of awesomeness!'

This opening was so funny that I audibly groaned when The Year Without a Santa Claus finally settled into a creaky holiday story about a child with the true spirit of Christmas. Hey NBC ' how about a spinoff series featuring Sparky? And another one featuring Extreme Santa? Don't underestimate the magic of awesomeness.

Tsunami, the Aftermath
Sunday, 7 pm (HBO)

Can you imagine an American TV movie about the 2004 tsunami? We'd meet a group of good-looking victims-to-be, get their sentimental backstories shoved down our throats, then ogle a giant special-effects wave so bitchin' that we'd forget all about the story's tragic dimension and mutter, 'Cool.' A half-hour of courageous rescues would end just in time for the 10 pm news.

Luckily, Tsunami, the Aftermath is a British production. It handles the story with tact and subtlety ' not an easy job with a tragedy this cataclysmic.

The opening offers a taste of the dramatic finesse to come. Guests at a Thai resort float way out at sea on a diving boat. They see a body in the water ' a scary moment that gets scarier when they see another body. And another....

It turns out that they've missed the tsunami. But their loved ones, back at the resort, haven't. The film flashes back 24 hours and portrays the families about to be broken apart. When the tsunami hits, we get just enough horror to understand the event's magnitude, but not so much that we feel the filmmakers are indulging themselves.

The riveting story that follows involves a young couple looking for their child, an overwhelmed British official trying to manage the chaos, and a reporter searching for the truth. I suggest watching it on high ground.

The Lost Room
Monday, 8 pm (Sci Fi)

In this gripping miniseries, a detective (Peter Krause) investigates a motel key with the power to change reality. He learns that the key came from a motel room where something terrible happened ' so terrible that God got very, very angry.

I think I've stayed in that motel room myself. It was a La Quinta Inn in Memphis, and was so outrageously grungy that you just knew mankind would be punished for it.

100 Greatest TV Quotes & Catchphrases
Monday-Friday, 9 pm (TV Land)

That's right ' it's five full days' worth of TV quotes and catchphrases. I know you're tempted to say 'Hasta la vista, baby,' but I swear you won't want to miss a single entry as TV Land charmingly counts down the top 100.

The series subjects such phrases as 'How sweet it is,' 'Mom always liked you best' and 'Let's be careful out there' to an almost scholarly scrutiny. A breathtaking lineup of minor TV personalities (Morgan Fairchild, George Takei et al.) analyzes the phrases and reflects on their staying power.

The one insight I took away from the series is the fact that anybody, no matter how untalented, can achieve immortality by means of a memorable catch phrase.

So that about wraps up another blurb roundup, pardners! Hi-de-ho!

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride
Tuesday, 9 pm (Starz)

A who's who of writers and movie stars are interviewed for this tribute to the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson. They search for words to describe the larger-than-life figure who put himself at the center of his reporting: 'a mad, crazy poet,' 'a moral outlaw,' 'an old-fashioned anarchist.'

You think they're exaggerating Thompson's lunacy until you see the clips of the man in action. In shades and cigarette holder, he's filmed at his Colorado home blowing stuff up with guns, dynamite and flame throwers. His penchant for explosions also found an outlet in his prose, which torpedoed the journalistic conventions of the 1960s and '70s. Thompson's 'gonzo' style was fueled by drugs, alcohol and righteous indignation, blurring the line between fact and fiction.

After sketching out Thompson's career, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride explores the movies made from his books. But I never saw that part. I got so carried away that, at about the 30-minute mark, I blew up my television with a hand grenade. Can someone tell me how the documentary ends?

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