If you, like many people, are finding it difficult to rustle up some seasonally-appropriate holiday cheer this year — do not fear! For help is on the way, from the one true beacon of light who regularly reassures us that yes, there is good in the world, and in fact, angels DO exist and deign to walk among us. I am talking, of course, about Miss Dolly Rebecca Parton.
Dolly’s new TV special — nay, TV EVENT! — airs Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 9:00 p.m. on NBC. It’s called “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love,” and yes, that’s a really long title with a colon in it — but also if you haven’t set your DVR and cleared your schedule already, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
It’s based on Dolly’s childhood, and Dolly herself plays a character called “The Painted Lady.” There’s really nothing else you need to know. It’s going to be fantastic. Luckily for us, Dolly has a long and storied history of made-for-TV holiday movies and specials. Some are touching, some are bonkers, and all are magical, because: DOLLY. Here’s a completely biased recount of all of them, in recommended marathoning order.
This year in particular, we’re grateful for Dolly’s spirit and glamour. And in all seriousness, our thoughts are with those affected by the fires in Sevier County — home to Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Now get to watching!
A Smoky Mountain Christmas
- Airdate: 1986
- Notable colleagues: Directed by Henry Winkler; co-starring Lee Majors, Rene Auberjonois, and the guy who played Nick Tortelli on “Cheers,” Dan Hedaya
- Cameo by John Ritter
- Choreography by Paula Abdul (!!!)
- Grade: A+++++++
Dolly Parton plays Lorna Davis, a glam crossover-country star living in L.A. — but longing to get back to her roots. She decides to spend Christmas alone in a friend’s Smoky Mountain cabin, where she can eat squirrel stew and write some down-home songs. While there, she encounters (in order of increasing insanity):
- Nick Tortelli the slimy stalker paparazzo
- A sheriff who sexually harasses her and then for some reason wants to arrest her
- A family of seven Smoky Mountain orphans who have escaped the local children’s home, are squatting in the cabin, think that Lorna is an angel brought to earth (duh), and eventually want her to be their mother (duh, again)
- A ruggedly handsome hill-roaming recluse named Mountain Dan, who is rumored to eat kids and use their bones for weapons but who — surprise! — is actually super nice and a totally respectable love interest
- A mountain witch named Jezebel (no joke!) who travels around on a black horse, once boned the sexually harassing sheriff, and now has it out for Lorna.
Like, this witch has a legit CAULDRON, that she stirs with an oar! She tries to kill Lorna once by bewitching her until she almost jumps off a cliff (Mountain Dan to the rescue!), and again with a poisoned apple pie (an orphan’s tears to the rescue!). And then there’s a jailbreak, and a getaway sleigh, and a court case. No, it doesn’t make any more sense when you watch it, but it is: Amazing.
- “It may not be the best fruitcake in the world, but it sure don’t warrant no shotgun welcome.”
- “Don’t bother to fight it. It’s just a soothing, restful sleep….that will last for many, many years. Sweet dreams!”
- “What happened to me? I’ve been spending a lot of time under spells lately.”
“A Smoky Mountain Christmas” is available via several sketchy YouTube options, occasionally on Lifetime or CMT, or on a VHS tape for the bargain price of $79.98, per the ad above.
- Air date: 1996
- Notable colleagues: Roddy McDowell as Saint Peter
- Grade: A+++
Dolly Parton plays Ruby Diamond, a sexy, self-centered country lounge singer who says and does what she wants! …Until she dies in a car crash while trying to avoid hitting a deer. When she gets to Heaven’s waiting room:
- She’s wearing a white satin pantsuit
- Saint Peter totally slut-shames her and tells her that to earn her wings she has to return to earth and help a family in trouble by posing as a nanny. There are two rules, as follows:
- Her mission must be completed by midnight on Christmas Eve
- She has to avoid boning the widowed dad of said family (harder than it sounds, if you are Dolly Parton, and additionally wearing the outrageous fashions featured in this movie).
Hijinx ensue, during which Ruby brings Christmas back to the household; de-brattifies two bratty (because they’re hurting!) kids; and gets the workaholic dad to realize he’s been suppressing feelings of grief, that his kids need him now more than ever, AND that he’s in love with his colleague Allison.
Finally — spoiler alert! — Ruby gets her wings! She then sings the “Hallelujah Chorus” with a choir of angels and it’s fairly magnificent. It’s kind of weird too.
- “But I’ve got a lot of plans! I’ve got my career. I haven’t met the right man yet. Are you absolutely certain I’m dead?”
- “Now, we only have five and a half days left. So I suggest you two either catch the spirit or stay out of my way, because I intend to start decking the halls.”
- “You’re such a jerk, dad!”
“Unlikely Angel” is free on Amazon Prime.
A Country Christmas Story
- Air date: 2013
- Notable colleagues: Bryan McKnight, Mary Kay Place
- Grade: A+++
First of all, despite the title, this movie has literally nothing to do with Christmas.
Fourteen-year old Grace is biracial, from small-town Tennessee, and has a heck of a singing voice. Her dad — a professional musician played by Bryan McKnight — isn’t in the picture, and her mom is suuuuuuper bitter and freaks out when Grace finds her dad’s guitar and wants to play it. Instead of going to therapy and working their stuff out, Grace’s mom is like, “Music is for losers and no one ever succeeds. Go to computer club instead!” But Grace skips computer club to take some private music lessons with her adult choir director AT HIS HOUSE WHEN NO ONE ELSE IS THERE. But it’s cool. (Though this aired on Lifetime, so you never really know.)
Dolly Parton is holding a contest for the “Country Star of Tomorrow,” and the choir director encourages Grace to apply. Grace (and everyone in her town) is like, “Black people singing country music? HA HA good one,” until the choir director schools them with some culturally competent music history lessons. Grace makes it to the contest finals, held at Dollywood. Not only does she have to deal with microagressions, but after some bonding moments with her dad, her parents get into a big fight about being divorced or whatever. Dolly (played by herself!) sees this and visits Grace backstage, because Dolly is the best.
Grace is up against some REALLY country white teenagers, but is quietly confident as she sings her terrible original song about how her dad left and her mom is really bitter. Sorry, Dolly, I know you actually wrote this song, but lines like, “Why can’t you both just see / You didn’t divorce me / Don’t miss the plea I’ve written in my song” are objectively terrible. (They will still make you cry.) Does Grace win the contest? You’ll have to watch to find out! (Okay, spoiler alert: She may or may not win, but she wins.)
- “Country music doesn’t come in my color.”
- “Dolly Parton says you’ll never be able to do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.”
- “You know, a lot of people have been talking about how refreshing it is to have a young African-American girl singing country music. Of course, all of us musicians know that’s been the case since country music began.”
“A Country Christmas Story” is available on iTunes for a mere 99 cents.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
- Air date: 1982
- Notable colleagues: Burt Reynolds, Jim Nabors, Charles Durning, Dom DeLuise
- Grade: A++++
While not a made-for-TV movie, and having very little to do with the holidays, if you don’t experience Dolly Parton and a gaggle of prostitutes singing “Hard Candy Christmas,” above, your holiday season will surely feel hollow and incomplete.
Dolly Parton plays spunky brothel proprietress Miss Mona and Burt Reynolds is her love interest Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd in this surprisingly accurate musical retelling of the history of the famed Texas Chicken Ranch. Things are great until weirdo watchdog reporter Melvin P. Thorpe (played by Dom DeLuise) schemes to get the ranch shut down.
With a bit of sly commentary about moral panic and the ineffectual hypocrisy of politicians, this film is mostly worth watching for the scenes where Dolly sings and/or is resplendent in lingerie and shiny sequins gowns. A super-hetero scene where the Texas A&M football squad prepares for a Chicken Ranch field trip also gives us some insight into what this much-discussed “locker room talk” is really all about.
- “I’m gonna give you 30 seconds, you fancified fart.”
- “Got no peckers? Well I ain’t interested.”
- “Well, I always just thought if you see somebody without a smile, you give ‘em yours.”
“The Best Little Whorehouse” is available for purchase wherever classic family films about whorehouses can be found.
Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors
- Air date: 2015
- Notable colleagues: Jennifer Nettles, Ricky Schroder, Gerald McRaney
- Grade: A+++++
If you’ve ever heard the Dolly Parton song, “Coat of Many Colors,” you know 1) what true genius is; 2) what it means to ugly-cry; 3) about half of the plot of this movie. But there’s so much more!
Present-day Dolly Parton bookends this movie from a sleigh at Dollywood, which gives it some Christmas cred, and infuses it with meaning as she underscores with her trademark down-to-earth humility that this is a dramatized version of her actual life. The Parton family is poor in money but rich in love, however when mama Avie Lee (played by Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles) suffers a miscarriage, the family is thrown into despair and heartache.
Avie comes out of her depression by sewing a coat for young, precocious star-to-be Dolly, who wears it proudly until stupid Sanders family bullies make fun of her at school (spoiler alert — it’s because their own mom died! And they don’t have enough love in their lives!).
Dolly takes out her anger on her mom, but she’s really angry at God for taking away her unborn little brother. Her mom recounts some scripture about love never failing and her dad finally gets suckered into accepting the Lord as his savior (be forewarned that this movie is VERY churchy) and everything is pretty great again. “Coat of Many Colors” also introduces us to Dolly’s real-life best friend and personal assistant Judy Ogle, who is portrayed as something of a spooky tomboy superhero.
- “Lord, it’s me again, Dolly. Lord, you gave me daddy’s colors, and mama’s face. But I’m just plain old plain. You know, I’d rather be plain ugly than just plain. Then again, I’d rather be dead than ugly. So thank you, Lord, and forgive the complaint.”
- “Mama, tell us the story of Joseph and those mean brothers again!”
- “You old sour pickle!”
“Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors” is available on NBC.com.
Kenny & Dolly: A Christmas to Remember
- Airdate: 1984
- Notable colleagues: Kenny Rogers, mannequins, clown-elf-mime creatures, cocaine
- Grade: A+++++++++++++++++++++++++++
This is the pièce de résistance of any Dolly Parton marathon, and a holiday paean to the coke-fueled 1980s! The premise is that Dolly and Kenny are making a Christmas special, because after “Islands in the Stream” a ravenous public OBVIOUSLY clamored for more! It’s basically a series of videos loosely strung together with behind-the-scenes and “behind-the-scenes” footage, and some really fantastic winter attire.
Highlights include the world’s actual best song, “A Christmas to Remember,” which deserves a Pulitzer prize for Dolly’s outfit alone! This is a number about a holiday hookup, sung in a ski lodge populated with mannequins. (WHY?) It features Dolly singing the line, “With a fast talking lover and some slooooow burning wood / But even in my wildest dreams it never got this good.” HOW LUCKY ARE WE to live in a world where this exists and we can watch it instantly at our leisure? Answer: VERY EXTREMELY LUCKY!
There’s also the world’s other actual best song, “Christmas Without You,” where Dolly and Kenny do some WWI USO roleplaying and it’s all retro sexy effervescence, and the bit where the whole crew goes to the Children’s Hospital and Kenny and Dolly are Mr. and Mrs. Claus (in the world’s tightest pants!) and then some little girl named Sherry negs on her gift of tiddlywinks. (She’s not wrong, though.)
And then a “great musical tribute to the Prince of Peace” called “Once Upon a Christmas,” which is lovely and solemn… Until dancers dressed as the Three Wise Men start twirling around in insane wigs and fake beards in the church — and nobody even notices!
It is worth noting that throughout the special there are terrifying and mischievous but apparently benign dancing clown-elf-mime-looking mofos. FOR NO REASON! And then during the soft-rock closing number, these weird blue monster creatures with talons scurry all around and make disturbing noises. But Dolly and Kenny see them and just smile calmly, which is possibly a great spiritual lesson for us all.
- “Christmas: It’s the one time of the year that fantasy and reality can mix and mingle without any conflict.”
- “I never saw him again after that night, but our lives touched if only for a moment. ‘Cause it was the Christmas spirit that bound us all together that evening, which is as it should be, ‘cause nobody should be alone on Christmas.”
“Kenny & Dolly: A Christmas to Remember” lives forever in our hearts but is also on YouTube.
For 364 days out of the year, Tracie “Potes” Potochnik searches for her higher self in the hinterlands of basic cable. But one magical night a year she celebrates the real, true Christmas: January 19, aka Dolly Parton’s birthday.
“Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love” airs Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.