Prep & Landing 2: Naughty Vs. Nice debuts tonight on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
The original Prep & Landing was a terrific surprise. It came out of nowhere, in a time when it seems like most new holiday specials are cynically designed to run for about five years, then fade into the ether. It featured no recognizable characters, instead basing its story on two Christmas elves, one of whom had career anxiety. It took a very Pixar-ish tack at telling its story, by showing the hidden underbelly of a fantastical world we thought we knew well and also giving its characters fairly adult drives and motivations. And it was a surprise ratings success, launching with big numbers pretty much out of nowhere, again despite having none of the typical things you’d expect of a new holiday special. Hell, it even won an Emmy. Naturally enough, a sequel couldn’t be far behind.
In the grand tradition of sequels, Prep & Landing 2 isn’t as good as the first one—mostly because there’s no way it could be so purely unexpected—but it’s still a damn fine time at the televised Yule log. There’s no reason this should trump the original in future broadcasts, but if the network decides to show them back to back, well, that wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. Tonight, it’s paired with A Charlie Brown Christmas, which might seem a little odd, and the sentimental streak is more forced here than it was in that earlier special. But there’s still enough sentiment—and earned sentiment, at that—here to make it seem like not too odd of a fit.
If there’s a big complaint here, it’s that the special doesn’t focus on the relationships much of the first special spent all that time building. There, the relationship between the frustrated, neurotic Wayne (Dave Foley) and the simple-minded, doltish Lanny (Derek Richardson) became surprisingly poignant over the course of 20 minutes and change. That special also spent a nice chunk of time delineating the elves at Santa’s command central, particularly Magee (Sarah Chalke) and her never-seen helper, Tiny, who’s just the bell at the top of an elf hat barely seen above tables and counters and such and is also responsible for one of the sneakiest oral sex gags I’ve ever seen smuggled into a children’s special. These characters were good characters, and the world they lived in was well-thought out. Director/writers Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers-Skelton really took the time to figure out who all of these people were, to take seriously the idea that the elves who work in Santa’s workshop might have individual human psychologies, instead of just being thoughtless automatons.
Prep & Landing 2 takes all of that work and tosses it aside in favor of a brand-new character, voiced by Rob Riggle in maximum Rob Riggle mode. This isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it has a tendency to reduce some of the most important characters from the first special—especially Lanny—to minor supporting characters. After we spent all of that time solidifying Lanny and Wayne as unlikely best friends, it feels a little cheap to have a special centered on an entirely new, pre-existing relationship we’ve never been aware of, rather than just watching Lanny and Wayne undertake a particularly dangerous new mission.
Riggle voices Noel, who’s Wayne’s younger brother, a big, burly “coal elf,” who’s part of the team that scouts out the houses of naughty kids and makes sure they really did do the awful things they’re accused of doing. It’s a clever idea—that Santa would literally check his list twice, just to make sure he’s not stiffing any kids—and the idea of the “coal elves” being essentially the working-class folks of the North Pole is funny, too, particularly when Wayne and Lanny have to go meet Noel at a North Pole simulacrum of every country-western dive bar ever seen in the movies called Christmas Carol’s. (Christmas Carol is the bartender, and she’s none too friendly.) The elves are rowdy, there’s a bucking reindeer in the corner, and the music is loud and feisty. So far, so good.
From there, though, the special tries to get us to invest in the idea that Wayne has had this lengthy relationship with his younger brother, one that we knew nothing about. Admittedly, this will probably work for kids, particularly ones working through issues with their siblings, and in any series with continuing characters, there’s a need to expand the world. But Noel comes out of nowhere and ends up dominating the episode. Since he’s voiced by Riggle as the most exciting, rough-and-tumble big-kid you’ve ever seen, he ends up feeling somewhat like the more extreme version of Wayne and Lanny, as though he’s been pasted into the special thanks to focus-group notes. He doesn’t use parachutes when diving from the sky. He’s ready to fight the guard-toys a naughty little kid has set up. He’s always moving and always racing about. It’s easy to see why Wayne’s a little tired of him.
So, naturally, we’re building to the forced climax where Wayne and Noel make up, just in time to save Christmas, but then the special takes a detour, one that saves the whole thing. It’s one I can’t really talk about without spoiling a bunch of plot points, but suffice it to say that the naughty child Noel, Wayne, and Lanny have been sent to check out figures heavily into the conclusion of the story and shares some nice parallels with the characters we’re already following. This naughty kid—who’s figured out a way to hack into the North Pole naughty/nice database via a piece of elf tech dropped by the coal elves who visited the year before (no easy task, that)—is also a terrifically fun new character who pops up organically and builds a relationship with the pre-existing ones easily and naturally. Plus, the themes come through here with more resonance than they do on the Wayne and Noel end of things. Again, they’re more aimed at kids with sibling issues, but, hey, just about everybody’s been that kid at some point in their lives.
So if the conclusion reaches the sappy point a little predictably and if the stuff back at the North Pole is, sadly, not as involving as it was last time (in fact, Santa doesn’t show up until the very end, after being a somewhat active presence in the first special), there’s still a fun, winning special here. It takes a little while to get where it’s going, and it sidelines too many characters audiences might have come to really enjoy. But once it gets to the heartwarming stuff, it’s surprising how well it actually works, and the new character alluded to above is a lot of fun. Plus, it features Chris Parnell doing what seems like a riff on Cyril Figgis from Archer as an anal-retentive elf who’s secretly in love with Magee. And that can’t help but be a good thing.
All new stories set within beloved properties require a certain leap of faith on the part of the audience. Are you going to buy all of these new story elements that are being grafted on to the story you already loved? In Prep & Landing 2, the grafting is far more obvious than it needs to be, but by the time the ending rolls around, you won’t really mind. The clumsy start was worth it to get to the solid and moving stuff.