Tune in Tonight: "It's the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown"
Regardless of one’s age, the Holy Trinity of Peanuts specials consists strictly of A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Oh sure, when pressed you might be able to recall It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown and the ill-advised Flashbeagle, but it’s unlikely you’ll remember anything more about them than the fact that they exist. You might be as gobsmacked as I was to discover that, as of 2011, forty-five specials featuring Charlie Brown and the gang have been released, and that’s not counting any of the movies. At this point, they’ve covered everything from Valentine’s Day (twice) to bullying (He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown), World War II (What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?), and childhood leukemia (Why, Charlie Brown, Why?), to largely forgettable results.
Perhaps the strangest of these mostly forgotten specials is 1988’s It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown, which I had no idea existed until I heard about it from my good friend Phil Gonzales of the Deep in Bear Country podcast. The first and to date only Peanuts special to combine live action with animation, it had the bad luck to be released mere months after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which redefined the genre. Further hindering it was the fact that Charles Schulz insisted that it be strictly a family affair, hiring his son (who had never written a screenplay before) to co-write the screenplay, and his daughter (who had never acted before) to star in it. Thankfully, Schulz’s talent for creating charming, relatable characters was passed down to the next generation, making this special a true hidden gem.
I’m kidding, it’s a charmless, amateurish, plodding mess that should have never made it past the first draft before being shoved in a drawer and never spoken about again. It also, despite the title, features very little of Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, or any of the usual Peanuts gang. Charlie and Snoopy briefly appear at the beginning, but the special is mostly about Spike, Snoopy’s mustachioed, desert-dwelling brother. Spike lives in a cactus and spends his days taking long walks and listening to French language learning tapes, while his breakfast is occasionally swept away by an errant tumbleweed.
Spike’s quiet, solitary life is turned upside down when he spots Jenny (Jill Schulz), the titular girl in the red truck, who drives by him one day and returns his frantic wave. Instantly lovestruck, Spike begins rising at dawn to stake out a place on the same dirt road, in the hopes that Jenny will return. His efforts pay off, when Jenny’s truck conveniently stalls out right in front of him. Immediately besotted with him as well (“He’s cute, and I think he likes me!” she later tells a friend), Jenny takes Spike with her, and they spend what feels like an extremely long day together, driving, playing Frisbee (where the scenery abruptly, inexplicably changes from a desert to a lake), watching TV, and roller skating.
Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth, and we soon learn that Jenny has a long-distance boyfriend, the smarmy Jeff (Greg Deacon), and he and Spike bristle with jealousy towards each other. Much to Jenny’s dismay, Jeff announces that he’s gotten her an audition for a movie role, which may force her to leave her desert life (and, presumably, Spike, who she’s just met that morning) behind.
To say that It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown is languidly paced is an understatement. I’d compare it to watching grass grow, but at least watching grass grow might result in seeing a ladybug, or a pretty flower. Absolutely nothing happens in this hour-long (!!!) special until the last fifteen minutes, when Spike is thrown out of a skating rink and encounters a hobo jug band consisting of other dogs that look just like him. They’re shot at by a group of coyote hunters who are unable to tell the difference between coyotes and beagles, but lest you go thinking that a Peanuts special is going to end with a character filled with buckshot, a reluctant Jeff comes to Spike’s rescue.
Jeff’s act of heroism renews Jenny’s love for him, and a dejected Spike, unwilling to be the third party in this really fucking weird triad, leaves them to return to his cactus home. And well, that’s it. Actually, that’s not it – even after Spike wanders off, Jenny and Jeff apologize to each other for the mildly heated argument they had earlier, and agree to continue their long-distance relationship, and I’m sorry if you’ve fallen asleep at this point. The credits roll over Spike mournfully playing the pan flute.
As with so many failed and/or forgotten TV shows, it’s unclear who the audience is supposed to be for this human woman-cartoon dog romantic comedy. Kids are going to be bored stupid by the drama about Jenny having to choose between her acting career and her job as an aerobics instructor, while adults are going to be both perplexed and impressed at how much pull Charles Schulz had at CBS to get it made. It’s very touching that Schulz thought so highly of his children’s talents, particularly his daughter’s, as illustrated in a very long sequence in which she does a rollerskating routine while the rest of the rink patrons thoughtfully clear the floor and applaud her. Does it have anything to do with the plot? Absolutely not, but it didn’t matter to Schulz, and there lies the problem with nepotism – the best you can say about Jill Schulz here is that she’s a better rollerskater than an actor, and she’s only a so-so rollerskater. To be fair, though, all the actors give the same stiff “rehearsing by talking to yourself in a mirror” line readings. Spike, a cartoon character who doesn’t speak at all, somehow gives more life and depth to his performance than these living, presumably professional performers.
Whatever budget was siphoned away from hiring a more capable cast presumably went towards the combining of live action and animation. Despite the special being four years in the making (in comparison, the feature-length Who Framed Roger Rabbit was done in less than two), it would be generous to say that everything blends seamlessly together. Jenny and Spike give each other a high five, and their hands don’t connect. Spike sits before a campfire that hovers about an inch off the ground. It’s especially shaky when Jenny attempts to speak to Spike, and it’s clear that no one gave her direction on how to convincingly address something that isn’t actually there, which is why she appears to be making small talk with a recliner.
Charles Schulz reportedly took the failure of It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown hard, and so it gives me no pleasure to say that it stinks on ice. Thankfully, it doesn’t stink so bad that it sullies the legacy of the original trinity. If anything, they’re even better by comparison, warm, and comforting, like a soothing cup of peppermint tea after a glass of Clamato.
Original airdate: September 27, 1988