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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Why, Charlie Brown, Why?

This is going to be one of those Whatever Wednesday entries where I ask myself a question. Can I do a blog entry in less than two hours?

Because that's how much time I have to write this entry. But, you know something? I love a challenge. So, on with it.

I don't have a whole lot of time to explain what the Whatever Wednesday topic is all about, but I imagine most of you already know by now what it is. So, I reach into my bag of Clue cards and I draw the Mrs. Peacock card. And, what that means is that I'll be talking about a television program or television special.

And, I'll be completely frank with you. This television special is a little on the serious side. It has its moments of classic humour, but it also deals with a very serious that really was never talked about in a children's special.

That topic is cancer.

Now, one of the reasons why I participated in the Relay for Life earlier this year was to both celebrate those people who have either fought cancer and survived, or to remember those who lost their battle with the deadly illness. My grandfather died of lung cancer in the summer of 2000, I lost a dear online friend of cancer in 2011, and just last year, one of my co-workers succumbed to the disease. In all three of those instances, I was old enough to understand what was happening and although it broke my heart to know that I would never see them again, at least I could take some comfort in knowing that they didn't have to feel any more pain.

But imagine being a child and having a friend or a loved one battling cancer. Depending on how old the child is, they might not understand what is happening, and they might have all sorts of questions over what their loved one is going through, and trying to explain it to them might make them even more scared.

Or worse, what if the child themselves is going through cancer treatments, and they don't know what is happening to them. It's an already scary situation to be in. Imagine being a parent in that scenario, trying to help your child feel better and give them encouragement that everything will be okay when in all honesty, you have no idea what the final outcome will be.

It's not an easy topic to talk about. It certainly isn't an easy topic to dedicate a twenty-two minute cartoon special about.

But Charles M. Schulz and the Peanuts gang did exactly that. And the end result was a television special that was frank, honest, informative...and extremely emotional. The first time I watched this special on television, I had to have a box of Kleenex by my side. And that was really rare for me, because I usually don't cry during television specials. I kept my composure through Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, and that television special was all kinds of depressing.

Today, we're going to be looking at the Peanuts special, “Why, Charlie Brown, Why?”, which aired for the first time on March 16, 1990, and has aired sporadically ever since. Can you believe that it was the thirty-third Peanuts special ever made? And, it's also one of the hardest ones to find. I don't even know if it was ever released on VHS or DVD. But, if you want to watch the whole thing, I do have a link to it right HERE. But as I said, be warned. You will more than likely shed a few tears watching it – I know I did. And, I'm not afraid to admit it either.

The special begins as we meet the newest member of the Peanuts gang. Janice Emmons is the newest classmate of Charlie Brown and Linus, and she is best known for her long blonde hair, her charming personality, and her love for swinging on the playground swings. The higher she goes, the better.

TRIVIA: It turns out that the actress who voiced Janice grew up to become a huge star. She was voiced by then 12-year-old actress Olivia Burnette, who has since appeared in JAG, NCIS, and Sons of Anarchy.

Unfortunately, Janice is also known for one other thing. She bruises way too easily. When Janice was boarding the school bus with Charlie Brown, Sally, and Linus (and Snoopy, who hitched a ride on the back of the bus), she stumbled and hit her arm, telling Linus that she had bruises from three weeks earlier that did not heal. Later on in the day when the kids are taking a test, Janice starts feeling very sick, and develops a fever of 102. Linus encourages Janice to go to the school nurse, and Janice eventually leaves school that day, having been picked up by her mother.

Three days pass, and Linus – who has developed a fondness for Janice – is getting worried about her, wondering where she has been and if she is okay. The teacher later informs Charlie Brown and Linus that Janice is in the hospital and the two boys decide to pay Janice a visit at the hospital to give her their get well wishes and they are shocked to discover that Janice is a lot sicker than any of them actually thought.

It turns out that Janice has leukemia, a type of cancer that affects the production of blood cells. And, naturally, Charlie Brown and Linus are filled with all sorts of questions about the kind of treatments that Janice is receiving while in the hospital.

Now, one thing that I will say about this special is that it never sugarcoated any of the details, nor did it try to talk down to the viewer. Janice was very open about everything she went through. She talked about all of the tests that she had to do, which included getting X-rays (which didn't hurt at all), having to go through chemotherapy (which she explained helped her get better, but with the side effects of losing her hair and feeling sick to her stomach often), and having to go through bone marrow testings (which Janice explained hurt a lot). You could tell that Janice's dialogue through the whole hospital visit scene was researched extensively, but presented in such a way that children could understand what was happening to Janice.

And, perhaps the most moving part of that scene in the hospital was Janice's drive to beat the leukemia and get back to school so that she could play with her friends again and swing on the swing set with Linus. Janice was optimistic that she was going to be okay, and I thought that too was awesome to show. Back in 1990, there were still so many unanswered questions about cancer treatments, and although we have come a long way in cancer research and inventing new treatment options over the past two decades, this television special still has a lot of relevance even today. The fact that Janice was facing the battle with a lot of optimism inside of her was a beautiful thing to see. It wasn't the moment where I teared up, but it was still a beautiful scene.

Of course, Linus saw nothing beautiful about a nice girl like Janice having to undergo treatment for cancer, and when he and Charlie Brown leave the hospital, Linus asks Charlie Brown why Janice had to get sick. Charlie Brown didn't have an answer for him, mainly because he didn't know. And, I imagine that a lot of people had the same reaction Charlie Brown had when they were trying to explain to someone why they or someone they loved got sick. It's not an easy thing to talk about. And, I appreciate the fact that the Peanuts gang even attempted to do a television special on such a difficult topic. Because we have all known someone who has battled cancer. Maybe some of you reading this blog entry right now are cancer survivors yourselves.

I also think that the show was realistic in that it showed a significant amount of time between Janice's first treatment and the day in which Janice was well enough to go back to school. In real life, it can take months for treatments to work. In the case of “Why, Charlie Brown, Why?”, we can assume that because of the changing colours of leaves that Janice begins her treatment around October. By the time that Janice is released from the hospital, there's snow on the ground and the swings are pinned up for the winter, showing that it is at least January or February, meaning that a total of three or four months have passed since. Again, I applaud the Peanuts gang for trying to keep it as realistic as possible.

Now, I won't spoil the complete ending for you. There's a reason why I posted the link up above. I want you to watch it. Let's just say that the last ten minutes were especially emotional. I'll just leave it at that. But here's a few clues to go on.

Clue #1: If you hated Lucy Van Pelt before (and believe me, Lucy is one of my least favourite Peanuts characters), you'll want to send a lynch mob after her after watching this special.

Clue #2: When a bully picks on Janice after she comes back to school, it may be the one and only time you see the normally cool-headed Linus explode in anger. It truly will make you stand up and cheer.

Clue #3: You meet a couple of Janice's family members, and you also learn more about the struggles that a family goes through when one of their own is battling cancer. Trust me, it's a very honest look.

Clue #4: That final scene makes me tear up every single time.

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