"But you didn't finish the story!"
It is Christmas Eve. The tree in the living room has been beautifully trimmed, the presents piled beneath it have all been wrapped with care.
A family of four, having finished their dessert, prepares for an "old fashioned" Christmas Eve celebration. No television viewing is allowed. Mom (Margaret Klenck) and Dad (E.G. Marshall) just want to spend some quality family time together, enjoying the yuletide fire.
Their two children (Sky Berdahl and Jenna von Oy) quickly become bored, though. They want dad to tell them a Christmas story. But not the same old Christmas story about a reindeer, or a drummer boy, or a magic snowman. No, they want dad to tell them a scary Christmas story.
Dad is more than happy to comply and, aided by mom, he proceeds to tell the terrifying story of the wrathful and murderous Christmas monster, The Grither.
Seasons of Belief is one of my all time favorite episodes of Tales from the Darkside. Even if the viewer knows, or can guess, the punchline that the episode methodically builds to, it still holds up well to repeat viewings.
The reason for this is that writer/director Michael McDowell (novels: The Amulet, Cold Moon Over Babylon, Toplin, etc; screenplays: Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Stephen King's Thinner) understands, like every great storyteller or comedian, that the build up to the punchline is every bit as important as the punchline itself. Because of this understanding, Seasons of Belief, adapted from a short story by Michael Bishop, which was collected in the 1979 anthology Shadows 2, is a solidly constructed and almost exquisitely paced tale of a playful, albeit increasingly mean spirited, storytelling prank that goes too far.
All that storytelling skill can only get the episode so far, though. There are one or two shortcomings. Shortcomings that some contemporary viewers might not be able to overlook, or ignore.
On a technical level, there are the hindrances of the series painfully obvious low budget. Although the producers were able to routinely cast recognizable, and well respected, character actors, Tales from the Darkside was still a very cheap looking show, even back in the 1980s. No amount of skillful storytelling, either in front of or behind the camera, can hide the cheap looking sets, the cheaper looking set design, and no amount of skillful editing can stop certain crucial props from looking comically silly. Time has not been kind to the series, in that regard.
If you are able to get past the Thrift Store look and feel of the show, the only other real issue I think worth noting is the casting. When I first saw Seasons of Belief, back in 1986 or 1987, I thought that E.G. Marshall was the kids grandfather and that Margaret Klenck was playing his daughter. A misconception no doubt aided by the Thrift Store set design, which makes the living room and kitchen of the characters home look and feel like that of an elderly couple, not the parents of two young children. Imagine my surprise, and the face I pulled, when, upon revisiting the episode again, I realized that Marshall was, in fact, playing Klenck's husband and the two kids father. Ick.
While Marshall was certainly spry and lively for his age, which, at the time, was 72, he was still 42 years older than his female co-star, and he both looks and acts it. Which is probably why I mistakenly remembered him as being the kids grandfather. Klenck was, according to the birthday listed on her IMDB page, a mere 30 years old at the time the episode was made, which means her character was 21, at least, when she had the oldest of the two child. While that is certainly not uncommon, her vibrant youth does mix with some of the almost comically anachronistic props that she is given to work with. Klenck sits in an overstuffed chair and does needle point, while wearing half rimmed glasses. What makes it so distracting is that it does not look natural. It looks more like she's play acting at being the kind of wife that someone Marshall's age would want. Or maybe I am just making myself sound ageist.
Despite their differences in age, Marshall and Klenck's casting was nonetheless inspired and spot on. The two play beautifully off of each other. There is a palpable creative chemistry that bubbles between the two, and, because of that, at no point during the episode does their storytelling banter and creative one-up-man-ship ever come across as being forced or contrived.
Another plus that works in the episodes favor is E.G. Marshall having been the host of the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre (a childhood favorite of mine). With nine years of "Theater of the Mind" storytelling under his acting belt, Marshall was the perfect choice for an episode that, for almost its entire running time, consists of a man and woman telling an obviously improvised spooky tale to two increasingly frightened children. I can't think of anyone else that could have done as good a job as Marhsall did, seeming to ad lib a tale of a ludicrous sounding and imaginary terror that just might turn out to be not all that ludicrous or imaginary.