Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled The gift that keeps on taking: 15 terrible presents in TV and film

1. The Mogwai, Gremlins (1984)

Animal-rights organizations, pet stores, and adoption centers have spent years trying to get across the message that a pet is a huge responsibility which should be chosen by the owner, not by someone looking for a quickie present. Another thing that's a huge responsibility? Ownership of a sentient being. Especially a sentient being which—if the owner doesn't follow a few weird, arbitrary rules—will spontaneously spawn a horde of vicious, intelligent killer reptile-people. Seriously, we all love Joe Dante's hilariously anarchic horror-comedy Gremlins. But what the hell was going through Hoyt Axton's head when he decided that the perfect last-second Christmas gift for his teenage son Zach Galligan was a monster-spawning creature from an unknown species? By the end of the movie, romantic interest Phoebe Cates isn't the only one with deep-seated holiday-related trauma.

2. Chucky, Child's Play (1988)

Being a single mom isn't easy, and when the best job you can get is behind the perfume counter at a department store, it's hard enough to put food on the table, let alone give your annoying, precocious son the overpriced animatronic doll he's been yapping about. So you have to cut corners, which in Child's Play means buying the doll from the scary-looking homeless dude in the alley. And if that isn't enough, the freckle-faced hunk of plastic happens to be possessed by the vengeful spirit of Charles Lee Ray, a felled serial killer who has scores to settle with guys with names like Eddie Caputo. The good news: Little Andy has a "friend to the end." The bad news: The end may be coming sooner than Andy and his mother probably hoped.

3. A television, All That Heaven Allows (1955)

In the Eisenhower-era suburbia of Douglas Sirk's classic melodrama, a widowed housewife of advancing age is expected to live out the remainder of her days alone, perhaps accompanied by a good book. So it would be scandalous enough when attractive widow Jane Wyman seeks another man's company, but when that man turns out to be Rock Hudson, a gardener well below her social station, the vicious hive of high society starts buzzing. Even Wyman's two grown children object in their own selfish ways to her newfound happiness, and subtly seek avenues to end their mother's relationship. When they buy her a TV set for Christmas, they're trying to force her to settle into quiet, respectable solitude, and it's the most devastating moment in the film: As the wrapping comes off the present, Sirk frames Wyman's reflection within the screen—a woman boxed in for eternity by this unwanted, infernal machine.

4. Many presents, but specifically a stack of TV dinners, Better Off Dead (1985)

In Better Off Dead's Christmas-morning montage, some of the worst movie gifts ever are given—and sometimes even politely received. First, John Cusack buys his ex-girlfriend a tiny teddy bear, only to learn that her new boyfriend bought her one a hundred times larger. Then the cutie-pie foreign-exchange student, who's been suffering the advances of her host family's portly nerd of a son, unwraps a photo of the boy, in a horrendous rope frame. Cusack's dad buys the family a new garage door for the holidays. But Cusack's scene-stealing mom, played with intense weirdness by Kim Darby, takes the cake. For her husband, she purchases a real aardvark fur coat, complete with aardvark-head hood, and for Cusack, she individually wraps a towering pile of TV dinners. She knows he likes the ones with the nut-brownie dessert and the seasoned corn.


5. A pen, Say Anything (1989)

Maybe John Cusack just engenders bad gifts. At the end of his wonderful summer romance with Ione Skye in Say Anything, they want to give each other something to symbolize their time together. Cusack writes a deeply felt letter saying exactly how he feels. Skye, encouraged by her father to distance herself from a boy she'll have to leave behind when she goes overseas for college, gives Cusack a pen—and the big brush-off. "I gave her my heart," Cusack whispers. "She gave me a pen."

6. Red Ryder BB gun, A Christmas Story (1983)

A big reason why Christmas isn't as exciting for adults as it is for kids: accessibility. Adults can buy whatever they want, within reason; kids typically have to wait for a grown-up to decide that their desires are worth fulfilling. Such is the dilemma for little Peter Billingsley in the holiday classic A Christmas Story. As anyone who has watched cable in the vicinity of Dec. 25 can tell you, he desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun, but can't convince the parental powers that be to make it happen because—all together now—he'll shoot his eye out. Anyone who spent childhood months pining for an elusive present can relate to Ralphie's plight, and revel in his triumph when his dad comes through with the gun on Christmas Day. Of course, as Billingsley learns, a BB gun really can (almost) shoot your eye out, though it's still a better present than a bunny suit.

7. A cashmere sweater, Seinfeld (1991)

In the past, George has been referred to euphemistically as "careful with his money," so when he buys Elaine a cashmere sweater for helping him get a job, it's an unusual, magnanimous gesture. Of course, there's a catch: The sweater has a tiny red dot on it, and was thus marked down to a price George could bring himself to afford. Unfortunately, George's frugality comes back twice to haunt him: First, when Elaine tricks him into admitting his early-Christmas sweater was discounted, and later, when he tries using it to hush the cleaning woman he's been diddling at his desk after hours. In the end, he loses the job and whatever meager ounce of respect Elaine might have held for him.



8. The "To My Best Bud" bracelet, Friends (1996)

Having mooched off Chandler for years, the newly flush Joey decides to pay his roommate back with a wad of cash, and with a garish gold bracelet engraved "To My Best Bud." Joey insists that the jewelry goes with any outfit and will do wonders for Chandler's sex life, to which Chandler replies, "Well, it'll probably slow me down at first, but once I get used to the extra weight, I'll be back on track." When Chandler accidentally loses "the eyesore from The Liberace House Of Crap," he follows sitcom convention and buys another one, only to find the original immediately afterward. Chandler pretends that he bought the new bracelet for Joey, and when Joey excitedly shouts, "Hey, we're bracelet buddies," Chandler ruefully replies, "That's what they'll call us!"

9. A bowling ball, The Simpsons (1990)

It's common for gift-givers to give out presents they'd love to receive themselves. If the giver and the receiver have simpatico tastes, this isn't much of a problem, but otherwise, heartbreak, disappointment, and minor annoyance invariably ensue. That's the case when serial bungler Homer Simpson gives his wife Marge a bowling bowl with his name on it as the world's least considerate present. This grievous faux pas drives Marge into the arms—and nearly into the bed—of an Albert Brooks-voiced French bowling whiz, the sort of whimsical Gallic romantic who defines brunch as "not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don't get completely what you would at breakfast, but you get a good meal."

10. An iPod, The Office (2005)

An iPod is always a good Christmas present, right? Well, not when it's given in the spirit of one-upmanship and creepy adoration. During the "Christmas Party" episode of The Office's second season, the Dunder-Mifflin gang participates in a game of Secret Santa, wherein each employee is supposed to purchase a gift for another, worth no more than $20. Showing off for the group and giving in to his man-crush on his Secret Santa, Michael (Steve Carell) gloatingly purchases a video iPod for Ryan. After dropping so much cash and then receiving a handmade oven mitt from Phyllis, Michael angrily calls for a game of Yankee Swap, wherein the officemates can force each other to trade presents. No surprise, they're all gunning for the iPod, leaving all other thoughtful gifts with the wrong recipients. After ruining the spirit of Christmas and the moods of his employees, Michael attempts to repair everything with the gift that always keeps on giving: booze for all.


11. Jimmy James, Inc. hat, NewsRadio (1995)

In the first NewsRadio Christmas special, "Xmas Story," the WNYX staff puts a great deal of thought and expense into their gift for boss Stephen Root: an autographed vintage baseball jersey. In return, they receive cheap caps with their names on the front. To compound the insult, the names are just labels stuck atop the logos of various subsidiaries of Jimmy James Inc., the result of "a really cheap, crappy thought." Like any good sitcom Christmas special, though, it all works out in the end: Root eventually comes through with sports cars for everybody, except for office spaz Andy Dick, who gets tapes of the vintage radio show Fibber McGee And Molly.


12. Okama Gamesphere, South Park (2001)

Meant to divert the South Park boys' attention from Stan's mom's used tampon, the Okama Gamesphere should have been an effing sweet gift—could a better example of "trading up" exist?—but soon the inevitable happens: A stoned, talking towel arrives and the fourth-graders become embroiled in intergalactic warfare. Their Gamesphere is stolen and used to bait them into walking "Towelie" into a military ambush. Naturally, the boys' supreme indifference is the water to the plot's ever-thickening mortar. (Stan: "I just want my Gamesphere back.") By the time that wish is granted, Earth has narrowly escaped devastation. (Kenny, naturally, hasn't.) A commentary on gaming-inspired detachment? Perhaps, but by the laws of South Park's causal chain, the console is surely to blame.


13. An IBC towel, Scrooged (1988)

You can tell a lot about a man by the gifts he gives, and by that measure, Bill Murray's character in Scrooged is a total bastard. The morally ambivalent, money-obsessed network executive divides his Christmas list into two categories: Influential associates receive a top-of-the-line-for-1988 VHS player, while everybody else—including his overworked, underappreciated assistant and his poor, alienated brother—receive their very own IBC towel. Murray's lack of holiday generosity is inbred (when he was 4, his Christmas present from his father was a package of veal), but that doesn't make his gift of cheap network swag any less perfunctory or insulting, considering Murray is a dastardly combination of loaded and miserly. When his assistant has to tell her starving family that she's "drying her hair" with her Christmas bonus, it's perfectly within reason for the Ghost Of Christmas Present to grab Murray and smack the merry shit out of him.

14. Carton of cigarettes, The Breakfast Club (1985)

The scene in John Hughes' angst-rific The Breakfast Club where wildly overacting quasi-hoodlum Judd Nelson mocks the diamond earrings sported by pouty rich girl Molly Ringwald is supposed to be a dramatic high point. Instead, it shows how out of it Hughes really was: When Nelson rails about how his big Christmas gift was a carton of cigarettes, his dad's "Hey, smoke up, Johnny!" comes across as more gregarious than abusive. Hughes' childhood in the tony Northbrook suburb of Chicago probably left him ill-prepared for the notion that some kids would be perfectly happy to get a carton of cigarettes for Christmas, as opposed to, say, nothing. And hey, it isn't like Nelson's old man only bought him a pack


15. A "man-ring," That '70s Show (2002)

Topher Grace and Laura Prepon's teen romance on That '70s Show was frequently dashed by the presence of rings. Their first breakup was triggered by Prepon's refusal to wear Grace's promise ring, and though they'd gotten back together by the "Ramble On" episode, her purchase of a huge, garish-looking "man-ring" for him causes further strain. Shocked by his girlfriend's bad taste but unable to admit how much he hates it, Grace passes the ring on to Wilmer Valderrama, the only member of the gang who likes it. ("It looks like it would give you superpowers," he gasps admiringly.) Although the situation is resolved, some bad times are had while Grace tries to think of a way to wear the man-ring in public without being humiliated; Ashton Kutcher's Kelso suggests that "maybe people will think you won the Super Bowl."

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