Not five minutes into her new Apple TV+ special, Mariah Carey takes flight. She sits in an enchanted, headlight-outfitted sleigh gliding over the incandescent buildings of Manhattan, wearing a sequined riff on Santa’s coat, her honey-colored hair fanning out over the cowl that’s on her head in a way that suggests an abundance of wind and Valerie Cherish in equal measure. She holds onto the lap bar like she’s riding a roller coaster, lip-syncing a newly recorded rendition of “Sleigh Ride” (in the style of the ‘60s version of the standard produced by Phil Spector, a frequent sonic reference point in Carey’s yuletide offerings). The scene isn’t exactly polished or dynamic (the rather obvious green screening makes the globe-trot to the North Pole feel static), but it’s kind of perfect nonetheless: a goofy, tacky, seemingly consciously ridiculous encapsulation of Carey’s Christmas fetish. The singer, whose “All I Went for Christmas Is You” became her 19th No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 last year, is clearly determined to continue to milk the season that remains so good to her. Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special is merely this year’s offering in what promises to be a lifetime of them.
That we can count on more to come every year until the entire Earth catches aflame and culture as we know it is incinerated makes Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special easier to swallow; this trifling excuse for a soundstage concert is hardly Carey’s definitive statement on her beloved holiday. It’s just another ode to it in Carey’s increasingly heaving songbook of such odes. Carey’s special operates as though all tidings are good tidings, as if festivity an act of will, as if the mere presence of celebrities in gleaming Dolby Vision on one’s screen is a source of warmth. And it’s all served with heaping portions of side boob.
The plot, insofar as it has one, involves Carey being tapped by Santa’s secretary (Billy Eichner in a laugh-less role) to help spread cheer to a sullen world. The pandemic that has malformed and, in many ways, cut our interpersonal connections is alluded to but never mentioned specifically. In her “Twas the Night Before Christmas”-inspired narration, Tiffany Haddish informs viewers that, “The people of earth have had quite a rough year/And few could muster up any holiday cheer.” Bette Midler, Millie Bobby Brown, and Heidi Klum cameo to confirm the epidemic lack of festivity. Carey, being a friend of Santa’s (“the ultimate VIP”), is naturally what the world needs now. She isn’t Christ, but she is chosen. She takes off to the North Pole and sings many songs in front of various ersatz backgrounds, in varying states of yuletide glamor. Sometimes she gets distracted (as in Santa’s workshop) and sings more songs. It turns out to be all a dream, and then it doesn’t. Carey’s penchant for a gown in which a plunging neckline and spiking slit nearly meet is frequently on display. There’s an outfit in which she wears a giant bow on her butt. In between “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night,” she goes from one all-white Barbie gown (with a billowing, cake-topper skirt) to another (with a fishtail). She approaches Christmas apparel like others do Halloween: What if someone dressed like a present... but sexy? How about a sexy toy soldier? Ever see a sexy snowflake? Well, now you have.
The costumes and much of the staging of the musical numbers (whose motion, when it exists at all, generally is situated around Carey and not including her), is all reminiscent of, if not taken directly, from her annual Christmas concerts, which for obvious reasons aren’t being held this year. In those shows, Carey is the rightful centerpiece and so this special doesn’t allow anything else to even attempt to interfere with her status as prime spectacle. This is never more obvious than in the slapped-together rendition of “Oh Santa!,” her attempt at striking yuletide lightning twice on her second Christmas album, 2010's Merry Christmas II You. Now outfitted as collaboration of sorts with Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande, the two guests are essentially relegated to backup singers as the arrangement, mastering of the track, and staging on the special keeps Carey thrust to the front. The new vocals don’t sound blended as much as plopped next to each other and the entire number has the effect of a family whose members aren’t particularly close forcing themselves to have a good time because that’s what you do on Christmas. I can’t detect any joy here:
Throughout the special, Carey’s voice generally sounds fine, settled in its relative brittleness, and aside from a few new adornments (the aforementioned “Oh Santa!” guests, Snoop Dogg with a verse as Santa Claus on Carey’s disco-fied “Here Comes Santa Claus”), the songs performed are just current renditions from Carey’s Christmas arsenal, not new arrangements. Carey’s dialogue is so on the nose that she’s verging on becoming a Mae Westian caricature resplendent in vampy self-reference. At one point, she gets to work in the word “elusive,” in clear reference to the title of her 2014 album, Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse, and there are jokes about key lighting and how Carey doesn’t “do” schedules. Well, they’re attempts at jokes, at any rate.
Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special is certainly campy but, it’s less Glitter and more akin to the movie version of Cats, with its rampant green screening and snatches of dialogue that exist to usher one song to the next. The special was co-directed by awards show/Super Bowl vet Hamish Hamilton and Roman Coppola (?!), and it definitely feels more like a showcase than a proper story. There’s something rather stilted and ’50s about its format, which on one hand is endearing in its retro moment of traditional whatever and on the other feels discordant with Carey’s brand. For someone who flaunts her extravagance and snobbishness as a matter of course, Carey has delivered chintz here. It looks as cheap as a set of drug store perfume, and it’s written so that a child could understand it. But then you have to wonder what children would actually make of any of it. During the final number, obviously “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” as Carey is being guided around the stage by her choreographer boyfriend Brian Tanaka while they wear hers-and-his sequined toy soldier costumes, it seems clear that the intended audience of Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special is those who lavish in Carey’s vast eccentricities. All else is given a lot to tolerate in exchange for some caroling.