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On the fifth day of Christmas Ryan gives to us…

Frank Costanza is without a doubt my favorite character on Seinfeld. For somebody so short-tempered, constantly screaming at those around him over the smallest nuisances, there’s remarkably not a single trace of unlikability to be found in the man. It’s a shame that his death was implied during the reunion story arc of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but with the failure of his “serenity now” relaxation cassette, I suppose it was inevitable. Fortunately, Frank plays a starring role in what’s considered to be one of the most iconic episodes of Seinfeld produced, season 9’s “The Strike.”

You know, the episode where Kramer returns to work at a bagel shop after being on strike for 12 years.

Okay, so most people know it as the Festivus episode, where we discover that Frank once invented his own holiday in response to the commercialization and religious aspects of Christmas. Subsequently, this gives us further insight into why George is the man he is today, as it turns out that Festivus was always a pretty traumatic experience for the boy.

The traditions of the holiday included an aluminum pole instead of a tree (no decoration required — Frank finds tinsel distracting), and grievances were exchanged rather than presents – a chance for the Costanzas to speak about how much they had disappointed each other over the past year. Back in the present day, Kramer finds out about Frank’s holiday and convinces him to restart the celebrations after years of lying dormant, much to the misery of George and the imperative sense of schadenfreude from his friends. The pole comes out of the crawl space and Frank couldn’t be more joyous.

The ending of the episode is a great example of why I love Seinfeld so much – its “no hugging, no learning” policy stays true during what would be a sentimental closing for so many other Christmas specials. Family and friends are gathered together on a winter backdrop, but there’s nothing of comfort to be held. George has fought the idea of Festivus all throughout the episode, yet we end with him more emotionally distraught than ever, being forced into yet another Festivus tradition, the “Feats of Strength.”

Frank: Stop crying and fight your father!

This is what a Christmas special should be. While I find that some of the more warmer, “emotional” holiday episodes of other shows do bring me some entertainment – I’m clearly aware that it’s fake. When my family reunite during the holiday season, the warmth and closeness pales in comparison to what’s presented on TV. That isn’t Christmas, and without sounding too cold, it hopefully never will be. Yeah, maybe in some families things aren’t treated so callously. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. But I’m positive that I prefer my entertainment to treat Christmas with some realism, in the sense that I’d take Frank Costanza physically fighting his crying son over let’s say, a warm embrace after verbally accepting their differences. God, I actually felt sick writing that.

The Brady Bunch, the Huxtables, the family from Full House whoever the hell they were, even the goddamn Simpsons – when compared to the Costanza family, I know who I relate to more. 

As mentioned earlier, this episode also involves Kramer working at H&H Bagels. His working life is cut short however, after being denied the 23rd off to celebrate Festivus, resulting in yet another strike. I always found the moment where he announces his protest hilarious, like he’s looking for any reason to stop working again. This is confirmed by the end of the episode, where he responds to his firing with a satisfied and hefty, “Thank. You!” It probably beats “The Bizarro Jerry” as my favorite “Kramer actually gets a job” story. I think. Maybe. The latter does have Sheena Easton.

The beginning of the episode features Dr Tim Whatley’s Hanukkah party, who’s still Jewish after seemingly converting for the jokes in the previous season. There Jerry meets his girlfriend-of-the-week, a two face (like the Batman villain, if it helps) in which she somehow changes from attractive to ugly without warning. Innocently, every time I watched this episode as a child, I could never see how she was supposed to be portrayed as ugly. After a lifetime of media influence, it’s totally clear to me today, but I think it’s a cute memory looking back. Or maybe it’s depressing, what with our idea of beauty being influenced by society and everything. Still, it doesn’t subtract from the fact that it’s a bloody hilarious story, and introduces the fact that Monk’s (the coffee shop they always visit) is actually a pretty awful restaurant.

Gwen: Jerry, how many times do we have to come to this place?
Jerry: Why? It’s our place.
Gwen: I just found a rubber band in my soup.
Jerry: Oh, I know who’s cooking today!

Meanwhile, George, in an attempt to weasel out of the spirit of giving, hands out phony donation cards to everyone at  work (“A donation has been made in your name to the Human Fund. The Human Fund: Money for People”). His boss, Mr Kruger, catches onto this scam, until George admits that the only reason he succumbed to such a misdeed was because he doesn’t actually celebrate Christmas, the concept of Festivus finally proving useful for another one of his lies. Committed to his story, George brings him along to his father’s Festivus celebration.

Frank: The tradition of Festivus begins with the “Airing of Grievances.” I got a lot of problems with you people! And now…you’re gonna hear about it. You, Kruger. My son tells me your company stinks!
George: Oh God.
Frank: Quiet, you’ll get yours in a minute. Kruger, you couldn’t smooth a silk sheet if you had a hot date with a babe… I lost my train of thought.

“The Strike” opens with a Hanukkah celebration and closes with Festivus. Even though Seinfeld Christmas episodes never really dwelled upon the traditional aspects or clichés of the holiday too much, I like how this one goes to the extreme and yet puts me in the holiday mood more than any of them. Like so many others, I originally found the idea of Festivus to be comical and undeserving of celebration. Today I adore the holiday and everything it stands for. And while I’ve never convinced anybody to participate in a “Feats of Strength” (yet), I’ve gone so far as to hand out “Human Fund” donation cards in lieu of of actual gifts, whether the recipients were Seinfeld fans or not. I’m not being cheap or anything. I’m just afraid that I’ll be persecuted for my beliefs.

I’m overjoyed that Festivus has reached a certain popularity in today’s society. The real holiday began in 1966 by Dan O’Keefe’s father, but of course was made popular when he brought it to Seinfeld. Fictional additions such as the pole were then incorporated to the point where there’s fucking Festivus pole lots. God, I love it. Christmases can go by where I don’t even think about certain Christmas shows or specials, but The Strike is undeniably the clear exception. Last year, somebody actually greeted me with “Happy Festivus!” and hadn’t even seen an episode of Seinfeld or knew that it was referring to the show. I don’t find that charming, by the way. What a despicable person. Still, the cultural significance given by “The Strike” has perfected the episode itself, not that it didn’t need much to push it there. A great episode, and in my opinion, the best of season 9.

Oh, and there’s also a plot where Elaine wants a free sandwich.

Tomorrow: It’s not all comedy around here, you know; we like serialized drama too! Well, some of us do. Or one of us does. Maybe…

On the fourth day of Christmas Philip (that’s, uh…me…) gives to us…

I sincerely dislike Seth MacFarlane…and yet I love American Dad! It’s seemingly a contradiction, I know, and as much as I’d like to do so, I’m not sure I can explain it.

It’s not that the man is entirely without talent. I liked the first few seasons of Family Guy. You know, before it devolved into humorless recreations of other people’s work, and when its jokes came from characterization rather than relentless cruelty. And he is a genuinely funny — if not especially versatile — voice actor.

My issue, perhaps, is that he seems to gravitate toward laziness. If Family Guy or The Cleveland Show can resort to a cheap gag, it will. They don’t seem to have any incentive to work harder, to find something more clever, opting instead for a shrug and a wink at the camera that says to the audience, “We know this is stupid. But we’re doing it deliberately, and that’s enough.”

American Dad! resorts to cheap shots as well. And it also spins its wheels by extending moments that, strictly speaking, should not be extended. But the difference is that I understand these people to be characters. They’re not just gag delivery systems; they’re silly, and rarely realistic, but they’re characters all the same, with sturdy traits, consistent hopes, and perceptible dreams. American Dad! gets away with the sillier stuff in a way that its sister shows do not because it’s always operating on a rigidly constructed framework, and when it wants to do a truly bizarre episode, it does so with its characters and logic intact. It doesn’t abandon them, and it wouldn’t dare; it’s much more interesting to see the madness through a familiar lens.

“Rapture’s Delight” is absolutely one of the strangest episodes of American Dad!, and I also feel it’s among the most successful.

Its plot begins with a typical run through standard territory, but quickly takes a turn for the strange. Stan is a punctual and God-fearing Christian, and he becomes flustered — and cruel — when Francine makes him late for church. That’s bad enough, but when they arrive he can’t even find a parking spot, due to all of the “lesser” Christians clogging it up around Christmas. By the time he finally does get inside, he’s found that the service has already started, and there’s nowhere for him to sit.

Seeing Stan’s distress, Francine decides she’ll give him his Christmas gift early, and seduces him in the janitor’s cupboard. When they emerge, the church is silent; The Rapture has occurred, and Stan missed the ascent into Heaven.

It’s exactly the kind of absurdity American Dad! does best. It begins in a rooted, logical place, and spirals rapidly out of control without ever sacrificing that rooted logic. Even something as outlandish as The Rapture makes perfect, rational sense in Stan’s mind. Francine may dismiss it and Roger may ridicule it, but on this cold Sunday morning, Stan looks into the sky to find his neighbors ascending without him, and they realize he was right all along.

Stan himself doesn’t need to realize this, because there was never any doubt in his mind. When he believes something, he takes it with him to the grave, no matter how many times reality should cause him to question it. In this case his bull-headedness just happened to lead him in exactly the right dogmatic direction. And — tragedy of tragedies — he missed his chance for it to do him any good.

The Christmas episodes of American Dad! are always a treat, as the writers go out of their way to embrace science fiction and horror as a means of celebrating — rather than simply mocking — the holiday season. It’s another seeming contradiction, as festivities give way to mind-bending time travel, afterlife legal troubles and, in this case, the nightmarish hellscape the Earth has become following The Rapture.

The second act break in “Rapture’s Delight” is one of the most shocking the show has ever done. Before the commercial we’re laughing at Stan still trying to get to Heaven and Roger trying to rebuild his spaceship. Then the advertisements end, and we’re seven years in the future. Global war has decimated civilization, Stan is a lone and wounder warrior of the streets, and Francine has run off with Jesus.

The animation in this sequence is brilliant, as it manages to be gruesome and genuinely scary, even while remaining true to the crisp and simple American Dad! style. But what’s really great about it is just how clever the religious jokes are.

Another seeming contradiction, perhaps, as we’d expect the jokes to be scathing. Religious humor, after all, tends to be cruel. We’re wired to laugh at religion, rather than at clever jokes about religion. What’s more, we expect any jokes about religion that aren’t outright cruel to be…well…just not that funny.

“Rapture’s Delight” hits the sweet spot perfectly, and while I’m sure there are many who found it offensive simply because Jesus was in it and there were jokes about him, anyone willing to see past the superficial fact of that statement will find some genuinely strong humor here, and it’s humor that manages — remarkably — to be respectful of its source material.

When Stan slaps Jesus, Jesus literally — and coolly — turns the other cheek. When Stan slaps that as well, Jesus grabs his face and shouts, “Ow! My other cheek!”

That’s sincerely brilliant.

And when the gang manages to track down The Antichrist, we find that he’s Jesus’s opposite in every way…most amusingly when his death machine falls apart and he feels obligated to explain that Jesus was a carpenter, therefore The Antichrist, as his opposite, isn’t really very handy at all.

It’s just good writing. I’m not one to get offended at religious humor, but I do routinely get offended at lazy humor…and religious humor often is. If this were Family Guy I’d expect Jesus to get a diarrhea attack or something…or perhaps fight a giant chicken for a tedious 6 minutes or so. But American Dad! looks for a more rewarding avenue to explore, and so we have Jesus clumsily donning sunglasses and attempting to coin action-movie worthy catch phrases, simply in order to live up to his own image.

It’s gentler, but it’s also funnier. And, what’s more, it leaves room for the episode to pull in a more emotional direction.

Because, at the end of the day, this is still a Christmas special. And so while the first major part of the episode plays with the ridiculousness of the Left Behind mythology and the second strands us seven years forward in the midst of holy war, the episode still has to end. We’ve had our fun, but next week the Smith family needs to go on an unrelated adventure, and so, somehow, this will all have to be undone.

Of course, an episode like this can always just excuse itself. The Simpsons does it annually as well, only they do it on Halloween. Nobody wonders why Groundskeeper Willie still appears on the show even though we’ve seen him get his spine severed (three times), because when an episode deviates that far from normalcy, we’re willing to view it as an isolated moment, separate from the main flow of episodes. It’s an experiment, a way for the writers and audience to blow off steam, one night a year that we don’t have to take seriously.

“Rapture’s Delight,” however, doesn’t take the easy way out. Stan sacrifices himself in the lair of The Antichrist so that Jesus and Francine may live on. His selfish obsession with being left behind is what caused Francine to leave him for The Lamb of God in the first place, but as he lay dying, Francine sees that he’s kept their wedding rings on a necklace for the entire seven years. He lost his wife and everything else he ever had, but he always wore their rings beside his heart.

He dies, and is shown to his own private Heaven…an eternity designed to his own subconscious expectations. And he walks through the door to find…

…the beginning of the episode. Francine has just finished getting ready, and he’s still late for church, but he’s just happy to be with her again. In fact, it’s literally Heaven to him.

It’s a sweet ending, and holiday appropriate, but also an extremely loaded one. This single scene both provided the episode with its decidedly tangential moral and wrapped it back into the main flow of American Dad! stories, but it also tells us that Stan is dead…that the show, though it still marches on, now takes place in the main character’s afterlife.

When we see Stan get shot through the heart by The Antichrist we know — know — he won’t die. How can he? The show’s not over.

And yet, he does die. American Dad! doesn’t brush it aside, and it wasn’t done for the purpose of a joke. This really happened. The Rapture did occur. The Earth was razed in a postmillenial firestorm. And the main character was shot to death.

That all happened. And here we are, back at home. But it’s not because the reset button has been pressed…it’s because Stan’s Heaven is just life as it’s always been. For better, or for worse. In sickness, and in health. This is what Stan wants, and after fighting the good fight for seven grueling years, this is what he’s earned: exactly what he already had.

Very few shows would have the guts to do this. Even fewer would make it canon. And only one would do it on Christmas. Thank God for American Dad!.

Tomorrow: The unlikely appeal of the aluminum pole.

On the third day of Christmas, Ben Gallivan gave to us…

"Christmas Special," The Office

Now, before we start, we’re not talking about the comparatively sub-par offering that the US series of the same name produced. Granted, I know that the show’s principal writing team were also behind it – but to me it just didn’t transfer as well as it could have so I am writing this as a purist; it isn’t bias, it is plain common sense. In all honestly, I am not totally aware if there was an American edition of the Christmas specials of which you will hopefully be reading more of but even still, I would imagine that the emotion shown by each and every single character (and therefore actor, because that is how The Office works) outshines anything that Mr Carell & Co would have the chutzpah to even try and replicate.

And so it begins…Part 1

In January 2001 a BBC documentary crew filmed the everyday goings on in a typical workplace. Now, nearly three years later, we return to find out what has happened to the employees of…The Office.

In the opening scene, we find David Brent – late of Wernham Hogg – reflecting upon his time as manager of the eponymous office and proclaiming himself not to be “a plonker.” For my American readers, of which I am sure outnumber my friends and family that I will undoubtedly send the link to this over-indulgent synopsis, a “plonker” is an idiot, a numbskull, as vividly portrayed by Nicholas Lyndhurst as Rodney in erstwhile Xmas favo(u)rite Only Fools and Horses. As a brief side note, the show is no longer limited to prime-time Christmas viewing, having been repeated for nigh on 30 years and has lost a little of its original spark. Such is life.

Things have changed at Wernham Hogg; Gareth Keenan is now in the boss’ chair, prompting almost unwatchable exchanges between the former and current residents. Tim Canterbury – sadly, but almost predictably – has moved sideways rather than upwards and still finds himself under Gareth despite his promise in the earlier series, we find that he has gotten nowhere. Even the “new Dawn” doesn’t get his taunting of Keenan – making his life even more of a misery than usual.

Exchanging (un)pleasantries with local grocers, selling chamoix leathers to tiny offices – this is Brent’s life now. Travelling up and down the country selling tampons to anyone who’ll have them. The tables have most definitely turned compared to the series proper; the embarrassment doesn’t come from Brent’s own faux pas anymore (well certainly not as much anyhow) but from how quickly his life has turned around for the worse. Most notably surprising is how he is treated by Gareth. Whilst filling out the internet dating form for Brent, Gareth frequently teases him about his appearance and age and general life at the moment. When pressed to explain where he has been travelling, Brent pathetically suggests Hull; “Well I had to travel to get there, it didn’t come to me; Oh look here comes Hull down the motorway in a car.”

Even his sarcastic remarks have become feeble.

"Christmas Special," The Office

Brent obviously sets himself up for these things. Who else would spend £40,000 compensation money to record a single that is certain to go nowhere? Who returns to his old place of work on an almost weekly basis to “keep up morale?”

Brent’s turnaround is the main focal point of the first part of the Christmas specials. The office Christmas party is the sub-story which gets a look in every now and again (the agenda scene being a particular delight) and some really uncomfortable moments that were one of the keys to the show’s success; this time primarily in the form of Dawn and Lee’s “life” in America, full of bickering and screaming children.

And so it continues…Part 2

The second part of the specials is more classic The Office than the first. The whole episode generally focuses on the lead up to and happening of the office Christmas party. Brent starts showing his former self again (despite being a picture of frustration and confusion) when it comes to choosing a date for the office Christmas party – after lying to Neil about actually having one. With Gareth’s somewhat limited help, we’re back on the internet dating scene and together they line up three possible women to be Brent’s date for the party.

To anyone who had up to that point been a fan of The Office, the likelihood that you could then “see what was coming” would be pretty high. This is classic David Brent territory; awkward, jerky and somewhat inappropriate conversations whether it is in front of a large group or as a one-to-one. In the first date, Brent somehow manages to steer the conversation towards breasts, seemingly within a couple of minutes of sitting down. The second date doesn’t even get as far as the two actually meeting, with the call – naturally conducted in a lay-by on a motorway – ending as soon as Brent’s potential date mocks the manager of The Office without actually realising she’s talking to him.

One of the most magical moments of the second part, however, is Brent’s visibly disappointed reaction to his third date. These three seconds are the three that I have no doubt rewound and played again and again. But essentially Brent is out of luck, and has to wait until the night of the party itself in order to meet his next date, Carol.

And so onwards…to the night of the party!

It is often said that if anything more was done with the UK version of The Office then it would be ruined entirely and that is because of the genius of the final scenes of these Christmas specials. In many ways, it brings us back to square one; the only difference being that Brent ends up happy and we – well most of us – feel happy for him, despite the years of him making us chew on the backs of the sofa in horror.

Carol – David’s date – turns up and they hit it off immediately. They are seen laughing and joking either on camera or off it. The return of Dawn (not so much Lee) is the highlight of Tim’s year, not because of the possibility that she could be the love of his life, but also because they can taunt the still-oblivious Gareth about his life in the Territorial Army (and the homoerotic connotations that this has). They’re partying like it’s 2001 all over again. But then come three moments of genius that make this special live up to its billing.

"Christmas Special," The Office

Brent vs Finchy: Well it had to happen didn’t it? The obnoxious Finchy’s endless taunting of Brent finally comes to a head at the party. After years of pandering to him and laughing off any insults, the one directed at his new flame hits hard. “Why don’t you fuck off?” are words that Finchy doesn’t hear very often – and certainly not those expected to come from Brent – and it shows.

Tim and Dawn: Well it had to happen didn’t it? But did they have to do it so well that it can make grown men weep? At first, you think it’s all over; Lee drags Dawn away once he’s had his fun, despite Dawn obviously having a great time with her own friends. Lee is a dick – no change there; even I could have written his lines for these specials. He is sleeping in the front of the taxi when Dawn opens her Secret Santa gift. It’s an oil painting set from Tim – accompanied with a sketch that she’d drawn of him a day earlier with the words “Never give up” written on the back. She leaves Lee, she goes back to the party, she kisses and leaves with Tim. Sorry for the brevity, but I need to go and mop up the tears.

David Brent funny?: And so the party ends with everybody in high spirits (or high, and drinking spirits) when Brent gate-crashes the photo taking and asks for a picture of just him and the “old gang.” He plays the fool, as he does but something is different this time. He makes them laugh.

And everyone thought he was just a big pair of tits.

Tomorrow: A yuletide adventure spanning seven years and one apocalypse.

On the second day of Christmas, Zach Kaplan gave to us…

When growing up, I often heard that it wasn’t ideal for a family to eat dinner gathered around the television instead of having a conversation about their day. I didn’t get it. My family did that every night, and it never seemed so terrible to me. Besides, who can find anything worthwhile in their daily lives to talk about?

Our program of choice was always The Simpsons. Instead of worrying about my own problems, I was laughing at those of my favorite cartoon family. I wished I could be like the rebellious Bart, though I knew I could never be an underachiever, let alone proud of it. And that’s the way it went every night of my pre-college life, except for when we’d eat too late and have to watch King of the Hill instead. Or when, in high school, my new stepmom forced us to turn off the set and focus on each other, but by that time my ability to connect on any level deeper than a joke was too far gone. Being able to distract myself and tell myself that everything is okay proved a very useful skill throughout my life, as has the ability to tune it all out and focus on an old, familiar TV show.

“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is perhaps the crystallization of that perfect old TV show, the first episode, with all of its early, unsure steps and lines that sound less like real dialogue and more like catch phrases to be printed on t-shirts – which they of course in turn were. But it’s also a much more mature Simpsons than the show that we know now, about the family that flies internationally on a whim, fights murderous robots in a theme park and saves its town from becoming encased in a giant dome (a plot that Stephen King would later rip off).

At the beginning, its creators wanted them to worry about money; after all, Homer works a blue-collar job and Marge is a 1950’s-model unemployed housewife. Indeed, every problem in this holi-debut is a direct result of their paucity. Mr. Burns denies Homer a Christmas bonus, so he has to get a second job as a mall Santa and is forced to skimp on gifts. Pressure from Patty and Selma remarking that it barely looks like Christmas around their house causes Homer to steal a pine tree from private property. And along the way, Flanders is there with his elaborate light display and copious gifts that become mixed with Homer’s after bumping into him, only for his son to retrieve the one Simpson present in the pile – a rubber pork chop (for Maggie – it says “for dogs”, but she can’t read).

The last few years have been both some of my most rewarding and most challenging. I moved away from my home state, gained employment and financial independence from my dad, and got married to my lovely wife. All of this has been quite a period of personal growth, especially the last event – it’s difficult to want to become a better person for myself, but it’s a lot easier to do it for her.

By the time I moved to the big city, I was no longer the introvert that I was in high school; college had cured me of that, as had my subsequent involvement with improv comedy – but instead of feeding my inner self until it grew and filled me out, I had built a shell behind which I could hide, a shell of not taking things seriously and treating everything like a joke. It’s not difficult for me to see roots of this in my childhood, though I’ll never blame who I became on one source entirely. And hey, it had helped me deal with some things that I wasn’t ready to face when I was younger. But with the identity of an adult life comes responsibilities, and I had the responsibility of becoming more in touch with my emotions. I can’t say that I’m fully where I’d like to be, but I’m a lot farther than I was four years ago.

Now watching that particular episode, I’m not focusing on the part where Bart pulls down Homer’s Santa beard or when he coins the catch phrase, “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” I’m paying attention to Homer trying so hard to be the provider and do right by his family. I empathize with him when he tells Marge, “I don’t deserve you as much as a guy with a fat wallet and a credit card that wont set off that horrible beeping.” And as I watch him pick out presents – the pork chop for Maggie, pantyhose for Marge (“practical and alluring”), pads of paper for Bart – I think of the many times I’ve headed to the discount rack for gifts while wishing that I could get them what they deserve, begrudgingly talking myself into reduced-price DVDs and such.

(I’m also paying attention to that weird African-style dance that Lisa does at the beginning where she looks like she’s not wearing any pants. First episodes are weird.)

But, like all good Christmas specials, this one ends on a happy, anti-commercialist note. Even without any money for gifts, Homer and Bart snag a free family dog that brings the entire bunch together at the end. “This is the best gift of all, Homer,” Marge says. “It is?” he replies in disbelief. Sometimes I’ve been equally shocked at the support of loved ones like my wife, who appreciates what I do even when I think I’ve ruined Christmas with my inability to produce wealth.

When it first premiered, I was Bart and Lisa, chiming in with the interstitial lyrics to “Rudolph” to the chagrin of my parents. Now, I’m Homer – imperfect, unwealthy, and, despite difficulties like unpleasant relatives and dollar store Christmases, carried through by the support of my loving wife, friends and family.

I guess that’s what Simpsons…I mean, Christmas…is all about.

Tomorrow: From a Christmas pilot to a Christmas finale, we’ll take a look at a festive conclusion to one of the greatest television shows ever made.


“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Ray Charles and Betty Carter
Ray Charles and Betty Carter, 1961

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