Good Grief, Charlie Brown is the second Peanuts animated special, aired March 23, 1966. It was never rerun; it is not known whether any copy or recording besides the original CBS archival copy survives. When asked today, representatives of the Schulz estate differ on whether they even admit its existence — not because of an attempt to suppress it, but out of simple ignorance. The show was intended as a back story and introduction to the Peanuts world; on the heels of the phenomenal success of A Charlie Brown Christmas, a whole series of Peanuts animated TV specials was projected, and it was decided that these would benefit from a proper introduction. For this and other reasons, Good Grief was written and creatively controlled entirely by Charles Schulz personally. Subsequent specials, however, ended up disregarding and even contradicting this one at times, and it will soon be obvious why.
The synopsis is as follows: Charlie Brown is a happy little boy who lives with his mother and father. His best friend is Lucy, a kind, warm-hearted girl who lives next door. They often play together and with her brother Linus; Charlie Brown is always exuberant. He lacks only one thing in his life: he wishes desperately for a dog. At dinner, he begs his parents for a puppy, but they explain that they don't have the time or means to take care of one, and Charlie is too little to do it himself.
It is at this moment a spree killer, soaked in fresh blood from the neighboring Van Pelt residence, breaks down the door and slaughters Charlie's parents right in front of him. Charlie Brown himself survives only because the killer apparently disregards children, or perhaps his particular obsession is to murder the parents of small children — we are made to understand that a similar sequence of events has just passed at the neighbors' house. A particularly disturbing moment occurs where the film cuts back and forth between the inhuman glare of the maniac and the horror in Charlie Brown's face, lingering on each. We do not see the killer leave.
The next scene is at a hospital, where a doctor speaks to Charlie's swiftly obtained foster parents, explaining the boy's situation. Naturally, Charlie Brown is profoundly traumatized. He is constantly sad, not crying — he seems unable to cry — but numb, incapable of expressing any feelings whatever. He reacts indifferently to anything that happens to or around him. He occasionally zones out entirely, and has to be snapped out of these moments by someone else. He seems completely unable to comprehend adults, and indeed, after this scene their dialogue is replaced by the familiar muted-trumpet noises. When he does things — draw, eat, play — he seems almost to be running on autopilot.
The Van Pelt children, fostered in the same neighborhood, are also traumatized. Linus begins to crave a comforting presence at all times — his blanket, previously his mother's pillowcase, and impregnated with her smell — but his personality comes out largely intact. His sister is much the worse for wear: Lucy becomes a violent, troubled child perpetually acting out, victimizing others to briefly feel powerful instead of victimized herself. Her favorite games are subverted into tricking Charlie Brown into hurting himself by breaking his trust in various ways. She is put into daily psychiatric counselling sessions, but these leave only one mark: another game, playing shrink in a converted lemonade stand, which she returns to constantly, a small child's attempt to make sense of her experiences.
Meanwhile, and despite the well-meaning efforts of Linus and his foster parents, Charlie Brown retreats into himself more and more; his foster parents begin to despair. At last, in consultation with the psychiatrist they grasp at a last straw: the psychiatrist remembers Charlie Brown mentioning his desire for a dog, so they buy him one, a peculiar beagle puppy — Snoopy, of course — which they tentatively set before the catatonic child. Snoopy is anything but tentative: he does his trademark exuberant dance, he juggles, he balances plates on a stick — all of which fail to elicit a reaction. The baffled Snoopy finally walks up to Charlie Brown and gives him a big lick in the face. At last, the boy shudders out of his apathy; hugging the dog tight, he bursts into an unrelenting cry of sorrow lasting fully three minutes, supposedly one of the most unsettling things ever set to animation.
Afterward, Charlie Brown remains melancholy; the speech of adults still sounds like the meaningless honking of distant horns — but he is able to function, to eat, to spend time with friends, to start school. So, in the end, Charlie Brown learns that grief is good — eventually you have to let your feelings out to survive, and you get a new puppy!
This dénouement to the cartoon is not, however, the full ending of the story. Various small details, interspersed mainly into the background, allow the observant, adult viewer to deduce the truth: in the closing scenes — from receiving Snoopy forward — Charlie Brown is forty-three years old. He only feels like a child, a melancholy child, perpetually, until (we are now in a position to complete this story) he dies, at age 77, in Santa Rosa, California, a successful cartoonist, beloved by the world, separated forever from those he loved, horrified by those who love him.