Monday, 20 December 2010

The Creative Wet Blanket that is the Holiday Episode

Am I the only one that thinks holiday episodes of TV shows are TERRIBLE? I hate them. They are often insidious and mind-numbing. Case in point: did anyone see the recent Brothers and Sisters Christmas episode? The whole of the plot was that the Walkers decided to change their Christmas traditions for a while before reverting back to what they had always done. Oh, and there was a stupid dream sequence where Nora experienced a Christmas Carol-type vision of the family without her. Awful. It was one of those things that actors always say they had fun filming, but prove to have the opposite effect for the viewing public. (Anyone remember the black and white episode of Felicity? Barf.) Thanksgiving and Halloween episodes often fall into the same categories of terrible TV, as well. Only a few shows over the years (see below) have truly bucked the trend of consistently making eye-rolling holiday fare.

The qualities that make a holiday episode particularly tedious are usually a mix-n-match combination of the following terrible qualities:
- The episode halts serial action of serial dramas.
- The episode tries too hard to "inspire us" with lame cliches, which typically equate to thematic "Christmas miracles!".
- The episode revolves around family Christmas traditions and the exposition explaining them.
- The episode features stunt casting.
- The episode features songs by cast members who don't normally sing.
- The episode "pays homage" to classic Christmas stories, either through basically reproducing the plot of said Christmas story, or through attempting to "ironically" wink at the audience.

The Christmas episode of Glee recently tried to do make good on the last point I mentioned with recreating How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but to me it seemed like the writers trying too hard to be "clever". I will be skipping that episode in future viewings of Glee DVDs, thank you. It was, as my dear friend Lizzy would say, too self-conscious. (Check out this review of the episode by my favorite TV bloggers.)

Bearing these guidelines in mind, I was trying to think of my five worst holiday episodes of all time, but I was having a hard time. I mean, pick almost any long-running show and you'll find at least one misguided attempt at holiday inspiration. Don't even get me started on Halloween episodes (I'm looking at you, LHOTP episode "Halloween Dream". Just no). Therefore, lest the ten of you (my loverly blog readers) find this particular post too grinchy, here are a few examples of good holiday episodes, along with a short comment about why each distinguishes itself from others. (The rankings of #1 and #2, btw, have to do with my general belief that good drama is better than good comedy, but that's another post for another day.)

1. "Noel", The West Wing, season 2: I mentioned this one in an earlier post about an episode of Private Practice. Simply put, this is one of the finest episodes of an excellent series. Avoiding holiday cliches altogether, the episode uses music, which is increased in frequency at Christmastime, as a trigger for Josh Lyman's PTSD. Josh's psychological breakthrough in the final act is always moving, never cheesy.

2. "The One with the Football", Friends, season 6: Friends always did holiday episodes better than every comedy show ever. They generally steered clear of in your face holiday inspiration, but somehow they also avoided cynicism. Far from interrupting the flow of the series with holiday episodes, I always looked forward to their Thanksgiving and Christmas shenanigans. Honestly, it's hard to pick just one of these episodes, but "The One with the Football" always made me laugh the hardest.

3. "Christmas at Plum Creek", Little House on the Prairie, season 1: Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "One minute you say that too much holiday inspiration is what brings a holiday episode down, but the next minute you're choosing a holiday episode of Little House on the Prairie, arguably one of the most schmaltzy primetime dramas ever produced! What gives?" I hear you on that, but let me remind you that the inspirational/emotional manipulation overtones on Little House carried on throughout the series. The Christmas episodes were no more or less sappy than the rest of the show. In fact, I would argue that Tragedy on the Prairie, as my roommate calls it, was the most tragic and inspirational during two parters, which were never holiday episodes. "Christmas at Plum Creek" is a lovely episode about sacrificial love.

4. "The Strike", Seinfeld, season 9: This episode is fantastic because of how succinctly it makes fun of family holiday traditions. Obviously, Seinfeld was always good at commenting on the absurdity of social trends, but in this case, the show took peoples' self-conscious "disillusionment" with holiday commercialism and created a kind of anti-Christmas holiday with Frank Costanza's "Festivus for the rest of us". Oddly enough, "Festivus" became its own social trend, and according to Wikipedia, Festivus is now unofficially celebrated as a secular holiday.

5. "Tidings of Comfort and Joy" American Dreams, season 3: By this episode, the Pryor family had known about JJ's MIA status in Vietnam for weeks, and the tension was palpable. As they tried to go about their everyday lives, the potential tragedy underneath the surface could have burst at any moment for any one of them. But in the final scene, just after the Roman Catholic Pryors were leaving church, JJ came home. If we're talking here about most shows' failures in trying to thematically recreate "the spirit of Christmas", American Dreams managed to somehow succeed, for underlying the miracle of Christ at Christmas is the tragedy of humanity's need for Christ. When JJ returned to his family, tragedy subsided, and hope reigned supreme.

Honorable mention: "The Best Chrismukkah Ever" (The O.C., season 1); "Christmas Scandal" (Parks and Recreation, season 2)

Have a great Christmas season everyone!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Triumphant Return of Claire Danes

In case you hadn't heard in the last few weeks, Showtime announced that Claire Danes is going to be starring in a new series for the network called Homeland, and Mandy Patinkin was just announced as one of her costars. For those of you who haven't watched the short-lived 90s cult hit My So-Called Life, you need to go and do that. Right now. In it, Danes played Angela Chase, a "normal" teenage girl, with all the overly earnest angst and performative apathy that comes with being a teenage girl. Her sensitive, intelligent, (dare I say?) brilliant portrayal of Angela earned her a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination for best actress. My So-Called Life's nineteen episodes comprise one of my two favorite series of all time. So imagine my delight at hearing the news that Danes is returning to a TV series after over fifteen years away! Maybe her Emmy-winning role in HBO's Temple Grandin this year whetted her appetite for the kind of character drama that TV is producing so well these days. In any case, I know I'm not the only one to be positively giddy about watching Danes on a series again. How about a slow hand-clap for the influx of movie stars to TV.

One Tree Hill: "Darkness on the Edge of Town"

It might seem like I'm a little obsessed with this show, given how infrequently I blog and of those infrequent blog posts, how frequently I blog about this show. Well, I say nay to that, sir. I find its shenanigans refreshing, as it doesn't take itself too seriously these days, and I enjoy mocking it with love. I realized last night that of the long-running shows still on the air that I'm loyal to, I've been loyal to this one the longest. Now in its eighth season (I know, right?!), One Tree Hill has become a comfy, but tattered pair of sweatpants on my season pass list. Translation: I'm not throwing it out.

This week's episode featured a storm, so we knew some crazy s*** was going down in Tree Hill! Some of the series' best episodes have been storm episodes, and this one was up there with the best offenders. Let's start with the return of Psycho Katie (one of the best OTH psychos since Nanny Carrie!). I was trying to explain this to a friend last night, and realized just how manic it sounded, but here goes: Quinn was home alone on the stormy night, left vulnerable to attack by Clay being out of town, so of course Crazy Katie stalked in. We'd just seen her making crazy eyes to the camera in the last episode, so we knew it was coming. Of course the phones were down because of the storm, and a fallen tree was blocking the driveway, so Quinn had no choice but to dogfight that crazy lady all through the house. Point: Crazy Katie. At one point it looked like Crazy Katie was going to leave, which doesn't make any sense, since a tree was down in the driveway, but whatevs, so instead of letting Crazy Katie free to stalk another day, Quinn football tackled her off a balcony, causing them to fall in the pool. Then, Quinn played dead (just go with it), only to sneak back into the house and put the lone bullet she managed to recover (and keep dry) through the madness in the empty revolver and shoot Crazy Katie in the stomach. Point: Quinn. Then, it looked like Quinn went downstairs to clean stuff up, while Katie lay there bleeding. Eventually we saw some paramedics carting Katie to the hospital, so we know she was still alive, but this brings me to my next topic: where are all the first responders in Tree Hill?

Last week, Quinn contemplated murdering Crazy Katie, and it became clear that Quinn had tracked her down in Crazytown, or wherever Tree Hill psychos reside between bouts of terrorizing. My problem with this: shouldn't police be able to find her pretty easily? Both of Crazy Katie's shooting victims somehow survived to identify her. Tree Hill Police Department: FAIL.

Apparently the paramedics and firefighters in Tree Hill are as bad at their jobs as the cops, because the other major plot this week involved Brooke and co trying for the better part of an hour to get Jamie out of his seat belt after a car wreck (where else?) on a bridge. My favorite part was when the car fell off the bridge into the ravine, and Julian was all, "Don't worry, it's hit the bottom. The car's not sinking." Famous last words before the levy broke. I will admit that while I was watching this, I was pretty sure everyone was going to live, but I wasn't sure how they were going to get out of this pickle. Of course eventually everyone lived, and Jamie was reunited with his parents, who only had a boring flat tire through all this. But, seriously, we didn't even see the arrival of the worst first response team in the USA. Point: storm.

This is probably the last season of One Tree Hill, so we can only venture to guess that this will be its final storm episode. In my opinion, it was a fun one!

Also, has anyone else noticed that James Lafferty (Nathan) is looking more like Superman everyday? Not complaining, just observing.