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!


  1. I don't know if you watch Community at all, but they've really hit their stride this season and most of their episodes are spoofs of different movie genres. Anyway I mention this because their Halloween zombie episode was AMAZING.

  2. The Best Chrismukkah Ever has to be in the top 5 not just in the honorable mention category. The Office Christmas episodes are also pretty solid as well. Here's a question ... Why isn't Psych on your list of shows you watch?

  3. We agree with the Friends pick, but wasn't that Thanksgiving themed? We agree with this post, overall. Why not just gift us with a regular, good episode for Christmas? Oh, and Alice is right. Community's Christmas episode almost redeemed Christmas episodes for us.

    Also, thanks for turning us on to Parks and Rec. It's amazing! It's like The Office, only Leslie is more lovable than Michael Scott, and P&R isn't as cynical. A funny and sweet show.

    (And Brothers and Sisters had a Christmas Carol-type dream sequence? Ughh, gag me with a shovel)

    Merry Christmas!

  4. Alice, I really *want* to get into Community, but I'm not crazy about it. I think since I'm about a year from having to apply to community college jobs for reals, the show is just a little too real for me.

    Kyle, such an easy answer to your question: because I don't watch Psych ;) I agree about the Office's Christmas episodes, but I'm finding that show to be a little bit of a chore these days, so I think that's why I excluded it.

    Ern and Leeard, Brothers and Sisters is AWFUL. I'm *this* close to dropping it. You're right about the Friends episode, but I chucked it in there with holiday episodes anyway, just for kicks and giggles. Glad you like Parks and Rec! It's one of my favs!

  5. No I agree. Holyday episodes always suck compared to the normal episodes.