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TV: Best Christmas Episodes (Part 1)

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

There’s nothing quite like the Christmas season on television. Aside from season finales, Christmas is the time of year that a show’s writing staff really pulls out every stop to make a great episode.

However, most of these specials go overlooked during the holiday season, as most people turn to old standbys like Peanuts, Rudolph, and Frosty. That’s not to say there isn’t anything wrong with the saccharine sweetness of those classics, but since the ’70s and ’80s heyday of schmaltz, there have been a number fantastic Christmas specials that explore the less-overt aspects of the holiday.

In other words, that means that all of these are slightly mean-spirited or sad Christmas specials, because, let’s face it — for everyone that loves Christmas, this time of year is an equally depressing one for someone else. Comedy has a knack for making tragedy into cheer, though, so let’s get on with it.

Seinfeld, “The Strike” (1997)

Okay, this is more of a Hanukkah episode, but Rhombus readers are nothing if not tolerant, right? Seinfeld’s take on the holiday season involves the now-famous celebration of Festivus, an occasion created by Frank Costanza after becoming frustrated with the materialism of Hanukkah (and Christmas). Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer end up involved in this year’s Festivus party, and the event quickly devolves into the same kind of chaos everyone has experienced at a family party — hilariously, of course. For a show that based itself on observations of the minutae of life, Seinfeld’s holiday special not only provided wry commentary, but also created an entirely new holiday. It’s a true Festivus miracle.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “A Very Sunny Christmas” (2009)

This is one of my favorite Christmas specials ever, because it’s terrible people doing terrible things — at Christmas. Jordan Petersen already wrote a fantastic bit about this special in his Christmas round-up, but it’s worth mentioning twice. It’s that funny. If there’s any room for some pure blackness in your Christmas rotation, watch It’s Always Sunny. So with that out of the way, I’ll move on to my next-darkest choice.

American Dad, “Rapture’s Delight” (2009)

Family Guy’s little brother has turned into one of the most delightfully absurd shows on the air, and its holiday special revels in the show’s chaos. If the title weren’t evidence enough, its plot is centered on the Christian Rapture and the beginning of the apocalypse. Granted, it’s only bookended by actual mention of Christmas, but for some reason, nothing gets me in the holiday spirit like a post-apocalyptic dystopia and an epic showdown with the Antichrist. If your religious convictions will stop you from laughing, this probably isn’t a good choice. But for anyone who enjoys a little faith-based awesomeness, check this one out.

Community, “Comparative Religion” (2009)

It’s a little much to consider a show’s freshman-season Christmas episode a classic, but as has become the consensus on this site, Community is no ordinary show. The group’s divergent religious beliefs come into conflict during December, as their study group includes a devout Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Jehovah’s Witness, a “Buddhist,” and an atheist. As they struggle to reach a compromise on faith before their holiday party, everybody realizes that the holiday season is about family and friendship. Of course, this being Community, the episode ends with the study group bloodied and bruised from an incredible fight sequence in a winter wonderland, which makes every lesson learned even sweeter.

The Office (UK), “Christmas Special” (2003) and The Office (US), “A Benihana Christmas” (2007)

While each version of The Office is very different in its tone and character development, both managed to bring incredible Christmas stories to their viewers. The UK Office used Christmas as a backdrop for its series finale, in which the camera crew revisits the characters three years after the series had supposedly ended. What ensued is one of the most tragic and also touching comedy episodes of the last decade, but it also serves as an amazing testament to the power of what Christmas can do for even the most lonely of souls.

As for the American version, each season, with the exception of the writers’ strike-shortened fourth, has had a fairly memorable Christmas episode. However, season three’s “Benihana Christmas” also used the holiday to add a great deal of depth to its already-established characters. Michael Scott is one of the saddest characters to ever grace a comedy series, but his relentless naivete reaches new heights at Christmas, when he is broken up with not once, but twice. Amongst all this looming melancholy, the rest of the office busts out the comedy to create an episode that hits that sweet spot of sadness and joy that only The Office can provide.

The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (1989)

Twenty-one years ago, America was introduced to the Simpson family in a Christmas special that nobody at the time realized would spur a revolution in animation and comedy. As far as Simpsons Christmas episodes go, the rest never quite reached the quality and freshness of that first outing. This episode also brings more of the sentimentality that characterized those early years of The Simpsons, and makes for something truly sweet and winning from the family that would partly define the next twenty years of American pop culture. So, not only does this amount to a great Christmas episode, but also a nifty history lesson on the television medium itself.

That’s it for this week! Stay tuned to Rhombus for next week’s part two, in which we look at this year’s crop of holiday specials and see if any stack up against the true classics.

Glee

TV: Glee, Community and Consistency

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

This week’s episode of Glee should have been poised to be one of the highlights of the series’ entire run. Instead, the glee club’s return to competition felt like it came out of nowhere, with no build-up other than characters dropping the word “sectionals” sporadically throughout the season.

Last year, Glee built its first 13-episode run to that final performance at Sectionals, as if the glee club’s entire fate revolved around the competition. Once that first run ended and the show went into hiatus, though, Glee became more and more of a headache to watch and quickly became the most inconsistent show on television.

At its outset, Glee was a show about a high school teacher wanting to relive his glory days, and a group of kids with nowhere to fit in. That group of people came together through a love of music, and made a few fantastic hours of television. Now, the show will have plotlines appear and conclude within a single episode, creating a continuity that is baffling at times. Characters, most prominently Will Schuester, will make complete 180-degree turns in their motives. The characters serve whichever purpose they need to each week, and whenever the show has a big finale-esque episode (like this week’s) that needs to tie the past ten episodes’ loose threads up, the result is anticlimactic and feels unearned.

Even with all this inconsistency, Glee still remains one of the most popular shows on the air. Its success is counter-intuitive to everything ratings machines have been telling America for decades.

TV viewers are supposed to like consistency, familiarity, and characters that won’t change too drastically. This theory is why Two and a Half Men and American Idol, while both very different shows, are hits. They provide a safety for viewers — a show they can watch without thinking too much. Even Modern Family, while churning out smart and hilarious half-hours week after week, sticks to this tried and true principle.

But under most people’s radar, there is a show that reliably outdoes both Glee and Modern Family at their respective games. Community is just as wildly unpredictable as Glee, as Meg Walter pointed out on Rhombus a few weeks ago. The show can jump from a zombie-apocalypse episode to a parody of Mean Girls to an episode ribbing convoluted conspiracy theories — all without ever feeling strained. However, what most viewers of Community forget is that, during the show’s first two seasons, only a handful of episodes have been the genre-bending parodies the show has become praised for.

The rest of Community‘s episodes are smaller in concept, but equally great in comedy. The show began by mostly taking familiar sitcom tropes and turning them on their heads, as evidenced in last month’s exceptional “bottle episode.” These episodes succeed or fail based on the believability of its characters. Community‘s cast began as a group of stereotypes with little development. But while Glee has let its characters stagnate and remain caricatures, Community has given every member of its ensemble unique dreams, fears and motives that can carry an episode. The show’s writers pride themselves on the ability to pair any two characters and make a compelling plot, something they’ve proven in nearly every episode.

A TV show can only succeed if the viewer truly believes that the characters have lives off-screen. Characters need to be a show’s fallback, something it can turn to when a story becomes too absurd or illogical. That has been Glee‘s biggest shortcoming, because without those relationships and character dynamics to fall back on, what should be an important episode in the show’s mythology comes out of nowhere and still feels anticlimactic. It makes for a show that may be enjoyable to watch, but is completely superficial and fake. Building relationships is how shows like The Office and Modern Family have built their success, in making characters that feel like genuinely real people. Through that, a show can take its characters anywhere — even to the moon, as Community has already done this season!

To call Community a parody show is “an oversimplification… and not the whole truth,” to quote the show itself. It is more aptly a show about a group of friends that, when it wants to, can parody just about anything it wants to. By combining that wild inconsistency of Glee with genuine characters to care about, Community is poised to go down as one of the greats.

If all this sounds like a shameless plug to watch Community, that’s because that is exactly what this is. Watch it.

Community airs Thursdays at 7 p.m. on NBC. Glee airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on FOX.

Arrested Development

TV: Development Arrested: Can Lightning Strike Twice?

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

FOX recently announced its plans for mid-season replacements, and it seems that Running Wilde will be the network’s first major cancellation of the fall season. The sitcom, starring Will Arnett and Keri Russell, has struggled in its timeslot, and FOX has gone so far as to hold off all new episodes until after November sweeps.

Any show placed between Glee and the fall’s only breakout hit, Raising Hope, should have been a home run. However, after only six episodes, what may seem like a premature death is actually a telling example of one of the strangest occurrences in television — the continual failure of Running Wilde’s creator Mitchell Hurwitz.

It’s not easy being Mitch Hurwitz. In 2005, he was undisputed television royalty, with his creation Arrested Development being praised as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. Even though it never found a solid audience, its status as a critical darling made up for the middling ratings. Once Arrested Development was cancelled in 2005, FOX (and the TV world in general) eagerly awaited Hurwitz’s triumphant return — but it never happened.

Now, being the mind behind a television show is one of the most stressful jobs in show business. Just like a director or screenwriter has lofty expectations after a hit film, the TV world looks to creators as the minds responsible for their shows. One-hit wonders are fairly uncommon.

Take Chuck Lorre, for example. His first production, Dharma and Greg, was always stable, if not a full-fledged hit. Afterward, he went on to create Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, two of America’s most popular shows. His newest production, Mike and Molly, is expected to continue this trend. Lorre’s shows are almost universally detested by critics, but they inexplicably resonate with Middle America.

Hurwitz, in 2005, was expected to find a niche as the thinking man’s Lorre. But by 2008 there was still no sign of a follow-up — until Hurwitz announced his new program Sit Down, Shut Up, his adaptation of an Australian sitcom. The twist? Hurwitz’s version would be a live-action/animated hybrid. Even though Sit Down boasted a large cast, including many Arrested alumni, it was critically panned and audiences ignored it as well. After a mere four episodes, it was bumped to late Sunday nights where it met its doom.

After that fiasco, expectations for Running Wilde were lukewarm at best. The show was billed as a romantic comedy, once again with multiple actors and callbacks to Arrested Development. While critics were more enthusiastic this time, audiences remained nonplussed. (By the way, it’s worth checking out the show on Hulu. It’s really coming into its own as an alternative to TV’s generally mean-spirited comedy, and getting cancelled so early would be a shame.)

But why can’t Hurwitz catch a break? He proved he’s immensely talented, with his writing skills lending themselves to much of Arrested‘s success. It’s precisely that success that has caused his continual failure.

It may seem obvious that FOX adored Arrested Development — the network kept it on the air for three years despite middling ratings and continually played up its Emmy success. However, Hurwitz has since revealed in interviews that FOX was a constant burden in the show’s production, telling Hurwitz they didn’t “get it” and were worried about it’s relatability to audiences. Because of their lack of support, FOX pressured Hurwitz to change his style and tone in his subsequent projects as the network kept bidding highest to attempt to reclaim that Emmy glory.

Granted, it would be nearly impossible to follow up Arrested Development, no matter how fantastic the show is. It’s incredibly difficult to win over a passionate fan base, and the watering-down of Hurwitz by FOX doesn’t help. Arrested Development was transcendent because it expected so much of its audience, like the ability to catch callbacks and foreshadowing that spanned the entire series. It was the complete opposite of Lorre’s check-your-brain-at-the-door CBS sitcoms — and that’s why it was incredible. Meanwhile, Running Wilde is more comparable to Outsourced in its obvious humor.

Maybe Mitch Hurwitz will never be able to capitalize on Arrested Development’s success. Perhaps he needs to find a network other than FOX to foster his creativity. Lightning can strike twice, and Hurwitz just needs the support and backing to make magic happen again. Or he could just make the Arrested Development movie already.

I’d be happy either way.

Kanye West

Review: Kanye West, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in Music

“I fantasized ’bout this back in Chicago,” Kanye West proclaims at the outset of his latest full-length album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The following 70 minutes feel like a true culmination of Kanye’s fantasies of grandeur and musical innovation.

With a title that would make even the most hardened emo band cringe and a year full of faux pas for West, audiences are naturally skeptical that Fantasy is anything more than a self-indulgent mess. However, anyone who misses out on this album out of hatred for Kanye, loyalty to Taylor Swift or any other reason are missing out on something special. This is an album showcasing an already-trailblazing artist at the pinnacle of his talents. In fewer words, it is simply transcendent.

Conan 1

TV: Review: Conan

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

There was no way Conan could live up to its hype.

The NBC late-night debacle of January 2010 needs no introduction, and that alone would have been enough to build insurmountable anticipation for tonight’s premiere. But Conan O’Brien and his loyal, sometimes rabid, fan base built Conan (the show, not the man) into something far larger. Over the course of the last nine months, Conan (the man) became what more than a few news outlets have called America’s 21st Century folk hero.

After the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, the creation of one of Twitter’s most prolific accounts, and a relentless marketing campaign that made Lost’s finale look like it was undersold, Conan could only hope that his two million Twitter followers would follow him to TBS. Hopefully, they’d bring all their friends with them too. Conan faces stiffer competition than ever in his new timeslot — he’s up against The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the first half hours of Jay Leno and David Letterman.

That’s enough about speculation. Did Conan succeed triumphantly, or will he fall into obscurity as a speed bump in television history?

Well, short answer: Conan’s premiere was a resounding success for the audience it was built for — fans of his old Late Night show who felt shortchanged by the watered-down Conan of The Tonight Show. I felt like Conan was tailor-made for people like me. I had been watching Conan on NBC habitually since fourth grade, and last winter’s disaster in late night was personally devastating.

As a longtime fan, tonight’s episode of Conan was a marvel to behold. Conan felt loose and natural, like he did in his Late Night time slot. It’s as if the weight of hosting a venerable program like The Tonight Show is gone, and Conan can do whatever he wants (and he does).

However, this approach isn’t going to win over anybody who’s on the fence. For example, my girlfriend’s parents hate Conan, pegging him as “weird” and “cringe-inducing.” They are diehard fans of Jay Leno, though. It’s simply a matter of taste in comedy — and obviously Conan, and subsequently Conan, aren’t for everyone. It’s also safe to say that anyone who was sympathetic to Leno during last year’s transition period won’t be tuning in on basic cable.

Now, on to the specifics of the show itself. The premiere opened with a fantastic cold open, portrayed as a chronicle of Conan’s descent into turmoil and eventual redemption in being picked up by TBS. The cold open featured Conan’s “wife” and 14 kids, two attempted Mafia hitjobs, and a disturbing clown costume. Jon Hamm (or is that Don Draper?) appears in a very funny cameo, as does Larry King, Conan’s guardian angel. It’s a great start, reminiscent of the also-great cold open of Conan’s Tonight Show.

The show then moves into a little shakier territory. As much as I love digs at NBC and the limitations of basic cable, I can’t wait for Conan to move into his more standard fare. It’s difficult to gauge how the show will function with this kind of joke being prominent, but judging by Conan’s enthusiasm, it’ll be back to business as usual in a few days.

As for the guests, Seth Rogen and Lea Michele played along, with Rogen in particular providing great fodder for Conan to joke with. A highlight was the winner of the “First Guest” poll, with Arlene Wagner, curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum, briefly appearing. I was only slightly disappointed in her not garnering a seat on the couch for an interview.

The show ended with Conan, always the guitar aficionado, playing alongside Jack White in an engaging performance. During the song, Conan’s joy in being back on television was obvious and glorious to behold. Sidekick Andy Richter and the rest of the staff and crew appear just as excited as Conan himself, and with a surprise appearance from The Masturbating Bear, the show soars on that energy.

It’s rare to see an entertainer so deeply invested in his craft, but Conan has proved the hype true by creating a show with so very few wrinkles and kinks. Without any limitations, and with the full support of TBS, Conan can be every bit as absurd as its host wants it to be.

Here’s to a long basic cable run, Conan. After this year, you’ve earned it.

Conan airs Monday through Thursday at 9:00 P.M. Mountain Time on TBS.