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.