Christmas. Christmas! CHRIIIIIISTMAAAAAAAAAS! It’s almost here! So I’ve grown up, so people tell me I’m too old for an advent calendar, so Santa’s not real*, so what? It’s still a great time of year, but if you’re struggling to find some festive cheer, why not curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a mince pie and watch these, the best Christmas episodes ever shown on TV ever.
*(Oh dear, I hope there aren’t any young kids reading this. Ah, well, Santa’s not real! Deal with it.)
BIG DISCLAIMER: These are the best Christmas episodes that I’ve seen. I’m still working my way through some TV shows, and there are of course many which I’ve never seen, so you may have a personal favourite from one of those shows that isn’t on this list. But don’t be angry, maybe mention it in the comments instead. It would be nice to get some recommendations from everyone reading this. If anyone’s reading this. Is anyone reading this?
Anyway, shall we begin?
THE SIMPSONS – MARGE BE NOT PROUD
The Simpsons has had many Christmas specials over its 25-year run. Though it has been mediocre at best for at least 15 of those years, it has left us with loads of classic episodes. The very first episode was a Christmas special, but it’s not my favourite that the show has done. That honour goes to Season Seven’s “Marge Be Not Proud”, a fantastic episode which, bizarrely, isn’t on any of the Christmas-episode-collection DVDs (this episode doesn’t make it on, but rubbish like “Dude, Where’s My Ranch?” and “Tis the Fifteenth Season” do? Weird).
Christmas is coming, and all the kids in Springfield want the super-violent new videogame Bonestorm (“Tell your folks ‘Buy me Bonestorm or GO TO HELL’!” screams the angry Santa in the advert). Bart desperately wants it, but Marge is reluctant to buy it and Milhouse refuses to share his copy. Nelson and Jimbo encourage him to shoplift it by using flawless logic (“Shoplifting is a victimless crime, like punching someone in the dark!”), but he’s caught and has to face the gravelly-voiced security guard and the disappointed stares of his family.
The episode is full of crafty observational humour (the rude, spoilt child getting two copies of the game because he won’t share, Krusty’s awful TV Christmas special) and absurdity (all of Bart’s little daydreams throughout the episode, including Mario, Donkey Kong and Sonic persuading him to steal). The supermarket security guard that acts like he’s a gruff police detective is a great one-off character, with plenty of weird one-liners (“Sure, now he’s just a little boy stealing little toys, but some day he’ll be a grown man, stealing stadiums and quarries”).
It’s also surprisingly sweet, as all the best Simpsons episodes are. Homer’s incoherent ranting at Bart (“STEALING! How could you?! Haven’t you learned anything from that guy who gives those sermons at church – Captain Whatsisname?!”) is juxtaposed with Marge’s severe disappointment with her ‘special little guy’. This isn’t the last time that Bart would almost ruin Christmas (he accidentally melts the Simpsons’ plastic Christmas tree in ‘Miracle on Evergreen Terrace’), but it is the most affecting. The sadness in Marge’s voice after Bart admits to stealing sounds devastatingly real.
COMMUNITY – ABED’S UNCONTROLLABLE CHRISTMAS
The Christmas episodes of clever American sitcom Community are usually a highlight of each season, but Season Two’s episode is a highlight of the whole series. Abed – a character whose view on reality is always skewed slightly, as he prefers to look at the world as if it were a TV show – comes to the community college cafeteria one day exclaiming that everything has turned into a stop-motion animation, like an old Christmas special, and that this must therefore be the most important Christmas ever.
His friends become concerned as, even for Abed, this is odd. He insists that nothing is wrong, but the rest of the study group, who have become his closest friends, aren’t convinced. A hastily-organised intervention by the group and the psychology professor (played by The Daily Show‘s John Oliver) leads to a journey through Abed’s psyche, as the group try to discover what’s caused this bizarre turn, while Abed thinks he’s on a quest to find the true meaning of Christmas.
The great thing is that the audience is seeing everything from Abed’s perspective, so everything is claymation. The characters, the sets, everything. Abed’s minor mental breakdown is wrapped in a colourful Christmassy claymation coating, full of snow, cheeriness magic and songs, leaving the darkness bubbling (what does darkness do? Bubble? Rumble?) underneath. And this episode is dark as hell. Not only does a main character experience an episode-long mental breakdown, the cause of it is rather bleak, and during the ‘journey through his mind’ – visualised in the episode as a trip through a whimsical winter wonderland, but in reality is just everyone sitting around a table – not all of his friends make it to the end with him, and Abed has some harsh criticism for some of them.
Fortunately, the show never forgets during Abed’s, um, episode, that it is first and foremost a comedy. So, as well as being a perfect recreation of the warm, sugary, claymation Christmas specials everyone watched as a child, and being a subversion of those same specials by revealing that the cause for this cozy Christmas caper is far from happy, it’s also very, very funny.
Jokes abound, as the more sarcastic members of the study group struggle to keep up with Abed’s imaginative adventure, Professor Duncan approaches the delicate subject matter with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and every Christmassy thing you can possibly think of is included and simultaneously mocked and paid homage to. The voice acting is also top-notch and every joke works perfectly.
Despite all the underlying darkness, this is still a hilarious episode, and it ends in a big heart-warming musical number, like all the best Christmas specials do. You could scrutinise and analyse Abed’s adventure if you really wanted to – ‘What do the guises he assigns each member of the study group in his mind say about how he sees those characters?’. Or, you could just sit back and watch this extraordinary, endlessly-rewatchable episode with a big smile on your face and leave feeling all warm and fuzzy. Perfect Christmas viewing.
FUTURAMA – XMAS STORY
Animation’s become a bit of a theme of this list, so let’s continue it with Futurama.
It’s the year 3000. Not much has changed, but we live underwater – no, sorry, a lot has changed. For one, we don’t live underwater, and two, Santa is real, and he’s a robot. Unfortunately, due to a glitch in his programming, Robot Santa has unfairly high standards and sees almost everyone as naughty. Every Xmas, he comes to Earth and rains down holiday hell on the terrified citizens of New New York. If you get a lump of coal, count yourself lucky. Destruction, death, chaos, fear. In the Futurama universe, ‘Santa Claus is coming to town!’ is an ominous warning, not a promise of cheer and excitement.
It’s all a bit dark, but it’s all extremely silly and funny. All the murderous Santa stuff is surrounded by a slapstick ski trip and Fry, freshly unfrozen from 1999, being introduced to the strange new holiday traditions of Xmas (not Christmas, ‘ex-mas’) in the third millennium. Also, the sheer delight the show has in twisting all the merry Christmas conventions into something sinister and violent (“Your mistletoe is no match for my T.O.W. missile!” yells Robot Santa) is fun to watch.
FUTURAMA – A TALE OF TWO SANTAS
Yes, I’m cheating and including two from the same show. They’re equally good, I couldn’t decide on just one.
After gleefully playing with Rudolph the red-nosed Reindeer, Tiny Tim, and other Christmas classics in ‘Xmas Story’, the writers clearly felt that there was more they could do with the concept of Christmas in the future. So, we get ‘A Tale of Two Santas’, an episode which introduces Santa’s workshop/death fortress on Neptune, where the local Neptunians are starving and unemployed because Santa hasn’t asked them to make any toys and the local toy factory has been shut down for years.
In a subversion of The Santa Clause, the Planet Express crew decide to kill Santa to stop his yearly reign of merry misery. They fail, but leave him trapped in ice on Xmas Eve. Alcoholic, foul-mouthed, purse-stealing robot Bender must replace him. The toy factory is up and running, but Bender uses the elves as slave labour, complains about their work – through a jaunty, festive, musical number, of course – and insults them whenever possible. He must also attempt to deliver toys to a city full of people who would attack Santa on sight. Then, he’s caught by police and put on Death Row. What fun!
Until I wrote this post, it never really occurred to me how horrible and grim this all sounds on paper. It’s honestly one of the funniest episodes of Futurama. Since the premise of Xmas was explained in the last Christmas episode, there’s more room in this one to stuff joke upon joke upon pun upon joke. The humour is dark, sure, and extremely daft, but that’s Futurama in a nutshell. One of the show’s first jokes about the future was based around the existence of a suicide booth, for God’s sake. Plus, this episode has Zoidberg dressed as Jesus! How could you not laugh?
Fry complains at the start of the episode that Xmas is no longer about bringing people together. He later learns that everyone still comes together, but for completely different reasons. People huddle together in fear, holding each other for comfort and support as Robot Santa shoots gifts out of a rocket launcher above their heads. Awww, how… sweet?
LOST – THE CONSTANT
A man called Desmond lands on a freighter, just off the coast of a mysterious island which he’s been trying to escape for years, when he suddenly gets a nosebleed and collapses. Next thing you know, he’s in 1996, in the army, getting yelled at by his commanding officer. Then he’s back on the boat, in 2004, with a hell of a headache. Time travel can cause a few headaches anyway, even just hearing someone try to explain it, but in Desmond’s case, this is serious. If he doesn’t find a way to stop his mind from bouncing back-and-forth from past to present and back again, his poor brain won’t be able to cope with the mind-bending mechanics of consciousness time-travel, and he will die an agonising death. Merry Christmas!
Since it’s partway through Season Four, this is not an ideal jumping-on point if you’ve never seen Lost, but it is a brilliant episode of the show, as Desmond-centric episodes tend to be, and certainly one of the best episodes of the entire series. It takes the show’s trademark flashbacks, which are normally used to give the audience some much-needed past back-story while the characters potter around the island off-screen in the present, and gives them a new twist. They’re still giving the audience the back-story of a main character, but the character is re-experiencing them, too, and must alter them in order to stop his horrible headache.
The first time you watch it, you may be feeling sympathy pains – the episode zips along at a breakneck pace, jumping about in time, teasing the show’s larger mythology, chucking information and plot at you and hoping you keep up. It’s dizzyingly confusing, exciting, emotional and suspenseful. You may need an aspirin and a lie down afterwards.
Without giving too much away, Desmond must talk to a special someone in both times to keep him sane and, more importantly, alive. Problem is, this person in 1996 wants nothing to do with him, and in 2004 he’s stuck on an island in the middle of nowhere with a faulty phone, and he’s completely, well, LOST. So much hinges on one impossible phone call, but it’s not looking good and time (heh-heh) is running out.
‘Well this is all very well and good, Dan, but what the hell does this have to do with Christmas?’ Well I’m glad you asked. You see, Desmond has to ask his special someone in 1996 to remember to phone him 8 years later, to the exact day, in 2004, to stabilise his consciousness and save his life. Luckily for him, it’s a very memorable day. It’s Christmas Eve. Lovely.
DOCTOR WHO – A CHRISTMAS CAROL
‘For God’s sake Daniel, can’t you go one blog post without mentioning Doctor bloody Who?’ Apparently not, frustrated reader. But I mention it this time with good reason. This Christmas special packs a new, timey-wimey take on an old classic, the titular tale of a grumpy old man who despises Christmas and people in general, but is persuaded to change his miserable ways.
In this case, the grumpy old man is played by Michael Gambon (who, fittingly, played the grumpier Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films), and he’s in charge of controlling the atmosphere of an entire planet. The Doctor’s friends and thousands of other passengers are stuck in a ship flying through this dangerous atmosphere and are about to crash, but the old man who can save them with the flick of a switch couldn’t give two shits.
So, the Doctor must venture into the man’s past and stop him from becoming so bitter and hateful. One way to do this would be to make his childhood happier, but daddy issues and lost loves make this a difficult task for the Doctor. Can he turn this space Scrooge into a nice guy? Can he save his friends and thousands of innocent people from a fiery death? Well, what do you think?
There we are, 6 of the best festive episodes that have ever aired on telly, in my opinion. I’m sure I’ve missed a few good ones out, but these are the ones that stand out in my mind. Merry Christmas! Oh, it’s only the beginning of December. Um, merry…advent? Yes, Merry Advent! Ho ho ho!