Christmas specials: the good and the bad

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Dr. Meredith Grey wishes you a Mere-y Christmas.
Dr. Meredith Grey wishes you a Mere-y Christmas. // Creative Commons

SN: Since this will be our last installment before winter break, we thought we’d take the time to talk about a special subspecies of television: the holiday episode. This stretch of calendar from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is rich with possibilities: an excuse for Gcharacters to gather and guest stars to return; the chance to establish in-jokes; moments of unusual tenderness or total mayhem.

Personally, I like the opportunity for something overstated and haywire. One of the best Christmas episodes of all time is “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” which is entirely done in claymation. The episode is incredibly clever and not a little bit manic, like a lot of “Community” — but it’s also got a bit of a melancholy twinge to it, too.

And when I want comfort food, I can’t go wrong with “The West Wing.” Sorkin is the king of schmaltz. He spikes it with a little bit of banter, and serves it to you warm. President Bartlet handing down his heirloom knife to Charlie? Toby giving a homeless veteran a funeral? This is stuff to curl up to during an otherwise cold, cruel winter.

But there’s plenty of room for failure, too. For me, “A Very Glee Christmas,” from the show’s second season, was the point of no return. That was when Ryan Murphy’s formula of sentimentality and nastiness veered way too far into after-school special territory; it was so painfully precious I knew I couldn’t watch “Glee” again.

GC: It’s a shame you stopped with “A Very Glee Christmas”; you missed out on “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” in season 3, which is the original example for me of how Christmas specials go wrong. It requires almost no context to understand why that episode so dramatically doesn’t work. First, it’s never a good idea to sing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in a homeless shelter. Something’s deeply, profoundly, sourly in bad taste there. But more importantly, don’t make the meaning of Christmas the meaning of your Christmas special. It’s safe to say that’s been done before, and it’s enormously frustrating to see familiar faces contorted into out-of-character expressions of holiday spirit. “Glee” adds insult to injury by heaping mountains of spastically winking irony on the whole mess, which, c’mon … not on Christmas.

I like ‘em understated. To my mind, the good Christmas specials feel more like, well, Christmas — sincerely, down-to-earthly so. Everybody’s a little nicer than they might otherwise be, there’s a little more goodwill to go around, but no tidal wave of transformative rectitude sweeps through to smash your suspension of disbelief.

For one of the good ones, I’d point to “How I Met Your Mother”’s episode “False Positive.” There’s no effort made to cram the cast into outlandish Nativity scenes. Instead, we get the simple and charming set piece of Ted trying to get the gang to a screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” complete with Christmas-themed movie snacks. Around that center are looped a series of vignettes about the friends taking some meaningful baby steps towards personal growth as the year draws to a close.

And that’s it. Nothing more and nothing less than a group of people making slightly better choices than they might typically, treating each other and their fellow man right. Too often, catching the Christmas spirit on TV is a kind of demonic possession — “Our name is holiday special, for we are trite and uniform.” “False Positive” is sweet, modest and appealingly true to characters we spend time getting to know and love. With a gingerbread house. That’s my kind of Christmas episode.

SN: Actually, “demonic possession” perfectly describes another least-favorite holiday episode of mine. “Grey’s Anatomy,” with its ensemble of surgical-fellows-without-lives, could usually be counted on for something bittersweet, in which the Seattle Grace staff would gather for an “orphans’ Thanksgiving” — a lovely example of being with the family you choose, rather than the family you’re born into. But “Holidaze” crammed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all into one overstuffed episode. Some patients get married; someone’s long-lost daughter turns up, passes a paternity test and finds out that she herself is pregnant; some kid gets a life-saving surgery. Typical “Grey’s” episode, just on speed. The holidays marked the passage of time, and the turkey and mistletoe served as set dressing — which is a deeply depressing life lesson if you squint at it the right way.

GC: The balance of examples here is telling, I think (hope people don’t start thinking we only use this space to gripe). Charlie Brown and Co. notwithstanding, the holidays can produce some real dreck. The all-too-common, cookie-cutter, just-reheat-and-serve approach to Christmas specials is a TV dinner recipe for tasteless mush.

But that’s ok, because your yuletide time is better spent elsewhere. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “White Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life”: curl up next to the fireplace with those and family.

So happy holidays: Catch up on “2 Broke Girls” when you’ve taken down the tree.

 

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