The most wonderful time of the year... for great TV
With Christmas mere weeks away now it's time to remember one part of the holiday celebrated by everyone - great television. Well, that is, if you can get your hands on the remote. Between the abundance of series marathons and the obligatory Bond movie the choice of viewing options to help you fight off the post-dinner zzzs are plentiful.
There's one simple way to keep disagreements to a minimum, and seasonal cheer at its maximum: Christmas-themed episodes. Like Thanksgiving Day specials, Christmas specials shed light on the lives of our favorite fictional characters on the merriest day of the year. And that's what makes this bunch of episodes such fun to revisit; it's the happiest of occasions that rarely go according to plan. Looking for something longer? Here's the best Christmas movies to watch this holiday season.
20. 30 Rock, "Ludachristmas"
Whenever Liz Lemon's eyes roll back in her head, and she lets out an exhausted sigh, it's usually a good indicator that Tracy and Jenna are trying to dupe someone more clueless than they are. "Ludachristmas" finds Lemon dealing with a different strife; the meddlesome ways of Jack's mother Colleen. The pride of Liz's parents, evidenced by their wide-eyed awe on the set of the 'Who Farted?' sketch, comes tumbling down at a seasonal dinner with the Donaghys. Their first real shouting match is the perfect Christmas present from Colleen to her son, proof that every family is dysfunctional. Which... is even more dysfunctional.
For the rest of the TGS staff Kenneth teaches them the true meaning of Christmas by screening a video of third world orphans joyously unwrapping blocks of wood. The lesson learned? Chopping down the Rockefeller tree in lieu of gifts.
19. Friends, "The One With The Holiday Armadillo"
Friends corners the market on Thanksgiving episodes, but that's not to say its Christmas offerings are shabby in comparison. This season seven entry explores Ross' desire for his son to have a rounded education of the holiday season. As the Gellers are Jewish and Ben knows nothing of his heritage Ross masterminds a cunning plan to make Hannukah appealing to his son... by inventing Santa's Tex-Mex pal, the holiday armadillo.
It wouldn't be Friends if the whole debacle didn't collapse into a bout of silliness, which it does, as soon as Chandler walks in wearing a Santa costume. But how will Ross make his Christmas-centric boy listen now, with the big red guy in the room? That's not a concern for long, as Joey walks in dressed as Spider-Man.
18. Smallville, "Lexmas"
After getting shot and slipping into a coma Lex is visited by the ghost of his mother. Smallville does It's A Wonderful Life as Luthor's trip into an alternate world is explained through one simple choice: what if he'd told his dad to stick LexCorp?
Like Capra's bittersweet Christmas classic "Lexmas" is tinged with both joy and regret. Had he taken a different path, Lex would be married to Lana, have a doting child, and be best buddies with his arch enemy Clark Kent. His vision comes to a grisly end when Lana dies giving birth to their second child; and wakes him from the coma. Lex chooses to stay with his father and not pursue his dreams. It's an interesting choice for such a ruthless villain, to take a lonely life in order to prevent someone else's suffering. That's a bit Christmassy, right?
17. Roswell, "A Roswell Christmas Carol"
It's easy to forget that sometimes the most insight can come from places you wouldn't expect. Roswell deals with fish out of water antics as its Earth-bound teenage aliens try to keep their identities secret.
Its Christmas episode marks a departure from that recipe and ventures into a bolder strand of plotting: what would happen if Max let an innocent die to save his own secret? The answer comes in a dark, compelling method as the father he watches perish - in front of their own kid, by the way - on Christmas Eve haunts him for letting him die. The true sense of giving takes over the rest of the episode, as Max can't help but heal an entire children's ward. No matter what it costs him.
16. Mad Men, "Christmas Comes But Once A Year"
"Christmas Comes But Once A Year" is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek episode title for Mad Men, a show centred around a company for which every single day is practically Christmas. So what do you do if over-indulgence is your entire life? Don Draper and his cohorts barely last a moment without puffing on a cig, or necking a generous pour of whiskey, and their seasonal hootenanny ups the ante considerably. It has to. Roger learns that a Lucky Strike rep - who no-one likes - is attending, and the firm desperately needs his continued business.
Twinned with Don's turbulent home life post-divorce, the episode strikes an uneasy balance between appreciating what you have and grasping at what you might lose.
15. Warehouse 13, "Secret Santa"
The biggest gift SyFy gave to fans of its mystical artefacts show was the return of agent Myka, who resigned in the previous episode. "Secret Santa" takes place out of the regular timeline to counter this slight continuity issue, with Pete and Myka journeying to Los Angeles on an investigation concerning a Christmas tree ornament. Its powers fit the theme of the week: while it gives the bearer the chance to make their wishes come true, it also harbours a desire to bring harmony to the world.
Claudia, meanwhile, attempts to bring peace to Artie when she locates his old childhood piano as a Christmas gift... and his estranged father. Not all surprises stem from a centuries-old mythology. Although the original mistletoe - that forces people to smooch - is neat touch.
14. Chuck, "Chuck Versus Santa Claus"
Chuck's weekly source of conflict takes a double-pronged approach for his Christmas extravaganza. His everyday ruse as an employee of Buy More brings the big guns, literally. After a high-speed pursuit, a disgruntled man crashes his car through the front windows and holds the store hostage.
The whole episode won plaudits for its brilliant gags, that come thick and fast in what's essentially an homage to Die Hard. Chuck's not ripped like John McClane, but he's got the goods where it counts as he refuses to abandon his friends and co-workers when offered an escape route.
13. South Park, "Mr Hankey, the Christmas Poo"
The South Park team write an entire episode dedicated to a piece of fecal matter in a red velvet hat, and conclude with a seasonal message of all-encompassing love and understanding. That's the gist of this crude takedown of religious exclusion. Kyle's Jewish heritage comes up short at Christmas when the entire town fails to acknowledge his holiday beliefs for the school play.
Enter: Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo. Kyle's brown-loaf pal pops up to bring him friendship at a time of loneliness, a secular mascot who is only seen by those who believe in him. Everything turns out well in the end, after people open their minds, and allow the Christmas poo to enter their hearts.
12. American Horror Story: Asylum, "Unholy Night"
The last place on Earth you'd ever want to spend Christmas is at Briarcliffe asylum. Neither do its patients, to be honest, who have no choice in enduring the holidays at the hands of its deranged nurses and sadistic surgeons.
As expected, the festive spirit is well and truly dampened when Sister Mary Eunice shows mercy to a convicted serial killer Leigh Emerson. Locked up for murdering several people dressed as Santa Claus, he's given back his costume as a gesture of good will, in the hopes that he will feel remorse. A bit of a bizarre act seeing as he's still intent on slashing and stabbing anyone he feels is deserving of death; but hey, at least he uses an ornamental star to do his dirty work.
11. Veronica Mars, "An Echolls Family Christmas"
Life for Veronica Mars is seldom carefree and Christmas is no exception. Neptune's teenage detective pushes through a holiday fraught with the typical trappings of her job; celebrity stalkers and illegal poker games. Apart from a light smattering of fake snow, dappling the Californian carolers out and about, the episode keeps its focus on the usual noirish thrills.
While Veronica attempts to uncover the truth behind a poker game's winnings - and completely slays at the game, to boot - her dad is tasked with protecting a celebrity. It wouldn't be the same show if things didn't get dark, and so the final stabbing might be just what you need to counter the sentimentality of the season.
10. Millennium, "Omerta"
It takes a certain type of show to pull off a novelty episode. A Christmas-themed one requires either an easily-adaptable premise or a fanbase who simply lap up every broadcast. What makes Millennium a strange choice for the seasonal treatment is that it's neither of those things.
And yet, "Omerta" wrings the Christmas spirit out of its mobster-monster plot with a twinkle in its eye. There's the two women who appear as angels, who turn out to be supernaturally gifted, driving most of the action. When the focus turns to Frank and his daughter Jordan the real "miracle" happens. Their Christmas getaway is thwarted early on by the case, leaving little time for present buying but enough to realise that family is what's most important.
9. Grimm, "12 Days of Krampus"
For a fantasy series built loosely around Grimm's fairy tales, it was only a matter of time before ole' Krampus showed up. While a chunk of the episode spends its time dealing with European creatures - aka, wesen as the show refers to them - the seasonal lore kicks off with Nick and Hank investigating a bunch of robberies.
The episode opens on a couple of kids pinching a car-load of Christmas presents. Krampus represents the moral conscience of society - albeit rather violently - and teaches both of the thieving youngsters a lesson. Yeah, it's a bit harsh when he slices 'em up and chucks them into a sack, but it's doubtful they'll ever be naughty again.
Futurama, "Xmas Story"
In the future Santa is a four-ton robot created by The Friendly Robot Company, an evil corporation whose sole ambition is to rule the world with an iron, capitalist fist. A perfect allegory for the commercialism of Christmas, then.
Of all the far-out wackiness seen on Futurama transforming a well-loved iconic figure into a terrifying emblem of fear is a masterstroke. A glitch in Santa's programming causes his traditional judgement of "naughty or nice?" to be taken far too literally; he thinks everyone needs to be punished. Robot Santa spends Christmas Eve cruising the skies in his robotic sleigh, mowing down innocent bystanders with his machine gun. Only when Fry offers him an exotic bird as a bribe does he holster his weapon. And even then he's reticent to stop his spree.
7. Community, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"
One of the finest ever stop-motion episodes of any series revolves around the Greendale Community Gang's most pop culture-savvy member. Abed's crises surrounding the holiday forces his study group buddies to see the world as he does: via stop-motion animation. As Christmas delusions go, it's far and away the most entertaining, with Abed's friends doing whatever they can to "control" his psychotic slip.
Pterodactyls, a boxset of Lost... they try it all, but eventually come to their senses as Abed explains to them, The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning. And it can mean whatever we want." In this case it means supporting your loved ones, no matter how parodical it gets.
6. Black Mirror, "White Christmas"
Hardly an uplifting series is it, Black Mirror? Showing us how dire the world will become should we continue using our smart tech. Well, nothing changes in "White Christmas." Sin is in, and as usual, no-one's really enjoying it.
Watching the episode, however, is very enjoyable. A bronzed, confident Jon Hamm - is there any other kind? - plays opposite a cowering, pasty Rafe Spall. The two are trapped in a tedious job that's never really described, only coming together for Christmas. Backstories are revealed via some hellish flashbacks that cast both them in an uncertain moral light. Like all the best episodes from the series, it's about the tech -- and how even with some incredibly advanced gadgets at our disposal, we continue to make terrible decisions.
5. The Simpsons, "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace"
The Simpson family holidays are often plagued by the troublesome antics of Bart, who regularly ruins birthdays and Thanskgiving celebrations, so it's no surprise that he's at fault in this Christmas episode. His eagerness to open his presents triggers a chain of events involving a new fire truck toy, carelessness and a highly flammable Christmas tree. Everything is ruined. What does Bart do?
He concocts a detailed story. The blame for the burnt tree and piles of trashed gifts is pinned on a fictitious burglar. Springfield comes to their aid, raising plenty of money to replace the damaged goods. This is what The Simpsons does best; building up a moral to the story right from the off. You know what's coming, and how it'll play out, but it's still a joy to watch them all realise the true spirit of Christmas. It's a dishcloth.
4. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, "Amends"
Across its seven seasons Buffy made a habit of subverting convention; and never was that better achieved than with Joss Whedon behind the camera. The show's creator, he also wrote the Christmas episode which deals with the impending new year as a chance to face demons - literally and figuratively. For Buffy herself, it's the return of Angel, all brooding and tormented with his soul intact. He wants to die, bit of a Chrimbo dampener, and she wants him to live.
Whedon penned the best episodes of the show and "Amends" is among that bunch. One-liners such as "It's not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy, it's the man," cut through the tweeness of a freak snow storm, and in retrospect make the sight of Buffy and her mom enjoying Christmas even more bittersweet. Excuse me, I think I've got something in my eye...
3. The X-Files, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas"
The X-Files absolutely nails all of its Christmas episodes. Partly through the show's design, that acts around the deeper mythology arcs and monster-of-the-week episodes without feeling uneven. "How The Ghosts Stole Christmas" is Mulder and Scully at their standalone best, investigating a haunted house where two quarreling lovers murdered each other years before.
Things turn into a cat-and-mouse game fast. Both spirits of the dead couple - Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner are brilliantly cast as the bitter pair - goad Mulder and Scully into the same fate. The ghosts trick the two agents through a series of mind games, to make out that the other one is trying to kill them. They're not dumb, and figure out what's happening soon enough, escaping the house and exchanging gifts. Despite having explicitly said they weren't going to. Aw.
2. Supernatural, "A Very Supernatural Christmas"
As the series has progressed Supernatural leans more on the sibling dynamic between Sam and Dean, whose relationship often yields the most satisfying episodes. This Christmassy story hails from season two when their true bond had yet to be excavated, offering a hint of what the future had in store. And back then it wasn't too rosy for Dean, whose days were numbered after making a deal with a demon. Still, that doesn't mean the bad guys don't need takin' out.
A couple of Pagan gods sucking up people through their chimneys to devour their souls take up most of the storyline - and it's a lot of fun - with the sweetest moment arriving via flashback. Alone in a motel waiting for their dad to return from a demon hunt, the two brothers exchange gifts. Determined to make sure little brother has an awesome Christmas, Dean steals him a Barbie. Sam then gives Dean an amulet he'd been saving for their dad. That's the spirit, boys.
1. Doctor Who, "A Christmas Carol"
Accept no substitute when it comes to the Doctor. "A Christmas Carol" is arguably the best of all the Who Christmas specials - depending on your preference - reinventing the classic Dickensian yarn for legions of Whovians.
This seasonal episode opens with Amy and Rory on a doomed spaceliner that's on the cusp of crashing. The Doctor steps in and locates the only man who can help save his two companions, and the thousands of remaining passengers, by aiding the malfunctioning craft.
Enter: Michael Gambon. Perfectly cast in the role of the stick-in-the-mud curmudgeon Kazrak Sardick, - the richest grump in town - he flat-out refuses to help. The Doctor has other plans that involve recreating the ghostly machinations of Dickens' tale through use of the TARDIS. It's a heart-warming and rather intimate expression of the "be grateful for what you have" maxim, that ought to bring much cheer to any crowd gathered around the box.