Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Top 10 Christmas Specials Special

It's that time of year again, or rather it has been since before Thanksgiving. I think the first Christmas ads started creeping in around November 15 this year. But now that it's actually getting closer to the holiday and the snow has started to fly, it's a lot nicer to take in the decorations and whatnot. And like every year, the holiday specials and movies and shows are going to start popping up on your television. I thought I'd list some of the more noteworthy ones that I've seen in past years. Some of these aren't your typical Christmas fare, a lot of them have a TV-MA (or at least a TV-14) associated with them, but all of them have a rather unique feel to them.

10. South Park, "Red Sleigh Down"

Yes, Santa Claus with automatic weapons. I'm susceptible to humor that involves the cross-pollination of genres, so I particularly liked this episode, which puts a Christmas spin on Three Kings and Black Hawk Down. The basic plot: evil hellspawn Eric Cartman asks Santa to bring Christmas to Iraq, a good deed big enough to blot out his naughty deeds over the past year, but the plan goes awry when a rocket-propelled grenade takes down St. Nick's sleigh. Adding to the twisted special is a commando-like intervention by Jesus Christ to save the jolly fat man.

Other honorable South Park mentions: "Woodland Critter Christmas," another Cartman tale featuring adorable if Satanic wildlife, abortions, the Antichrist, and another heavily-armed Santa.

9. The Simpsons, "Marge Be Not Proud"

The Simpsons had a longstanding sweet spot between a shaky first run of episodes and a slumping quality in later seasons. This story falls in the midst of the show's strong period, and ends up being one of the more heartwarming tales. After he is caught shoplifting, Bart must try to make up for his crime to his mother as Christmas approaches. He succeeds, of course, and gets a horrible golf-based video game for his efforts.

Other honorable Simpsons mentions: "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," the first full-length episode; "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace," where Bart undoes whatever good he did by framing a Christmas disaster on a nonexistent burglar; and "Grift of the Magi," if only for its hilarious Furby knock-offs.

8. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, "Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past"

What can you say about a Christmas special in a show that involves a trio of anthropomorphic fast food items and their surly neighbor? This episode ever so briefly follows along the lines of A Christmas Carol before the robot begins rambling on about a Santa Ape and enslaved Martian elves and events that happened THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO. The episode premiered just shy of New Year's Eve, which is closer to the mark than the actual Cybernetic Ghost, who pays Carl a visit in February. There's the slightest bit of Christmas happiness as the hapless Carl finally catches a break, turning the tables on the Aqua Teens and leaving them with a neighbor they can't stand.

Honorable Aqua Teen Hunger Force mentions: "Mail Order Bride," in which Carl and Master Shake both chip in to purchase a Russian bride for their Christmas gift, and "T-Shirt of the Living Dead," where Meatwad summons a pissed-off Santa from his summer slumber and mistakenly inflicts horrible pain on him.

7. Mystery Science Theater 3000, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians"

It's good to know that even a man imprisoned on an orbiting spacecraft while being forced to watch horrible movies can celebrate Christmas...even if he has to do it while viewing a movie with a premise that was apparently cooked up with the help of an experimental marijuana-LSD hybrid. Martians try to kidnap Santa to cheer up children on the Red Planet, and an evil antagonist goes to all lengths to try to stop his return, including an attempt to blast Santa out of the spaceship's airlock. Joel and his robot friends riff the hell out of the movie, and vow to have a "Patrick Swayze Christmas" based on Roadhouse.

Honorable MST3K mentions: "Santa Claus," the only other Christmas-themed episode, in which the gang takes on the story of Kris Kringle...if he lived in a castle in space with a horde of apparently abducted children, flew a wind-up set of reindeer, and did battle with Lucifer.

6. Futurama, "Xmas Story"

Another gun-toting Santa, and the only evil one to appear on this list. Unlike Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the idea of a haywire robot who lives on Neptune and wreaks havoc on Earth every Xmas since 2801 because he misidentifies everyone as naughty instead of nice somehow seems plausible. In the interests of diversity, the holiday characters later grew to include Kwanzaabot and the Hanukkah Zombie.

Honorable Futurama mentions: Bender's substitution for Robot Santa's villainy, first with good deeds and then with more villainy, in "A Tale of Two Santas;" the entire holiday ensemble's key role in reclaiming Earth from an invasion of alien scammers in "Bender's Game."

5. Moral Orel, "The Best Christmas Ever"

A show loosely based on the wholesomeness of the Davey and Goliath cartoons got its start by premiering the finale of the first season. The promos were deliberately misleading, making it seem like it would be a cute and cuddly Christmas special. Of course, a midnight Adult Swim show with a mature rating had little chance of actually offering that, so I don't know how many people were fooled. After mistaking his bratty younger brother for the Second Coming, number one Christ fan Orel Puppington learns on Christmas Day that his parents are splitting up.

Honorable Moral Orel mention: the series finale, "Honor," in which the whole show comes full circle with another Christmas episode. Though the entire last season and most of the episode were a depressing romp through the overly moral town's coming to terms with their own demons, it ultimately had a pleasant ending: Orel growing up to be a happily married man with a loving family.

4. Dinosaurs, "Refrigerator Day"

This hilarious show used what may have been the 90s standby for a Christmas special: a family confronted by the lack of a Christmas bonus or other such difficulties learn that Christmas is about family and love, not gifts. Dinosaurs gave a unique spin to the holiday special by correctly realizing that the Sinclair family couldn't celebrate Christmas millions of years before the birth of Christ. Instead, they celebrated the refrigerator, considered the most important dinosaur invention ever. Even better, the show kept the joke going by wishing viewers a happy Refrigerator Day of their own.

Honorable song lyric: "On the second day of Fridge Day, my true love gave to me / Two ice trays and a place to put the ice..."

3. A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
A Colbert Christmas: Jon Stewart
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

A parody of the seasonal Christmas specials of old; though I don't remember any of these, it's impossible not to watch Stephen Colbert's faux-conservative take on one and not laugh. As Colbert is trapped in a mountain cabin by a bloodthirsty bear, he is visited by a number of musical guest stars who teach him about Christmas and Hanukkah. The Jonas Brothers drown, there's a highly suggestive song about nutmeg, and Willie Nelson contemplates giving pot to baby Jesus. One watcher complained that the message about peace and love that snuck in was an overdose of religion, while a Christian commentator all but said the show was defiling God. Everyone else apparently didn't have a stick up their butt and had a good time.

Honorable song lyric: "And still that wonder weed is flaring (Are you high?) / Looked like that special star above (You're so high) / Pass it around in endless sharing (Dude, man, dude) / And let not mankind bogart love (You're really high, I'm gonna tell your Savior)

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas

The Peanuts comic series led to a few other Christmas specials, but those have all disappeared into obscurity behind the first and most well-known one that was made. The special is actually quite depressing until it gets to the end, when Charlie Brown's fair weather friends learn that the holiday is about love and the birth of Jesus and end up rescuing his scrawny Christmas tree before singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." I'm fully convinced that if humans ever reach the year 3000 of Futurama, this special will still be airing when December rolls around.

1. A Christmas Story

How classic is this classic? I'm pretty sure the Family Channel (or ABC Family or whatever it's called now) still runs it over and over again for a 24-hour marathon on Christmas Day. It's practically the opposite of Charlie Brown's anti-commercialism crusade: Ralphie spends most of the movie hoping he'll get a Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle despite warnings that he'll shoot his eye out. Is there a moral? Certainly not one as blatant as some of others on this list, but somewhere among the tongues frozen to flagpoles and Chinese carolers and electric sex glowing in the window, the tale spins out like something a particularly interesting relative would tell you over a hot toddy on Boxing Day. And if the writer and director of Porky's can also create an iconic Christmas film, anything seems possible.

There are plenty of honorable mentions that simply couldn't fit in, ranging from It's a Wonderful Life, which you'll also no doubt find airing sometime this season, to a couple of classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. Wikipedia has a couple of lists of Christmas specials, films, and TV episodes, so feel free to track some other ones down. Just don't go spending all of your time in front of the television. Happy holidays, and a happy New Year!