10. Futurama, "The Futurama Holiday Spectacular"
Last year's list included the original Xmas episode of Futurama, plus an honorable mention for an episode where Bender tries to replace Santa as a good toy-delivering robot. That would seem the logical choice for this list, but this seemed to be a better choice. It was a late offering from the newly resurrected season on Comedy Central, which as a whole has been rather weaker than the golden years but still scores higher than the slump that The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park have all fallen into (one episode in particular, "The Late Philip J. Fry," is outstanding).
The main reason to include this one: as far as I know, it's the only Christmas special to incorporate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa themes in one fell swoop. Granted, it's not the most warm and cuddly holiday special; the Planet Express crew dies in every segment, and humanity as a whole is obliterated in two. I'm definitely taking a corrupt Oscar judge stance, then, since "A Tale of Two Santas" is clearly funnier. Though "The Futurama Holiday Special" does have a few gems, namely the guard at the Norwegian seed vault and Kwanzaabot losing interest in his own holiday midway through the explanation of what it's about.
|Hermes' Kwanzaa Party|
9. Family Guy, "A Very Special Family Guy Freakin' Christmas"
This episode aired back in the first run of Family Guy, when it was one of the more controversial shows on TV thanks to some risque jokes and baby Stewie's persistent desire to kill his mother. The show follows a somewhat traditional Christmas special model, as the family has to deal with a few challenges such as Peter accidentally giving away the family's gifts to charity. There's also a lengthy sequence where Lois takes out her rage on several beloved holiday classics, torching Frosty the Snowman with a makeshift flamethrower and shoving George Bailey off the bridge he's contemplating suicide on.
It's more than a bit of a subversion on holiday specials, of course, what with one of the big surprises in the end involving Stewie getting plutonium on Christmas Day. However, it still has Christmas message as the town tries to convince Lois that the Christmas spirit is a good thing. Even if it does so with Peter explaining that Christmas is a time when we sing carols to lure Zombie Jesus back to sleep. As was explained soon after, sometimes you've just got to have a sense of humor.
Oh, and there's also the special within the special about KISS saving Santa.
8. The X-Files, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas"
Mulder wants to investigate a supposedly haunted house. Scully thinks there are better ways to spend Christmas Eve. And so we get a Christmas special as only The X-Files can deliver it.
The past X-Files Christmas episode was a two-parter about an orphaned child who turned out to be part Scully DNA and part alien. And though that was nicely acted by Gillian Anderson, this episode gives both actors a chance to shine (and includes Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin to boot). It's one of the few specials that's able to effectively combine something of a horror theme with Christmas, as the two agents try to avoid the clutches of a couple who died in a lover's pact several decades before. It's a little twisted, but the ending of the couple being happy to be together and Mulder and Scully exchanging gifts is pretty nice.
7. The Office, "Christmas Party"
Though I've been enjoying the recent episodes of the American version of The Office, most of the strongest emotional moments were from the first few seasons as it explored the romance between Jim and Pam: a direct take on the romantic tension between Tim and Dawn in the original British version, which chose to end their run with these two characters finally getting together. Jim and Pam have tapered off into the background, but at first their relationship was on par with the original show.
This episode does a good job of exploring all of the characters, while also rolling out a plot that almost feels like an O'Henry story. It involves a Secret Santa office party in which Jim, having picked Pam, gets her a sentimental gift nicely attuned to their friendship. Everything goes awry when the office manager, Michael, gets upset when he gets a handmade oven mitt after exceeding the spending limit by buying an iPod and turns the party into a Yankee Swap to try to get what he feels is a better present. It's funny and heartwarming to see Jim's efforts to get Pam's gift back into her hands, especially when it ends up with arch-nemesis Dwight and when Pam finally chooses to trade the iPod for Jim's gift.
6. The Angry Video Game Nerd and Nostalgia Critic Reviews (tie)
I don't get too many visitors in this corner of the Internet, but I thought it would be best to put these two on equal footing considering their rivalry led to a brutal no-holds beatdown and the destruction of Chicago at the hands of a mutant Donkey Kong-esque Jesus and a super mechanized Jesus. Their revulsion for one another is an act, of course, but there's no need to risk massive Christ devastation.
James Rolfe, aka The Angry Video Game Nerd, has been producing scathing attacks on sub-par video games from the 80s and 90s, while Doug Walker is the Nostalgia Critic, producing weekly reviews of crappy old movies and TV shows. Both are clever, hilarious, and great physical and vocal comedians. Rolfe updates more infrequently then Walker, who got a significant boost from the faux feud with Rolfe and makes a living managing several Internet series at Channel Awesome, but he faithfully puts out a Christmas review each year. The best one might be a take on A Christmas Carol, in which Rolfe tours incarnations of his present, past (home videos of Rolfe getting aggravated at Mario), and future (an elderly Rolfe bitching about a bad Wii game).
Rolfe stays in grouchy character reviewing Christmas-based games, while Walker gets extremely excited about the holiday in what seems to be only partially an act. His keystone is almost exactly what I'm doing, though he had the idea first and I'm just trying to beat him to the punch: reviewing 11 Christmas specials (he likes "to go one step beyond") and saying why he likes them. He did one in 2008, and another one in 2009 taking in the specials that were requested by fans. This year, he's scheduled to do another one mopping up even more specials that fell by the wayside. I put in a request for the "Refrigerator Day" episode of Dinosaurs, because the Polar Express movie, Doug? Seriously?
He's also done other specials, one of which introduced us to the glory that is Santa Christ:
5. Bad Santa
In one of those examples of people complaining about something before they actually saw it, this movie got a little bit of bad press before it was released because people thought it was going to be going out of its way to disparage the holiday as much as it could. If anything, it goes out of its way to inject a bit of a Christmas theme into the story and winds up targeting the culture of malls and consumerism rather than religion.
The plot involves Billy Bob Thornton as an alcoholic con man Willie who, along with a dwarf partner (Tony Cox), pulls off a heist each year by playing a mall Santa and elf in the leadup to Christmas and looting the safe and stores after hours on Christmas Eve. Things go awry when Willie gets mixed up with a lonely kid (Brett Kelly) and finds himself reluctantly being some semblance of a role model for him. Of course, a lot of humor comes from the fact that Willie is rude, lascivious, profane, and altogether unfit to work with children. The script is nicely done, though, focusing on some rather well-constructed jokes rather than cheap gags.
4. Lost, "The Constant"
It's a Christmas show...in February! What? OK, this isn't a Christmas special, per se. It just has a slight Christmas theme, and aired on February 28 of 2008. It's also considered to be one of the best episodes of Lost.
The show didn't exactly offer itself up for a Christmas special, and the fans would have rightfully cried bloody murder if there had been anything even approaching a happy break from the action in which the Others and the smoke monster and Oceanic Flight 815 survivors all got together to hang stockings in the Swan hatch. Still, until the fifth season stomped space and time in the face, the show followed a meticulous count of days from the plane crash in September of 2004 (on the same date as the show's premiere). That meant that by the time this early fourth season episode rolled around, it had reached Christmas Eve.
The story focuses on Desmond, always one of the stronger characters, as he finds his consciousness whipped about between the past and present day. It instills a real sense of danger, as a radio operator on board the freighter Desmond travels to suffers the same malady and it winds up killing him. The interaction between Desmond and the past self of an Oxford physics professor who is now on the island nicely adds to the layers of sci-fi, but the thing that brings this into Christmas territory is Desmond's desperate attempt to patch things up with Penny, the love of his life and ex-girlfriend at the time he keeps flashing back to. The fact that Penny is his "constant," a way of stopping his warps through time, makes her something much more as well: a way to save his life. All of this comes to a head as Desmond uses some hastily repaired and oh-so-briefly functioning communications equipment to call Penny on Christmas Eve, as he promised he would do eight years before.
Embedding is disabled, so enjoy the clip here.
3. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, "Mail Order Bride"
Once again, Aqua Teen Hunger Force proves that Christmas episodes don't have to be heartwarming but can just choose to be inappropriate and hilarious. So don't go and pick out this 11-minute episode to show to young children just because it's a cartoon, but if you want a non-traditional quick viewing option.
The basic plot has Master Shake and Carl sharing the cost to buy a Russian mail order bride as a Christmas gift to themselves. This split brings up obvious problems, and the woman immediately locks herself in Carl's house in terror after realizing she has been purchased by a slovenly pervert and a giant milkshake. We also get Meatwad's finicky wish list, his earnest efforts to make high-end gifts for Frylock out of sticks, and his mistaking some thumping on the roof for Santa getting an early start due to overpopulation.
2. Mystery Science Theater 3000, "Santa Claus"
One of only two Christmas specials done in the 10 years of MST3K, this one takes on a truly bizarre movie. It appears that Santa lives in a palatial ice castle in space, keeps a coterie of international children at his beck and call to help him (creepy...), flies about in mechanized reindeer, and does battle with Satan. Yes, Kris Kringle delivering gifts is something that the Lord of Darkness doesn't really like. It's a bounty that's almost more than the boys on the Satellite of Love could hope for.
1. Moral Orel, "Honor"
About half of Moral Orel was a ripping take on holier-than-thou religious types, with episodes typically revolving around the title character's naivete as he misinterpreted lessons from the Bible or other advice and generally wreaked havoc without trying. However, there were a few pretty dark themes underlying the show, namely Orel's closeted, alcoholic father. The ending of the first season (a Christmas episode that, oddly enough, was aired as a sneak peek for the rest of the season) had a rather depressing ending, but it was nothing compared to the third season. Having seen what a horrible person his father really is during a hunting trip, Orel's whole world is turned upside down and the carefree plots of the show were gone, replaced by episodes exploring the repressed nature of Moralton's residents and the slow disintegration of Orel's family.
Naturally, with all of this coming to an end in the series finale, it didn't seem like things were going to end too happily. It was painful to the audience, because Orel's earnest and friendly attitude made him one of the few genuinely likable characters. There's still a heart-wrenching scene in which Orel's father confronts Coach Stopframe in anger over how he has become a role model to his son in a matter of days and, in front of his wife, admits that he loves Stopframe...who rejects him. But a final shot shows Orel regaining what he lost when he realized his father's true nature: a happy family life, as a well-adjusted adult married to his childhood sweetheart with a couple of kids to boot.
Part of the reason for this being a personal favorite is just the way I saw it. The episode aired a week before Christmas in 2008, and I was visiting my parents on my Christmas vacation. Seeing it end on a high note, spending a happy week off with my family, was just a huge boost to my mood.