“No Veronica, There is No Santa Claus”: Classic Christmas Episodes
Just a little bit late! Here are some of the Christmas TV episodes I rewatched over our most recent holiday season.
Community, “Comparative Religion” and not the others
Community is an interesting case. They recently aired the Christmas episode of their third season, a takeoff on Glee that involved much singing and dancing from their regular cast. Last season the creators of the show went mad making an episode in Rankin & Bass-style stop-motion animation. Those episodes both kind of blew. They’re fan favorites, I know. But to me, they are gimmicky in the worst possible way, and criminally unfunny. And there’s too much heartfelt singing in both. No, what’s more my style is the Christmas episode of the first season, “Comparative Religion.” The plot has two threads—Shirley trying to impose her Christian views on everyone’s Christmastime and Jeff being hassled by a lunkhead bully played hilariously by Anthony Michael Hall—and they converge when Shirley tries to deter Jeff from fighting the bully. (What would Baby Jesus do?) Eventually, her Mama Bear instincts take over, she gives the OK to retaliate, and the entire Community gang beats up the bully and his gang, in an awesome and funny fight scene soundtracked by Florence and the Machine’s “Kiss With a Fist.” Afterwards, our beloved group sings carols in the study room, all of them torn-up, black-eyed, and ice-packed.
Like most episodes of Community, there are hilarious little comedy bits crammed one on top of another throughout the entire episode. (One exchange between Jeff and the bully: Bully: “You think that’s funny? How about this? Knock knock—my fist up your balls!” Jeff: “…Who’s there?”) It introduces Pierce’s cult-like sect of Buddhism (“I’m now a level five laser lotus”). But my favorite gag is all of the weird little elements of having a holiday celebration inside the structures of a contemporary academic institution, i.e. hyper-secularization. The Dean prances around the campus dressed as “non-denominational Mister Winter” and wishes everyone “Merry Happy!” And, as befits college educational schedules, everyone keeps making reference to the fact that their celebrations are all taking place weeks before the actual holiday: “Please, it’s Christmas!” “It’s December 10th!”
You can watch the entire episode here with a Hulu Plus subscription (or view a 90-second preview without one).
Frasier, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”
I always liked this show least when it was about Frasier’s love life (for real, who is dating this tool, in all seriousness? well, I guess he is rich) but this episode is a hilarious exception. It opens when Frasier meets this sweet older woman in the mall; she helps him pick out a Christmas gift for Roz and then she sets Frasier up with her daughter Faye. Faye is Amy Brenneman, who has a classic sitcom career trajectory: she had a high-powered job (lawyer) and then gave it up to do something creative (in this case, to become a pastry chef). Frasier is really into her and they start dating. Then they arrange to have drinks in Frasier’s apartment, with the woman’s mother, on Christmas Eve. This is when Frasier finds out that this woman and her mother are Jewish, and that her mother has no idea that Frasier isn’t. So he hurriedly hides his Christmas wreaths and a quintessential Frasier slamming-door farce begins.
Frasier is trying to keep Mrs. Moskowitz out of the room while the Christmas tree is being delivered, and trying to keep her from glancing into the oven at his brisket—which is actually a Christmas ham. The humorous climax comes when Niles, who is running around Frasier’s apartment dressed as Jesus because he’s starring in Daphne’s chuch pageant, is discovered by Frasier, who lets out a startled, “Jesus!” The episode’s emotional climax is also great: Frasier and his dad, Martin, get into a huge argument and finally fling “hates” at each other: they hate living together, they hate being together, they hate each other. They both immediately begin to cry, comedically overwhelmed at having revealed too many repressed hostilities at once, and declare that they should have known better than to try something like that without being Jewish. “Maybe Mrs. Shapiro next door could talk us through it?” “She’s out of town!” They apologize profusely to one another, and then it’s back to a repressed, WASPy Christmas as previously scheduled.
Coming ahead: Christmas stabbings, Christmas drunkenness, Christmas adultery, and Festivus!
Roseanne, “Home for the Holidays”
I’m going to think outside the box here, and instead of writing about one of the earlier seasons—Season 4’s “Santa Claus,” where Roseanne plays Santa in the mall and deals with teenaged Darlene’s withdrawal from the family, is a lovely, deeply-felt episode which also involves some great Roseanne-and-kids interactions while she is Santa. I also like “It’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” where Jackie and Roseanne decorate their napping Nana Mary (played by Shelley Winters) with Christmas lights. But no, I’m actually going to write about “Home for the Holidays,” the Christmas episode from the much-reviled, mostly-rightly-reviled, ninth season.
The episode revolves around the Conner family experiencing their first Christmas as a wealthy family after winning the lottery. Dan has been in California settling his mother in a mental institution for several weeks and everyone is excited to see him come home. There’s some typical holiday episode goofing: the stores are so crowded, and the tree they bought is too big for the living room, and so on and so on. The real substantive events happen when the family opens gifts on Christmas morning. Everybody has received atypically expensive gifts, but the highlight is Roseanne’s gift to Dan. She gets him something flashy, a watch I think, but then she hands him something else on a silver platter. It’s a piece of paper—their mortgage agreement—and a lighter. Dan begins to cry, and SO DO I, because for eight years we watched this family struggle—really struggle, arguably more than any sitcom family on television ever, with money, with unemployment, with disappointments, with aspirations that have gone unmet. And we get to watch those struggles literally crumble into ashes. This isn’t a moment that would work on a show that wasn’t in its ninth year. It could have been mawkish, sentimental. Here it is more than earned, and that’s what I feel watching this. “They’ve deserved this for a long time and now they finally have it.”
(Of course they ruin this goodwill almost immediately: the closing moments of this episode reveal that Dan has been cheating on Roseanne. Which is really kind of awful, especialy for someone like myself who associates my childhood almost too closely with this show. And it gets worse when, in the series finale, Roseanne reveals that Dan actually died at the end of the previous season and the entire ninth season was her writing how things should have/could have been, and the Dan-cheats-on-Roseanne storyline was a function of Roseanne’s abandonment issues at having been widowed and—yeah, it gets even worse than that. But we shall not dwell.)
Parks and Recreation, “Christmas Scandal”
This episode from P&R‘s second season begins with Leslie and the rest of the Parks and Rec staff doing a stage show for all the other local government employees. Leslie has gone characteristically overboard with skits, songs, and a character piece she does where she plays known philanderer Councilman Dexhart describing how he had a multiple-person sexual encounter at the hospital while one of his mistresses gave birth to his baby. It goes over with the crowd like gangbusters, but Leslie is aghast when Dexhart invites her to dinner and then demands to know how she found out about these apparently true events. She pleads innocence, promises not to tell, and leaves, only to find the next day that they’ve been photographed together and, as far as the press is concerned, Leslie is Dexhart’s new mistress. Dexhart won’t refute the claims, because a one-on-one affair with an upstanding citizen such as Leslie is actually a more wholesome rumor than the truth.
Pawnee, Indiana, is a special place for Leslie Knope. And what I really like about this episode is how her relationship with that town is both tested and affirmed. She hates that no one believes her side of the story and even considers, early on, going to San Diego with her boyfriend Dave the cop (“I’m not feeling too attached to Pawnee right now”). But she is the Spirit of Pawnee; she’s too tied up in the machinery of this government, of this place, to go anywhere. After Ron orders her to go home and wait out the scandal, it takes the entire Parks and Rec department plus Mark to cover the work that Leslie routinely does on her own (Ron Swanson running the town meeting is a particular highlight: “My name is Ron. You don’t need to know my last name. Whoever wants to talk, go ahead, and we’ll be out of here in a tight fifteen.”). When the scandal finally breaks and Leslie returns to work, everybody watches her through the window of her office, all of them full of admiration and affection for this whirlwind of competence and positivity in their midst.
Unfortunately, the episode does represent the end of Leslie’s relationship with Dave, played by Louis CK. He invites Leslie to come with him to San Diego (he gets called there for the army reserves), and though she doesn’t want to break up with Dave, she ultimately realizes she can’t leave Pawnee. (It works out all right for everybody: in the next season Leslie will meet a new guy played by Adam Scott and whether anything good happened for Dave the cop or not, Louis CK moved on from Parks and Rec to his own critically-acclaimed series.)
You can watch the entire episode here with a Hulu Plus subscription (or view a 90-second preview without one).
30 Rock, “Christmas Special”
30 Rock has had some excellent Christmas episodes over its five seasons; this one from the third season just happens to be my favorite.
The show is always hilarious when it engages with race issues. Remember when Liz couldn’t seem to break up with Wayne Brady because everyone assumed she was being racist, instead of her just finding him really boring? Remember when Toofer and Tracy argued over whose form of entertainment served America’s black population better? All gold. Anyway, the Liz plotline in this episode (which is really the B-plot) steps all over that hilariously uncomfortable space. Liz, who is disappointed that her parents won’t be seeing her for Christmas (they’ve gone on a couples vacation since they assumed that by 38 she “would have [her] own family by now”), goes overboard buying gifts for a Letters to Santa program in which guilty White Collars buy Christmas gifts for the underprivileged. She throws electronics and toys into her shopping cart and grabs for “rapping Santas” which turn out just to be black Santas. “I assumed they would rap, that’s racist on my part, but still! Best Christmas ever!” Later, Liz believes she may have been scammed and goes to the post office to complain, and is stonewalled by a postal clerk named Irene (Liz thinks her name is Trené).
Liz: Tracy, could you help me out with her?
Tracy: Oh really? We’re both black so we must know each other. [steps in front of the window] Hey, Irene!
Irene: Hey, Tray!
The main plot concerns Jack’s inability to deal with his dictatorial mother Colleen, played by Elaine Stritch, whom he accidentally hit with his car a few days before Christmas. Because she’s laid up in Jack’s apartment, Jack holes up at 30 Rock, ordering the TGS staff to do a live special on Christmas Day so that he has something to manage. Jack’s desperation to create a perfect Christmas special—one that “makes It’s a Wonderful Life look like Pulp Fiction”—turns out to be the result of the trauma of witnessing his mother romancing her Christmas Eve boyfriend, Mr. Schwartz, every year. It’s only after he’s talked to Liz that Jack realizes Mr. Schwarz is FAO Schwarz and that all of his Christmas gifts were freebies as a result of his mother’s…accommodating spirit? Anyway, Jack makes his peace with Colleen and they end the episode on a sweet note, singing a Christmas song together. (Until she accuses him of singing flat. Things change, but they don’t change that much.)
Bonus: The Christmas special also gives us the chance to hear Jane Krakowski as Jenna Maroney over-sing a holiday standard and abuse Alphonse the Piano Guy (who is played by Jeff Richmond, AKA Mr. Tina Fey).
30 Rock used to be on Hulu in its entirety but it has weirdly disappeared from that site in the past few months. The whole series does stream on Netflix, if you’ve got it. I hear the show also plays constantly on WGN now.
Seinfeld, “The Red Dot,” “The Pick,” “The Strike”
It was impossible to pick just one episode in this case: Seinfeld has three surefire Christmas classics that cannot be ranked. The earliest was “The Red Dot,” the episode in which George wants to buy Elaine a fancy gift to thank her for getting him a job at her office (she was still in publishing then), but he does not want to spend a lot of money, so he buys her a cashmere sweater marked way down because it’s got an imperfection in it, a red dot. To George’s dismay, everyone keeps discovering this tiny imperfection almost immediately. Later, he gives it to the office’s custodian, whom he slept with on his desk. (George, when confronted with this by his boss: “…Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I tell you, I’ve gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon, because I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you, people do that all the time.”)
“The Pick” has a main plot about Jerry’s model girlfriend seeing him scratching the side of his nose in what looks, from her perspective, like a “pick.” But the episode brings in that Christmas flavor with the plotline in which Elaine decides she wants to put her picture on her Christmas cards and enlists Kramer to take the photo. They’re printed up and mailed out before Elaine notices something on the card that doesn’t belong…a nipple. The best moment is when George complains that he didn’t get a card and Elaine says “YOU WANT A CARD?” grabs his head, and rubs it all over her chest. “THERE’S YOUR CHRISTMAS CARD.”
Finally, there is an episode from the ninth season, titled “The Strike” but known more colloquially as “Festivus.” This is the episode in which it is revealed that George’s dad Frank, to combat the commercialism of Christmas, once created his own winter holiday called Festivus. Frank tells the story of how he conceived the holiday while fighting with another father over a doll (for George) in a toy store. He mimes hitting someone with a box while saying, “As I reigned blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way! …Out of that, a new holiday was born. A festivus for the rest of us!”
George wants to boycott the celebration, but he, along with the rest of the Seinfeld gang, ends up around the Costanzas’ table. George brings his boss, Mr. Kruger, after having been caught gifting his colleagues with donation cards for a bogus charity called the Human Fund. The holiday includes the decoration of an aluminum pole, an airing of grievances (Frank: “I’ve got a lotta problems with you people!”) and feats of strength. “Until you pin me, George, Festivus is NOT OVER!” It was a great limited edition Ben & Jerry’s flavor, as well.
Seinfeld doesn’t stream anywhere, but here’s a quick Youtube rundown of Festivus.
Mad Men, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”
Mad Men is an interesting case, because it produces 13 episodes at a time, which air whenever the season happens to play on TV, and so the show is never forced to commit to creating a holiday episode just because it happens to be the holiday season. The first episode of the fourth season, “Public Relations,” takes place during Thanksgiving, and this episode is the second. They aired in July and August 2010. When Mad Men creates a specifically Christmas-themed episode, it’s for a thematic cause and not just a seasonal one.
The context is this: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the new firm that was created at the end of season 3, has been running for about a year, with some major successes but also typical new business growing pains. They aren’t turning a real profit yet, and Lane Pryce, the CFO, has ordered a tightwad Christmas party with basic food and decorations, and no guests (Don describes the party as “a glass of gin and a box of Velveeta”). That plan is tanked, however, when Lee Garner Jr., the domineering director of Lucky Strike (SCDP’s biggest client, by some margin), demands to be invited to their Christmas party. He’s heard things about these Madison Ave. parties and expects drunken debauchery. The secretaries are duly instructed to make the party a bacchanal: dress slutty, invite slutty friends, loud music, alcohol, etc. etc. No one but Lee Garner Jr. is expected to have fun.
So the party happens, almost entirely through the efforts of Trooper Joan (she even leads the conga line), and Garner uses Roger, his account man, like a dog, draping himself over Roger’s pretty young wife, and forcing him to dress as Santa even though the dapper Roger would probably rather die. (I love when Garner demands Harry Crane sit on Santa’s knee—Harry muttering “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry” under his breath to Roger.) The subtext is that Garner knows his company makes up more than half of the new agency’s earnings and thus he is a revered guest regardless of what he does. (And that client’s decision to unceremoniously leave the agency later becomes a major plot point at the end of this season.) Everyone gets pretty trashed, as does the office, which we see when SCDP returns to business-as-usual the next day.
There are great character moments in an around the climactic Christmas party. Freddy Rumsen returns to do a bit of work with SCDP and has this entertaining conflict with Peggy about how to sell cold cream: he thinks “it’ll help you get a man,” is a surefire strategy but Peggy is understandably piqued. Also, Don is enduring his first Christmas since his divorce, a precarious emotional situation which is illustrated beautifully in a scene where Allison, Don’s secretary, reads aloud to Don the letter his daughter Sally has sent him describing what she and her two brothers want for Christmas. The actress who plays Allison is adorable here, reading a little girl’s words in a knowing, adult voice (even though she’ll make a stupid mistake herself later in the episode), but the voice breaks a little when Sally writes that the one thing she wants is for Don to be there on Christmas morning even though she knows that can’t happen. And then Don peels off a wad of bills for Allison with some great gifts for the kids—Beatles LPs for Sally! A drum set for Bobby! (That’s surely just to annoy Betty, right?) Don gets drunk and hits on his perky neighbor, twice, to no avail. Later, he tries with Allison too and gets much luckier. Both Don’s marginalization from his family—and his mounting drinking problem, which is correlated with the divorce if not caused by it—are introduced with a bang here (OMG, literally!). Those factors will combine to be the driving force for just about everything he does for the rest of the season, from screwing Allison here to proposing to Megan (yet another secretary) eleven episodes later in the season finale.
And everybody looks so cute in their party clothes!
Mad Men doesn’t stream for free anywhere, but again, if you have Netflix Instant you can watch the entire series.
Veronica Mars, “An Echolls Family Christmas”
Like Mad Men’s episode, this episode of Veronica Mars from its first and best season, is all about appearances, and how they conceal the resentments, the disappointments, and the cut corners underlying a seemingly perfect holiday. There is a mystery here, like all Veronica episodes, but a pretty simple one: Logan, Veronica’s sometimes-boyfriend, sometimes-nemesis, has a poker game at his house with a $1000 buy-in, but the money disappears before the winner, Weevil, is able to collect. Weevil begins stealing expensive items from the other players as reparations, and one of them, Duncan (Veronica’s ex), asks for her help in clearing up the situation. She solves the mystery quickly enough, staging another poker party so that she can Sherlock Holmes her way around the room, monologuing in detail about who didn’t steal the money, and, finally who did. Going on in and amidst all this, Logan’s parents, famous actors, are having a huge Christmas party, but the planning has been derailed by death threats aimed at his father, Aaron. His wife hires Veronica’s dad Keith (also a detective, a professional one) to investigate the threats and Aaron admits to Keith that he’s had multiple affairs over the years with women who might be behind the threats.
Also, Veronica has made some headway on the overarching mystery of the first season. Specifically, she’s discovered that her mother left town partly due to receiving photos that acted as threats against Veronica’s life, and that the photos were taken by the head of security of the local media juggernaut, Kane Software. (The creator and CEO of this firm is Jake Kane, father of Duncan and former lover of Veronica’s mom. Yes, this show was amazing.) At the Echolls party, Veronica corners Kane in a back room and demands, voice shaking (she’s sixteen!) to know why he ran her mother out of town, why he used threats against Veronica, a damn kid, to do so, and what he’s covering up. He escapes from the room, grabs his own wife by the elbow and growls, “What did you DO?” Dramatic escalation was always one of Veronica Mars’s strong points.
Meanwhile Keith, who has figured out that the threats against Aaron are the work of one of their caterers (who was also banged by Aaron!), is desperately trying to break into the invitation-only event so as to head off any violence. He is just in time to see the caterer give Aaron a big “You thought you could use me???” speech and give him a quick jab in the stomach with a butcher knife. Keith tackles her before she can do any more damage.
The episode closes soon after on a perfect image: while the host bleeds on the floor, all the guests are called out of the house to see carolers out on the front stoop, who have snow falling gently on their heads. The camera pulls back from the house to show that two guys with snow machines (it’s Hollywood!) are hidden on either side of the house blowing the fake snow onto the hired musicians doing the caroling. Veronica voiceovers, “What was I thinking? Christmas in Neptune is, was, and always will be about the trappings: the lights and the tinsel they use to cover up the sordidness, the corruption. No, Veronica, there is no Santa Claus.”