This article originally appeared at Den of Geek UK.
Viewers have enjoyed sharing holidays with their favorite television characters since the medium’s infancy. We grow invested in our friends on screen over the years; spending Christmas with them is a rite of passage, a chance for us to share tradition from our world with the fictional ones we see on screen.
Some shows embrace the season wholeheartedly, characters in good spirits and enjoying the trappings of the season; others skew a little darker, bringing the more oppressive, burdensome side of the holidays to life. Either way, Christmas episodes tend to demonstrate the strengths of our favorite series, and it’s long been a festive ritual of mine to wheel out old DVD sets and settle back for a few favorites during December.
“A few” is one thing, but a top 100? That’s a whole other ballgame. As I set out to compile this list of the all-time greatest Christmas TV classics, it quickly became clear that a few ground rules were required, so as to prevent the project from becoming too unwieldy:
– One episode per show. The toughest of all the restrictions – so many great, long-running TV shows have spent several Christmases with us. But even with a hundred-item list, there are so many great episodes that just couldn’t quite make the cut; this rule seemed like the fairest way to spread the love. (Throughout the list, I’ve noted other strong festive entries from the shows featured.)
– Only episodes of ongoing series are eligible. Individual specials (A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Snowman) are not – unless they are extensions of a regular series, like A Colbert Christmas, in which case they are.
– Episodes should be about, or set at, Christmas time. This didn’t prove an issue with US programming, where the “Christmas Special” isn’t as distinct a concept. A lot of UK “Christmas Specials”, however, are extended episodes that just happen to be broadcast around Christmas time (see: many Only Fools & Horses and One Foot In The Grave Christmas specials); these are excluded. Episodes featured must specifically be about Christmastime, or feature Christmas elements prominently.
– Episodes are judged on a combination of raw quality and festive spirit. (The latter is how, er, Saved By The Bell made the cut.)
Thanks to Robert David Sullivan, who offered several suggestions for the list. His knowledge of classic television is unparalleled and his top 100 sitcom episodes of all-time countdown is a must-read.
100. SAVED BY THE BELL – A Home For Christmas, Parts 1 & 2
USA/Season 3/1991Aired on NBCdirected by Don Barnhart, written by Tom Tenowich
It’s Christmas time at Bayside High! ..Er, kinda. Saved By The Bell‘s only Christmas episode (well, episodes, plural – it’s a two-parter) actually takes place entirely outside of the school; Principal Belding doesn’t even make an appearance. The show celebrated Christmas during its third season, which was rather diverse in theme and setting, by Bell standards: there’s the Palm Springs Weekend road trip, there’s a perplexing pseudo-rock-doc Rockumentary, there’s the surprisingly dark Murder Mystery Weekend.
As such, we meet Zack, Kelly, Screech, Lisa, Slater and Jessie not in the school corridor, but at the Bayside Mall, where vaguely festive shenanigans are going down: Zack’s found a girl he likes, there’s a town production of A Christmas Carol, Kelly’s got a job at Moody’s Store for Men, and Screech is momentarily perplexed by a homeless man shaving in the mall bathroom. It will come as no surprise to learn that these stories coalesce, there’s some festive drama, and every character is thoroughly versed in the true reason for the season by the end of the third act. It’s such likeable material, though, corny jokes and all: warm, sentimental and surprisingly amusing.
99. EUREKA – Do You See What I See
USA/Season 4/2011Aired on Syfydirected by Matt Hastings, written by Amy Berg & Eric Tuchman
Uniquely accessible sci-fi was the order of the day for Eureka, a disarmingly likeable comedy-drama about the residents of Eureka, Oregon. Comprised largely of research scientists collectively responsible for every major technological breakthrough in history, this was no bog-standard small-town drama. Christmas episode “Do You See What I See” is as offbeat as you might hope, as a wave of colourful energy swoops down over Eureka, turning every resident into hyper-colourful cartoon characters.
The source of the animation is found to be caused by the Super Photon Generator, but the adults’ attempts to fix things are thrown awry by the town’s children exploiting their newfound animated abilities, adding Snow Ninjas to the cartoon mix in a bid to liven up proceedings. Largely independent of the show’s running storylines, this is an imaginative and inventive episode, a completely unique take on a traditional holiday.
98. THE HONEYMOONERS – ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas
USA/Season 1/1955Aired on CBSdirected by Frank Satenstein, written by Marvin Marx and Walter Stone
Running for just 39 episodes in 1955 and ’56, The Honeymooners has gone on to render a legacy far beyond its years. The primary inspiration for The Flintstones, it influenced generations of media creatives and was the primary reference point for American sitcom for decades to come. Its solitary Christmas episode rates among its strongest, as short-tempered, underpaid Ralph Kramden discovers the gift he’s bought his long-suffering wife Alice might not live up to expectations.
He’s forced to sell his shiny new bowling ball to fund a last-minute alternative. In part a spin on classic short story Gift Of The Magi, a Christmas sitcom go-to in decades to come, it’s pointedly funny half-hour, with a number of truly memorable scenes. It also embraces the ambience of the season wholeheartedly: snowy and beautiful, at episode’s end Jackie Gleason and co bid viewers at home a very Merry Christmas.
97. DIFF’RENT STROKES – Santa’s Helper
USA/Season 3/1980Aired on NBCdirected by Gerren Keith, written by Bruce Taylor
Retrospectively unloved thanks to cheesy scripting and a regrettably frequent penchant for Very Special Episodes, Diff’rent Strokes deserves a little more credit than most are willing to offer. A well-cast, well-oiled machine, its workmanlike construction and strong ensemble ensured that every now and then, the show could deliver an old-fashioned sitcom gem. Season 5’s “Santa’s Helper” is among them; a straight-ahead tale of festive redemption.
The Drummond family – Park Avenue businessman Phillip Drummond, his daughter Kimberly, and Arnold and Willis, the African-American sons of his deceased housekeeper – are burgled between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; meanwhile, the diminutive Arnold fundraises for charity while dressed as the world’s smallest Santa Claus (“give till it hurts, for the homeless squirts!” he cries). It’s predictable stuff, but every scene is imbued with Christmas spirit – there’s snow, presents, a family meal, and heartwarming evidence of the true meaning of the season – and the show’s wit-drenched dialogue is on fine form. If your tolerance for old-school sitcom is high, there’s much to love here.
96. ROSEANNE – White Trash Christmas
USA/Season 6/1993Aired on NBCdirected by Philip Charles Mackenzie, written by Lawrence Broch and William Lucas Walker
Few sitcom families are as willing to embrace their working-class status as the Conners, never pretending to be anything other than the occasionally dysfunctional, always loving, paycheck-to-paycheck team they are. They don’t have time for anyone who tries to artificially mask such, either. It’s no surprise, then, that upon receipt of a letter from the Neighborhood Association insisting that exterior Christmas decorations be kept to a minimum this year, they react in the most indignant, “white trash” manner possible, utterly smothering their house and garden with tacky festive décor. Santas, multiple mangers, neon signs from the local bar: nothing is too kitsch.
Their defiant spirit is infectious, a representation of shamelessly, proud vulgarity that simply has to be applauded. Meanwhile, Dan and Roseanne give Christmas money to daughter Becky and her husband Mark – but they’re not too happy with how she puts it to use. For a darker Roseanne Christmas, check out “No Place Like Home For The Holidays,” which sees youngest daughter Darlene discover the truth about boyfriend David’s family life.
95. STEPTOE AND SON – The Party
UK/Special/1973Aired on BBCdirected by Graeme Muir, written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s rag-and-bone-men comedy remains one of television’s most memorable examples of inter-generational conflict. Dirty old man Albert, content with his grimy lot in life, is forever dragging his more aspirational son Harold down with him. This Christmas, Harold is determined to get away from his miserable surroundings – and his crotchety pa – and jet away to spend the big day in Majorca. But as is so often the case, Albert has other plans, and resorts to his old go-to gimmick, feigning illness in a bid to keep Harold at home.
The two eventually agree to splurge on a nice Christmas party instead, but naturally, things don’t quite go ahead as scheduled. Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell are on fine form here; a decade into the series’ run, the chemistry – and festering resentment – between the two is unparalleled.
94. THE CATHERINE TATE SHOW – The Catherine Tate Christmas Show
UK/Special/2007Aired on BBCdirected by Gordon Anderson, written by Catherine Tate and a team of writers
Sketch comedy experienced something of a renaissance last decade, thanks largely to the huge success of two BBC hits: Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show. While the former suffered from overexposure, though, the latter just gained steam, continuing to improve and hone its characters and jokes right up until the 2007 Christmas Day special. George Michael makes a brilliantly self-effacing guest appearance at the hospital Christmas party; gobby Lauren meets an untimely end in a tragic kayaking accident; foul-mouthed Nan looks forward to hosting Christmas lunch.
The rudest program the BBC had yet broadcast during Christmas Day primetime (Mrs. Brown’s Boys’ spectre yet to beckon), the show attracted a number of viewer complaints due to the fragrant language, but fans minded not a jot: this is gloriously crude sketch comedy at its most entertaining.
93. KENAN AND KEL – Merry Christmas Kenan
USA/Season 1/1996Aired on Nickelodeondirected by Brian Robbins, written by Dan Schnieder
Kenan And Kel rates among Nickelodeon’s funniest and most overlooked series. An unabashed throwback to stage and early screen – every episode begins and concludes with the two titular characters addressing the audience, both in-studio and at home, in front of a red curtain; the sets lurking beyond are few in number and restricted in size – it deals primarily in classic slapstick and escalating farce. The as-live spirit and form of the show is perfectly suited to the show’s solitary foray into festive matters, which sees scheming Kenan take on a role as a department-store Santa in a bid to make cash to purchase “the bike of bikes.”
Foil Kel looks on as assistant elf, eagerly anticipating a tuba-phone for Christmas (“it’s a tuba.. and a phone!”) The show takes a sweet, seasonal turn when a poor single mom with two children is forced to tell Santa Kenan that she is unlikely to be able to afford presents this year. The screenplay hits the expected beats from there on out, but is escalated by the show’s commitment to consistent laughs throughout, the ever-wonderful camaraderie between Kenan and Kel, and the marked strength of the guest performers – all too often, child actors in the ’90s were saccharine-sweet and overbearing, but the (uncredited) kids here are naturally funny, endearing and likably low-key.
92. HUFF – Christmas Is Ruined
USA/Season 1/2005Aired on Showtimedirected by Matt Shakman, written by Thania St. John
A little-watched precursor to the dark drama dominance of the last TV decade, Huff is a magnificent two-season wonder about psychiatrist Craig Huffstodt (Hank Azaria, demonstrating revelatory range), whose life is changed forever when a 15-year-old patient commits suicide in his office. The series branches out to cover all aspects of Huff’s being – his dysfunctional family, his criminal friend, his ever-frustrating professional life – as viewers gain deep insight into the man’s psyche.
The Christmas episode serves to bring disparate elements of Huff’s world together, as his wife’s terminally ill mother, his son’s girlfriend, and his addiction-ravaged friend Russell all serve up their own festive frustrations. It all adds up to a pretty difficult Christmas for Huff, but it makes for great television – and a festive visit from the Homeless Hungarian, a figment of Huff’s imagination, offers some degree of hope.
91. LEAD BALLOON – Nuts
UK/Series 3/2008Aired on BBCdirected by Alex Hardcastle, written by Jack Dee and Pete Sinclair
Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon led quite an unassuming life on BBC4 and BBC2, little-cited beyond its superficial resemblance to Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. That’s quite a shame, as it’s rather good telly. We spent four series with misanthropic comedian Rick Spleen, a 21st century Victor Meldrew, frustrated by everyone and everything, life and career never quite panning out as he had planned. This Christmas, he’s been forced to participate in a pantomime, more esteemed work having run dry.
Post-panto, Rick has been hoping for a relaxed Christmas alone with wife Mel, but it doesn’t quite pan out, as everyone in his life sees their own plans fall through: housekeeper Magda feels unable to return home to her Eastern European family as their President has suddenly died; Rick’s co-writer Marty’s flight is postponed; Michael from the café is stood up by his internet date. The show’s most entertaining support always came from money-grabbing daughter Sam and slacker boyfriend Ben, though, and they’re good value as ever here, keeping Rick on his toes… and then some.
90. FATHER KNOWS BEST – The Christmas Story
USA/Season 1/1954Aired on CBSdirected by William D. Russell, written by Roswell Rogers and Paul West
Even in 1954, nostalgia for Christmases of years gone by existed. Frustrated by the season’s increasing preoccupation with materialism – he fails to discern any logic in his wife’s attempts to keep track of who’s purchased the family a present so they can return the favour – Jim Anderson, the titular father, sets the family off on a good old-fashioned drive to select and cut down this year’s Christmas tree. Things don’t quite go to plan though: a snow drift leaves them stranded, the only source of help nearby a closed mountain retreat.
Upon entering, they find a bearded man named Nick, who proves pleasant company as the evening unfolds. Daughter Kathy is concerned that Santa Claus won’t be able to track the family down out here in the middle of nowhere, but it becomes increasingly clear that there’s unlikely to be a problem on that front. A traditional story, well-told, Father Knows Best’s first Christmas episode is as straightforward as TV comes, but it’s also as comforting and warm as hot cocoa on a snowy day, paced tenderly and made with love, care, and a genuine affection for the festive season.
89. NIGHT COURT – Santa Goes Downtown
USA/Season 1/1984Aired on NBCdirected by Asaad Kelada, written by Reinhold Weege
There were nine seasons of Night Court, and Judge Harry Stone – the brilliant Harry Anderson – presided over festive funny several times throughout that lengthy run. The show’s second-ever episode, though, captures the show’s zany, lightning-in-a-bottle spirit – not to mention a little touch of Christmas magic – as successfully as any of those. In shades of Miracle On 34th Street, a man who claims he is Santa Claus appears in court for trespassing.
He’s probably just an old kook… but as he begins to impart surprising amounts of knowledge about the teenagers also due in court that evening, for stealing from a newsagent’s, everyone begins to wonder, just a little, whether this guy could be the real deal. Night Court wouldn’t usually get quite so sentimental, but hey: if St. Nick himself is in the house, who’s going to deny him the chance to impart a little message to troubled teens? Look out for a Family Ties-era Michael J. Fox, who delivers a convincing performance as one of the young criminals.
88. TALES FROM THE CRYPT – And All Through The House
USA/Season 1/1989Aired on HBOdirected by Robert Zemeckis, written by Fred Dekker
HBO horror anthology Tales From The Crypt always struck a great balance between the cartoonishly brutal and the genuinely terrifying, and “And All Through The House” – featuring bloodshed to rival that of any Hollywood slasher flick – is a great demonstration of that ethos. A woman kills her husband for insurance money, but soon gets her comeuppance when a Santa suit-clad serial killer arrives on her doorstep.
Blackly funny at first, then genuinely disturbing, and crossing back around to bitterly comic by episode’s end, it’s a great festive treat for horror fans who find Ghost Stories For Christmas a little short on the ol’ blood and guts. Fans of the show should also find time to invest in the Tales From The Crypt CD, Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas – We Wish You’d Bury The Missus is the devilishly dark festive parody tune you didn’t know you needed in your life.
87. THE BOONDOCKS – A Huey Freeman Christmas
USA/Season 1/2005Aired on Adult Swimdirected by Seung Eun Kim, written by Aaron McGruder
Based on the comic strip of the same name, Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks was one of the most daring and ruthless cartoons on TV, a cutting-look at an unconventional black family in a white-majority neighborhood. Brothers Huey and Riley – respective passions: social justice and gangster rap – are raised with tough love by their Grandad.
“A Huey Freeman Christmas” sees Huey wrest control of his school play, shifting the traditional pageant into “The Adventures of Black Jesus,” co-produced by Quincy Jones and starring Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett. The school principal is unenthused, to say the least, but the show goes on. As scathing a satire of white liberal guilt as the show ever delivered, it’s a funny and memorable episode. Look out for a number of clever references to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
86. MARRIED… WITH CHILDREN – You Better Watch Out
USA/Season 2/1987Aired on Foxdirected by Linda Day, written by Katherine Green & Richard Gurman
Ah, a Bundy Christmas. It’s quite the prospect – as a pre-credits “warning” title card notes, it could “prove upsetting to small children… and others.” Rival mall Lakeside has opened across town, and the shoe shop that Al Bundy works in is suffering. It looks like there might be no Christmas bonus this year, which has put something of a downer on the household.
But fate intervenes on Christmas Eve: a stunt involving the new mall has gone terribly wrong, a parachute has failed to open, and their in-store Santa has crash-landed on the Bundy lawn. As upset children nearby grow fearful that Santa Claus is dead, it’s down to Al to step up to the Father Christmas plate. It’s a fine episode, emblematic of Married… With Children’s strengths, the ability to take stock sitcom plots and ruthlessly slot in an abrupt left turn halfway through.
85. TAXI – A Full House For Christmas
USA/Season 1/1978Aired on ABCdirected by James Burrows, written by Barry Kemp
It’s difficult to find a more unpleasant sitcom character than Danny Devito’s Louie de Palma, but Taxi’s first Christmas episode takes a good shot. For once, the audience are in a position to take Louie’s side, as his poker-playing brother Nick hits town for the festive season – but is reluctant to pay a visit to his loving mother, who desperately wants to see him for the big day.
In a bid to make his mum’s Christmas a good one, Louie persuades Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch) to try and beat him in a card game, with the agreement that Nick must make good on his mother’s hopes if Alex can beat him. We didn’t often see the soft underbelly of tough-as-nails Louie, which in and of itself makes this episode a touching, festive tribute – but it’s also a very funny half-hour, with Devito delivering great lines with absolute gusto.
84. WINGS – A Terminal Christmas
USA/Season 2/1990Aired on NBCdirected by Noam Pitlik, written by Bill Diamond & Michael Saltzman
It’s not too festive at Tom Nevers Field this year, as the airport is forced to stay open on Christmas Day, and the gang are forced to abandon their festive plans. A last-minute cancellation allows the airport to close, but original plans scuppered, they decide to show up unexpectedly at Fay’s Christmas party. They’re surprised to be confronted with the upsetting sight of Fay alone, pining over her husband – it’s the first Christmas since he passed.
As it happens, she’s finding it hard to let go of old George: the TV is still tuned to the Japanese channel (he was “mid-click” when he passed); his dentures still reside on the bedside table. The gang do their best to pull together and deliver a memorable, loving Christmas for Fay. A strong example of the way great sitcoms can encompass a little more emotional import during the holiday season, it’s funny and touching in equal measure.
83. DRAGNET – The Big Little Jesus
USA/Season 3/1951Aired on NBCdirected by Jack Webb, written by Richard L. Breen
Dragnet is a product of a very different era. I say that with mind not just to the content of the show, but the context of its production: “The Big Little Jesus” is a screenplay adapted for Dragnet not just the once, but three times: once for radio and twice for television. In the sixteen years between its first TV broadcast and its second screen adaptation (1967), little changed, bar a few cuts for time, but the original retains a more timeless quality.
Perhaps it’s the black-and-white – Roger Ebert famously noted that movies in monochrome feel less dated than early-colour counterparts – or perhaps it’s the sense that this innocent, religious-focused story feels better suited to the innocence of the 1950s than the counterculture-driven 1960s. Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday and partner Officer Joe Alexander investigate the disappearance of a statue of Baby Jesus from the Old Mission Plaza Church. Low-stakes even by Dragnet standards – it was always a show about character, not crime – their search takes a few unexpected turns, and winds up re-instilling the festive faith in everyone affected by the theft.
82. ALLY MCBEAL – Silver Bells
USA/Season 1/1997Aired on Foxdirected by Joe Napolitano, written by David E. Kelley
Ally McBeal is that rarest of beasts: a TV series with more Christmas episodes than seasons. Every year, the unconventional staff of the Cage and Fish law firm would spend an episode or three in full-on Christmas mode, with festive romance to be had, seasonal parties to be had and Vonda Shepard Christmas songs to be sung. All three are in full supply here.
As a smart, intelligent threesome go to court in a bid to win the right to have a three-way marriage legally recognised, Ally is initially sceptical but soon draws parallels between their position and her own love triangle. Elsewhere, Richard Fish’s attempts to arrange the Christmas do are the source of festive fun, and John Cage ponders over asking Ally to be his date. In the mood for more Christmas Ally? “Boy To The World,” the show’s first festive episode (broadcast immediately prior to Silver Bells) is also worth your time, telling the emotionally-charged story of a transvestite prostitute on trial for the third time.
81. HOUSE – Joy To The World
USA/Season 5/2008Aired on Foxdirected by David Straiton, written by Peter Blake
Christmas doesn’t mean a whole lot to a hardened cynic like Dr. Gregory House; most of the show’s seasonal episodes pivot around the unerring pessimism of the show’s lead character. What makes this episode so appealing is the way House is forced to break with tradition and embrace goodwill, as Wilson challenges him to be nice to his clinic duty patients. House dealing with the workaday cases that arrive in the clinic is always brilliant television, and his attempts to be excessively polite and friendly are hilarious.
It all culminates in an inspired present-day take on the Virgin Birth, as House willingly goes along with a patient’s claims that she’s got pregnant without having had sex. It’s an upbeat contrast to the patient of the week, the ultimately tragic case of a teenage girl who collapses during the school Christmas concert. Cuddy’s connection with the young girl, following the loss of her baby several episode prior, is touching, and leads to the rare final act where someone other than House solves the medical mystery.
80. RUGRATS – The Santa Experience
USA/Season 2/1992Aired on Nickelodeondirected by Charles Swenson, written by Joe Ansolabehere, Peter Gaffney, Paul Germain and Johnathan Greenberg
Rugrats was renowned for its holiday specials, reflecting a diversity of theme that few other children’s programs attempted – Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Halloween, Mother’s Day and Passover all got their dues throughout the Nickelodeon toon’s nine-season run. Christmas got its due too, though, in season two’s “Santa Experience” – one of the show’s earliest double-length stories. Meeting Santa at the toy store proves a tad traumatic for our toddlers, as Chuckie is fearful of the all-powerful man, and Angelica yanks his beard to reveal that he’s not the real Father Christmas.
Dissecting the unfortunate afternoon, the parents arrange for a snowy Christmas retreat to the mountains, complete with an authentic Santa experience, in a bid to make up for what went wrong. Chuckie remains scared of the big man, though, despite Tommy’s reassurances; meanwhile, Angelica talks twins Phil and Lil into a “Gift of the Magi” situation for her own gain, but soon becomes repentant after a nightmare about waking up to coal on Christmas morning.
79. THE PJS – How The Super Stoled Christmas
USA/Season 2/2000Aired on Foxdirected by John Logue, written by Steve Pepoon & Bill Freiberger
The red-headed stepchild of the Fox animation line-up, stop-motion gem The PJs – created by and starring Eddie Murphy – has largely been eliminated from the canon of adult toons, entirely independent of the Groening-Judge-Macfarlane triumvirate who’ve dominated the potted history of the genre. It’s regrettable that The PJs didn’t find more of an audience, as it’s an audacious and funny work: set amidst an urban public-housing project ripe for social commentary (“The Projects”, from which the show got its name), the show delved into satire, the surreal, and character humour all at once, making for a potent comedic blend.
The only Christmas episode sees Superintendent Thurgood make a deal with a pawn-shop owner: in order to buy his wife a computer for Christmas, he’ll repossess the items other tenants in the building have been skipping payments on. The process doesn’t go smoothly, though, and comedic twists and turns imminently beckon. A hilarious and surprisingly compelling episode fuelled partly by a superb parody of The Grinch, How The Super Stoled Christmas is a great standalone episode that plays by its own rules, wickedly funny and oddly festive despite the jet-black comedy. The stop-motion animation style, uncommon on television by the turn of the century, also lends comparisons with a number of the classic American ‘60s Christmas standalones.
78. GAVIN AND STACEY – Christmas SpecialUK/Special/2008Aired on BBCdirected by Christine Gernon, written by Ruth Jones and James Corden
Gavin and Stacey quietly became one of the most utterly likeable sitcoms of the new millennium, a warmly romantic and uproariously funny study of a man and a woman in a long-distance relationship, and their friends and families. The contrast between Gavin’s urban Billericay upbringing, and Stacey’s home in Barry, South Wales, proved the source of some marvellous comedy of culture clashes, but the real appeal of the show lay in the rich, realistic characters, the kind of likeable, slightly offbeat people you’d love to spend Christmas with.
The show’s only festive special proves that theory nicely, as we spend 45 utterly wonderful minutes in their company. Stacey’s family are heading to Essex to spend Christmas at the house of Gavin’s family, and everyone’s in high spirits, as the alcohol begins to flow and the party gets going. And then Gavin announces that he’ll be moving to Wales with Stacey in the New Year, and things take something of a turn for the worse…
77. THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW – A Christmas StoryUSA/Season 1/1960Aired on CBSdirected by Bob Sweeney, written by Frank Tarloff
The generosity of the season is in great supply down at Mayberry Sheriff’s Department. Department store owner Ben demands that Andy imprison moonshiner Jim for the holidays. With evidence supplied, Andy is forced to capitulate, but his idea to ensure everyone still gets to celebrate the big day is a touching one: finding excuses to imprison Jim’s wife and children with him for the big day, he temporarily deputises his own family members, and the two families get the Christmas party they’d both been looking forward to – even if it does have to take place down at the station.
It’s a quaint artifact of an era that maybe never really existed – it’s difficult to imagine any sheriff acting like Andy does here, even in the 1950s – but there is no denying the raw love and generosity on display in this idyllic small town, and the inevitable happy ending can warm the cockles of even the most hardened heart. It’s a shame The Andy Griffith Show never again featured Christmas in its eight-season run.
76. THE WONDER YEARS – Christmas
USA/Season 2/1988Aired on ABCdirected by Steve Miner, written by Bob Brush
If I had to pick one show whose mood seemed uniquely suited to the festive season, it might just be The Wonder Years, a tender and nostalgic show that really nailed the importance of family throughout its six-season run. Its romantic reminisces suit Christmas perfectly, imbuing December memories with otherworldly charm and tender sentimentality.
The show’s first Christmas episode is a fine example of that, as young Kevin realises that this the first Christmas crush Winnie will be spending without her brother, who died in Vietnam in the series pilot. He and brother Wayne’s primary Christmas wish had been to persuade dad Jack to buy a color TV, but Kevin’s priorities shift as he tries to give Winnie a happy Christmas. A touching scene in which Kevin discovers his gift from Winnie is a four-leaf clover is a beautiful antidote to materialism.
75. MAD ABOUT YOU – Met Someone
USA/Season 1/1992Aired on NBCdirected by Barnet Kellman, written by Danny Jacobson
A key component of NBC’s Must-See TV in its early seasons, Mad About You isn’t quite as well-remembered as many of its brethren (Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier) – in fact, the final two seasons are only getting a home video release next spring, a good decade after the boom of TV-on-DVD. It’s regrettable that it hasn’t held on to its fanbase over the years, as Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt’s newlywed couple made for one of the funniest partnerships on TV.
This episode combines not just one, but two sitcom go-to storylines: it’s not just the “Christmas episode”, but also the “flashback episode”, in which we learn how Paul and Jamie Buchman first met. A loving and romantic story, aided by the upbeat festive theme – an office Christmas party scene proves pivotal. It demonstrates everything that Mad About You did well: chemistry between its leads, funny scripts that dealt in day-to-day minutiae, and an overwhelming sense that love conquers all.
74. MOONLIGHTING – ‘Twas The Episode Before Christmas
USA/Season 2/1985Aired on ABCdirected by Peter Werner, written by Glenn Gordon Caron
Moonlighting’s renowned for its avant-garde trappings, the way it played with structure and form, its revolutionary breakdown of the fourth wall, and the way it criss-crossed between genres to hone its own unique style. Its first Christmas episode lives up to that promise, a neat blend of traditional holiday magic, self-referential wit, and a dark, crime-laden spin on a classic Christmas story. A man called Joseph is murdered by criminals he testified against; his wife, Mary, abandons her baby in Agnes’ apartment.
Naturally, private detective agency Blue Moon gets involved, as main characters Maddie and David desperately attempt to track down the baby’s mother; along the way they encounter everything from gunpoint hostages to three Kings. (Three Kings? “We’re in an allegory!”, David proclaims.) The pacing is more languid here than in many Moonlighting episodes – even with a beautiful, cockle-warming carol-singing denouement for the viewers at home, the show still ran a little short, one of a number of episodes plagued with production delays – but surprisingly, that’s no detriment. Even the rat-a-tat-tat Moonlighting, renowned for its quick-fire banter, deserves time to pause for breath and reflect at Christmastime.
73. EVERWOOD – Unhappy HolidaysUSA/Season 2/2003Aired on WBdirected by Jason Moore, written by John E. Pouge
Everwood was one of the most enjoyable serial dramas of the last decade, the story of small town where characters wore their hearts on their sleeves and emotions permanently ran high. Sentimental but never mawkish, its setup – big-city doctor Andy Brown moves to a small town, two children in tow, in the aftermath of his wife’s death – was an emotionally-charged jumping off point for a show unafraid to confront life’s challenges head-on. Its world-building was second to none, crafting a loving atmosphere and a real sense of place throughout its four seasons.
Second-season Christmas episode Unhappy Holidays finds a number of the series’ teenage characters at difficult points in their lives, and the parents in their lives are helpless to scupper their poor decisions. Son Ephram has got involved in a relationship with Madison, his sister’s babysitter; rival doctor Harold Abbott faces his own struggles when daughter Amy brings bad-boy Tommy Callahan home for a holiday meal. It’s not the brightest Christmas, but at least Andy is finding solace in his own newfound relationship… until daughter Delia gets wind of what’s going on.
72. OUTNUMBERED – The RobbersUK/Special/2009Aired on BBCdirected and written by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton
The authenticity of Outnumbered was its greatest asset. In the vein of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, scripts were loose and flexible, as the Brockman family were encouraged to improvise. That decision led to the three children – Jake, Ben and Karen – rating among the most realistic children in comedy, thinking, speaking and acting like genuine kids. The show’s first Christmas special takes full advantage of that verisimilitude, as Boxing Day in the Brockman household goes down in comically authentic fashion.
These kids are capital-a annoying – Ben claims robbers – or aliens – have stolen his pants; Karen engages in a relentless torrent of inane questions – but you can’t help but appreciate their boundless, no-holds-barred attitude towards life. It really does capture the feeling of what it’s like to a child on Boxing Day. Elsewhere, there are concerns that Grandad has gone missing from the old people’s home, and Hugh Dennis’ ever-flustered dad Pete is fretting over unwanted lunchtime visitors.
71. SUPERNATURAL – A Very Supernatural ChristmasUSA/Season 3/2007Aired on CWdirected by J. Miller Tobin, written by Jeremy Carver
“A Special Presentation,” notes the retro on-screen title card preceding Supernatural’s only Christmas episode. It’s not wrong: this is a violent, twisted, Very Supernatural Christmas indeed. Sam and Dean, brothers who hunt down a vast array of supernatural beings and demons, are in Michigan, assisting a woman whose husband has disappeared around Christmas time.
Considerations of the “anti-Claus” – the antithesis of old St. Nick, a concept inspired by legends such as Krampus – gives way to the discovery of pagan gods (inspired by spiritual predecessors to Father Christmas as we know him today) taking ritual human sacrifices annually. Tense, disturbing stuff, but it’s laced with the show’s trademark wit. Balancing out the darkness also: a touching flashback sequence, weaved throughout the episode proper, to one of Sam and Dean’s childhood Christmases. It lends the episode a certain warmth and levity that it really benefits from, the mesh of tones making for perfect unconventional festive fun.
70. MY FAMILY – Sixty Feet Under
UK/Special/2003Aired on BBCdirected by Jay Sandrich, written by James Hendrie and Ian Brown
The Harper clan spent Christmas with us on an impressive nine occasions, but Sixty Feet Under is the best of the bunch, a bottle episode written at the peak of the show’s powers. Ben and Susan, with grown children Nick, Janey and Michael, are stuck on the Tube following a day spent Christmas shopping: due to signalling problems, the train is unable to move.
Tensions and tempers rise in the cramped carriages as the family bicker, frustrate surrounding passengers, and generally cause festive havoc. The episode is the last to feature Nick as a regular character; his departure was key to the series downfall, and watching this episode, it’s not difficult to see why: his subplot, involving the sale of bottled water to thirsty passengers, is comedy gold, and Kris Marshall revels in the inherent silliness. Robert Lindsay’s Ben is on good form too: his frustration and anxiety is palpable.
69. THE BOB NEWHART SHOW – Bob Has To Have His Tonsils Out, So He Spends Christmas Eve In The Hospital
USA/Season 4/1975Aired on CBSdirected by James Burrows, written by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses
Having your tonsils “yanked” on Christmas Eve is no-one’s idea of fun, but it proves particularly unpleasant for psychiatrist Bob Hartley (Bob Newhart), whose awkwardness at the prospect of having such an operation in his 50s is compounded by discovering that his nurse is an ex-patient of his. The Bob Newhart Show was the first of Bob’s three sitcoms, and remains the strongest.
Bob Newhart always performed best as a straight man in a world of nutjobs, and that reaped dividends in this programme, in which the greatest moments were those where Bob reacted the strange world around him – here, that proves to be the brilliantly kooky nurse. His interactions with her are the funniest moments of the show, as she inadvertently drags him further down into the doldrums.
68. EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS – Everybody Hates Christmas
USA/Season 1/2005Aired on UPNdirected by Dennie Gordon, written by Alyson Fouse & Ali LeRoi
Chris Rock’s underrated period sitcom – think a satirical African-American spin on The Wonder Years or The Goldbergs – was one of the funniest, best-observed comedies on TV during its four-season run. Preoccupied with a take on Rock’s own working-class childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant (“Bed-Stuy”), New York, its uncompromising look at issues of class, social mobility and race go beyond those of any other sitcom of the new millennium. It’s no Social Studies lesson, though: it’s also fantastically funny, sharing the same knack for observational comedy as Rock’s stand-up routines.
“Everybody Hates Christmas” finds the show on great form, as in an inspired twist, the school’s canned food drive turns out to be in aid of Chris’ own family. At home, Chris asks for a Walkman for Christmas, but the family can’t afford it; meanwhile, older brother Drew has told little sister Tonya that Santa’s not real, and now she’s beginning to question everything she thought she knew about her parents’ commitment to honesty. Funny, true-to-life material.
67. THE INBETWEENERS – Xmas Party
UK/Series 1/2008 Aired on E4directed by Gordon Anderson, written by Damon Beesley & Iain Morris
Skins is life as British teens imagine it; The Inbetweeners is teenage life as it actually is. The profane, unfortunate antics of everyone’s favourite group of sixth-form oddballs made for three series of brilliantly embarrassing viewing, as everything that could go wrong for these four boys did. First-series entry “Xmas Party” is no exception. The festive season beckons, and Will is elected chairman of the school Christmas Party Committee (by default – no-one else has applied).
Preparations prove largely (and comically) unsuccessful, and on party night, Will is concerned that everyone will remember the night as a huge disappointment. Distractions beckon, though; Simon rather publicly fails to woo crush Carli, Jay crashes and burns in a bid to make a new friend, and a rather sozzled Neil attempts to snog the biology teacher. It’s classic Inbetweeners material, capped with a pleasantly amicable piss-about – in the spirit of the season – in the party’s aftermath.
66. NEWSRADIO – Xmas Story
USA/Season 3/1996Aired on NBCdirected by Patrick Maloney, directed by Drake Sather
There’s something of a dilemma this Christmas at radio station WNYX. Station manager Jimmy Jones has given the staff personalised baseball caps for Christmas, and they’re not too happy; when he gets wind of their disappointment, he goes all-out and purchases them all a sports car instead. All, that is, except Matthew, who’s been given a collection of old radio comedy tapes, and is understandably disappointed that he hasn’t been upgraded to a car.
Meanwhile, Phil Hartman’s Phil McNeal is concerned that an office Santa is issuing death threats to him every time he passes. It’s suitably bizarre material for the clever show’s ragtag assembly of offbeat characters, collectively one of the greatest ensemble casts of the 1990s. There’s a hint of seasonal warmth at show’s end, as we learn more about the thought process behind Matthew’s seemingly-disappointing gift – but a wonderfully dark capper reminds us that NewsRadio isn’t one to abide by standard sitcom convention.
65. ARTHUR – Arthur’s Perfect Christmas
USA/Special/2000Aired on PBSdirected by Greg Bailey, written by Peter K. Hirsch
Everyone knows that The Simpsons is the longest-running American cartoon series, but what’s second? South Park? Family Guy? It’s actually PBS kids series Arthur, which has clocked up a remarkable 20 seasons (and some brilliantly geeky cameos) since debuting in 1996. Anthropomorphic Arthur Read is probably television’s most famous aardvark (sorry, Otis), and the family-friendly exploits he gets up to with his friends and family hold up better for adults than most programmes aimed at such young viewers (we never did get that Beavis and Butthead parody on Fireman Sam, did we?).
The show’s hour-long Christmas special is one of its strongest moments, a warm and funny look at the value to be found in all seasonal traditions – from Arthur’s Christmas to Francine’s Hanukkah, Brain’s Kwanzaa to Baxter’s.. er.. “Baxter Day.” The well-rounded, episodic plot casts a glance over all of the season’s touchstones: religion, family, consumerism (the “Tina the Talking Tabby” doll that Arthur’s sister DW longs for is pure nightmare fuel). The final episode of the show to be cel-animated before the show went digital in 2001, the wintery art here is beautiful, imbued with love and care, and the superb soundtrack – which features a number of original songs that draw from inspiration as surprising as Frankie Avalon and ‘50s rock and roll – demonstrates a level of thought and effort absent from so much children’s television.
64. BOSTON LEGAL – The Nutcrackers
USA/Season 3/2006Aired on ABCdirected by John Terleski, written by David E. Kelley and Sanford Golden
If there’s one thing prolific scribe David E. Kelley loves, it’s a Christmas episode. Featured previously on this list with Ally McBeal, he’s back again with one of Boston Legal’s many Christmas episodes. Law drama Boston Legal is probably Kelley’s finest achievement, a blend of his signature earnest political platforming and crazy character comedy that hung together surprisingly well for its five years on air. The Nutcrackers is a stellar example of the show’s dynamic range, wherein every gear is playing its part.
Alan and Shirley participate in a case involving a mother fighting for custody of her daughters. The twist? They sing in a white supremacist pop band, in a story heavily inspired by real-life sister duo Prussian Blue. Elsewhere, Denny Crane – the show’s most memorable character, played by the inimitable William Shatner – helps a mother trying to keep custody of her anorexic daughter, while Brad and Denise are faced with a client attempting to sue God for killing her husband when he was struck by lightning. Breathtakingly sincere one moment, utterly off-the-wall the next, it’s a fine example of Boston Legal firing on all cylinders.
63. NORTHERN EXPOSURE – Seoul Mates
USA/Season 3/1991Aired on CBSdirected by Jack Bender, written by Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider
A bridge between the more traditional small-town dramas of the 1980s and the dark, corrupt beauty of avant-garde shows like Twin Peaks and Picket Fences, Northern Exposure’s tale of big-city doctor Joel Fleischman in rural Alaskan town Cicely was a popular and critical success, blending stock fish-out-of-water elements with in-depth character study of the eccentric locals. Any program with unusual characters offers great potential for a festive episode, as viewers clamor to discover how their offbeat on-screen analogues put their own spin a shared touchstone.
“Seoul Mates” takes full advantage of the opportunity afforded it, with a quirky Raven Pageant in the place of a more traditional celebration. Beyond the surface, deeper and more powerful moments lurk, as Shelley longs for Christmas Mass, and Maurice meets his Korean son – fathered while he was in the Marines – for the first time. The Jewish Joel, meanwhile, decides to invest in a Christmas tree for the first time… but the universe has other plans. A marvellous blend of the traditional and the quirky, the profound and the superficial.
62. BEWITCHED – A Vision of Sugar Plums
USA/Season 1/1964Aired on ABCirected by Alan Rafkin, written by Herman GrovesBewitched feels like a TV concept tailor-made to embrace Christmas. This time of year always feels a little magical; how better to enhance that festive feeling by adding some real magic to the mix too? The eight-season-long story of a witch (Samantha) married to a mortal man (Darrin Stephens), the show’s first Christmas episode was its most memorable.
The Stephens’ and their neighbors, the Kravitzes, are participating in a season traditional of giving an orphan a family home and a traditional Christmas. Samantha’s orphan Michael isn’t too convinced by the magic of the season, though, and doesn’t believe in Santa – naturally, despite having vowed not to use her supernatural powers, Samantha feels that the perfect way to introduce some wonder back into such a cynical child would be to take him directly to the North Pole. Funny material that ties inneatly with the transcendent nature of the season.
61. EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND – The Toaster
USA/Season 3/1998Aired on CBSdirected by Steve Zuckerman, written by Philip Rosenthal
The close-knit family of Everybody Loves Raymond are perhaps a little too close-knit. Rarely is that more obvious than at Christmas time, when neurotic Ray, brother Robert, wife Debra and parents Marie and Frank tend to clash more than usual. (The nine-season run is a pretty exhaustive PSA warning against moving across the street from your parents.) In Raymond’s most memorable Christmas episode, though, things are a little different.
Ray’s festive gift of engraved toasters has gone down a treat with family and friends – even Debra’s picky, stuck-up parents are thrilled – but curiously, he hasn’t yet heard an opinion from his own mum and dad. He calls them on their silence, and discovers they traded in the toaster for a coffee machine – without realising it had been engraved. The show’s second half follows the family desperately trying to reclaim the engraved toaster: it’s hilarious, both conceptually and in practice, and it also speaks volumes about how this family truly feel about each other. Sure, they’d return a regular old toaster their son bought them – but one engraved with the family name? They’ll go to hell and back in a bid to get that back.
60. MONK – Mr. Monk Meets His Dad
USA/Season 5/2006Aired on USA Networkdirected by Jerry Levine, written by Tom Scharpling and Dan Dratch
Everyone’s favorite obsessive-compulsive detective, Tony Shalhoub’s wonderful Adrian Monk solved more than his fair share of festive mysteries during his eight seasons on television. “Mr. Monk Meets His Dad” is more than a standard case-of-the-week episode, though. The real draw here is the stirring reunion of Adrian with his father after an absence of 39 years.
Prompted by selfish desire for police-friendly detective to void his traffic ticket, Adrian reluctantly makes the best of the meagre olive branch, and joins his dad Jack on the remainder of a lengthy trucking run. There’s a mystery element too, and it’s as compelling as ever, but the real draw here is the heartwarming, emotionally-charged personal story. The Christmassy setting further heightens the beauty; Jack’s gift to Adrian at episode’s end is as touching as any other moment in the series’ history.
59. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT – Afternoon Delight
USA/Season 2/2004Aired on Foxdirected by Jason Bateman, written by Abraham Higginbotham & Chuck Martin
A comedy series unlike any before or since, Arrested Development’s willingness to challenge its fans with complex, layered jokes and subtle callbacks was its greatest asset. It renders the show near-impenetrable to casual viewers – even the most ardent TV fan would be lost jumping in on the show at this season 2 Christmas special – but for those committed to paying attention, watching and re-watching, it’s probably the most rewarding sitcom of the last 15 years. This episode is a fine example of its many and varied comedic skill sets: Arrested Development throws every type of humor into the sitcom mix, and every last joke lands.
From the “holiday tradition” of rebuilding the banana stand to GOB’s fears of children’s “sticky little hands” at the company Christmas party; from “putting it in her brownie” to the innuendo-laden lyrics to “Afternoon Delight,” it’s an episode jam-packed with gags and references that every fan of the show will recall vividly, a relentless torrent of puns, slapstick, metajokes and character humor that somehow also advances the show’s overarching story amidst the insanity. An unqualified success.
58. 30 ROCK – Episode 209/Ludachristmas
USA/Season 2/2008Aired on NBCdirected by Don Scardino, written by Tami Sagher
The very strange family members of both Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon upset the status quo at 30 Rock this Christmas. We meet Liz’s brother Mitch, who suffers with TINA – Trauma Induced Nivea Aphasia – and believes he is still 17 years old, reliving every day as December 7, 1985. It’s an inspired source of comedy. Jack’s mother Colleen also shows up – despite her flight having previously been cancelled – and takes an immediate dislike to the perky, upbeat Lemon family.
Elsewhere, the cast and crew of TGS are preparing the annual Ludachristmas party, before network page Kenneth Parcell ruins their fun, cancelling the celebrations in a bid to teach the crew the real meaning of Christmas. And in a concept stolen directly from real-life goings-on, Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) is unable to drink, thanks to being fitted with a court-ordered alcohol-monitoring device. As is 30 Rock’s tradition, it’s all marvellously ludicrous, oddball comedy that nonetheless retains a genuinely warm heart.
57. WKRP IN CINCINNATI – Jennifer’s Home for Christmas
USA/Season 2/1979Aired on CBSdirected by Rod Daniel, written by Dan Guntzelman & Steve Marshall
WKRP’s funniest festive episode is a spin on a number of old festive tropes, but it puts them to such good use that it’s hard to complain. A prime example of the “found family” ambience so often evident in classic workplace sitcoms, we find the radio station team pull together to ensure that Jennifer – a pretty, single woman who’s usually not short on social engagements – doesn’t face Christmas at home alone, tree-less.
Regrettably, the gang don’t communicate too effectively pre-surprise, and Jennifer ends up with rather more Christmas trees than any one person would know what to do with. In the end, their efforts prove unnecessary, as it turns out one of her suitors has planned a last-minute trip straight to Bethlehem (“a down-home Christmas!” notes Johnny Fever). But beyond the laughter and the farce, the way these characters do their best for their co-worker is genuinely touching; sometimes a makeshift family can match and surpass the real thing.
56. MODERN FAMILY – Undeck the Halls
USA/Season 1/2009Aired on ABCdirected by Randall Einhorn, written by Dan O’Shannon
Heartfelt and funny in equal measure, our first Christmas with Modern Family proved an instant holiday classic. The Dunphy clan are the main focus: a burn mark on the sofa prompts Claire and Phil to cancel Christmas until one of their children comes clean about what caused it. Naturally, there’s a twist – but it’s not the one viewers might be anticipating.
Elsewhere, Jay Pritchett is attempting to introduce his Colombian wife and stepson to his Christmas traditions, and isn’t having much success; while Cameron and Mitchell inadvertently ruin the Christmas of a mall Santa by complaining that he’s “not jolly enough.” The three subplots are perfectly suited to the characters, and all satisfy: there’s no weak link to be found. Fred Willard puts in a shining guest performance as Phil’s dad, easily the equal of the outstanding series regulars. A fine example of one of TV’s most popular comedies.
55. FAMILY GUY – A Very Special Family Guy Freakin’ Christmas
USA/Season 3/2001Aired on Foxdirected by Brian Hogan, written by Danny Smith
Christmas in Quahog is exactly as distressing as you might anticipate. A series of calamitous events – Peter donating the family’s gifts to charity, the house accidentally getting set on fire – drive Lois to distraction, and it’s down to Stewie, of all people, to save the day. There’s so much to love in this pre-cancellation episode: Stewie’s desperate wish for plutonium, Peter’s ridiculous obsession with TV special KISS Saves Santa, an inspired chase sequence in a busy mall.
The episode’s disparate threads tie together nicely by episode’s end, and the final sequence – in which the Griffin clan open their presents, and wish viewers a Merry Christmas, sans a heavily sedated Lois – is exactly the kind of dark material early Family Guy always did so well. In recent years, we’ve spent several more Christmases with the Griffins, but only Brian and Stewie buddy musical “Road To The North Pole” holds a candle to this original.
54. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM – Mary, Joseph and Larry
USA/Season 3/2002Aired on HBOdirected by David Steinberg, written by Larry David
Larry David’s never been one for sentimentality – Seinfeld, which he co-created, was renowned for its anti-hugging ethos – so it makes sense that his shows rarely feature the Christmas holiday in any traditional, heartwarming manner. He’s subverted the holiday on several occasions though: there was Festivus (“for the rest of us!”) on Seinfeld, and then there’s the brilliantly grumpy, awkward “Mary, Joseph And Larry,” from Curb Your Enthusiasm’s third season.
Larry David’s television persona has no time for false pleasantries, so you can imagine how well he bumbles through the season of goodwill to all men, offending the staff at his country club, making his housekeeper Dora uncomfortable over her Christmas bonus, and ruining his wife’s quality time with her family. Awkward, anti-festive comedy at its finest.
53. THE VICAR OF DIBLEY – The Christmas Lunch Incident
UK/Special/1996Aired on BBCdirected by Dewi Humphreys, written by Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer
It’s no surprise that programs with a religious theme often find much gold to be mined in their Christmas specials. So it is with The Vicar Of Dibley, a Richard Curtis-penned sitcom starring Dawn French as Geraldine, female vicar assigned to a conservative Oxfordshire village, and a show whose Christmas episodes rate among its strongest. Whereas later festive episodes got bigger in length, scope and scale, though, it’s this first special – broadcast a year after the first series of the show – that holds up best.
Geraldine’s newfound popularity proves to be quite the mixed blessing, as following her Christmas Day sermon, she attempts to attend three Christmas dinners in a bid to avoid causing disappointment. It proves challenging, to say the least. And there’s further food to be consumed, when lonely Owen – solitary on Christmas for twenty-five years – knocks on her door, looking to share a fourth Christmas dinner with her. That’s to say nothing of an impromptu Christmas proposal from a BBC producer played by Peter Capaldi, and a festive evening reunited with greatly appreciative parishioners. It’s a busy, busy day for the Vicar that proves brilliantly entertaining.
52. MY SO-CALLED LIFE – So-Called Angels
USA/Season 1/1994Aired on ABCdirected by Scott Winant, written by Winnie Holzman & Jason Katims
Often cited as one of the greatest one-season wonders of all-time, My So-Called Life offered a uniquely tender and profound expression of the teenage experience. Emotionally intense and emotions firmly on sleeve, its 19 episodes were powerful enough to make a mark on creators like Joss Whedon, who cites it as a major influence on his Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series. The Christmas episode is a particularly touching one, as bisexual Rickie is kicked out of his house by his abusive uncle.
Angela (the series protagonist, played with uncanny realism by then-teenage Claire Danes) contemplates the best way to help him, with guidance from a runaway teenage girl who isn’t quite what she seems. It’s probably the series’ most on-the-nose episode – it was originally succeeded by an on-screen title card with advice helpline information – but that merely adds to its import, a brutally upsetting Christmas special that someone manages to keep some seasonal spirit alive by episode’s end.
51. NOT GOING OUT – The House
UK/Special/2013Aired on BBCdirected by Ed Bye, written by Lee Mack and Daniel Peak
The stock-in-trade of Not Going Out is, without question, the laughs-per-minute ratio. Other shows offer more complex, layered material, but if you want a barrage of gag after gag, head over to Not Going Out – if one line fails to land, another will be along ten seconds later. It’s surprising, then, that the best Christmas episode of the show – and one of its best episodes overall – takes something of a break from that format. In the vein of the brilliantly dark Only Fools And Horses episode “Friday The 14th,” “The House” blends the show’s trademark comedy with a more mysterious, spooky element.
Attempting to deliver on the promise of a perfect Christmas, Lee takes girlfriend Lucy, her parents, and their friend Daisy, to the old country house of a dead relative. The creepy goings-on are surprisingly effective, and even played straight: though the show’s witty script naturally takes the edge off, there’s a unique atmosphere going on here, and writers Mack and Peak are surprisingly adept at escalating the tension right up until the inevitable comedic payoff. A real gem.
50. PARKS AND RECREATION – Christmas Scandal
USA/Season 2/2009Aired on NBCdirected by Randall Einhorn, written by Michael Schur
Parks And Recreation set itself apart from the sitcom pack with its joyful, boundless optimism; in an era where soul-searching dramedy and jet-black satire were the best ways to get noticed in the comedy game, this joyful mockumentary about a small-town leisure department doing its best to make the world a better place made for one of the most downright pleasant half-hours on TV each week. It’s no surprise that every Christmas spent in Pawnee is quite the pleasure, but season 2’s “Christmas Scandal” strikes the series’ strongest balance between holiday warmth and political comedy.
Leslie Knope is in quite the quandary this Christmas: sex-scandal-plagued councilman makes heavy hints during a TV debate that he’s slept with Leslie; it’s not true, but the tabloid press go to town regardless. From this plotline, subplots branch out: Leslie contemplates moving away from Pawnee with lovestruck Dave (Louis CK); Ann joins in with Leslie’s bid to persuade councilman Bill to clear her name. Elsewhere, other Parks and Rec staffers face Christmas present dilemmas: April and Andy’s sub-plot, wherein they discuss what to buy April’s gay boyfriend, is a blast.
49. THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM – Christmas Shopping
USA/Season 11/1960Aired on CBSdirected by James V. Kern, written by Sam Perrin, George Balzer, Hal Goldman and Al Gordon
A premise re-lived several times throughout the storied history of The Jack Benny Program, both on radio and TV; this 1960 edition is probably the definitive version, refined and honed through several re-tellings. Christmas Shopping features Jack Benny desperate to save time and money while buying Christmas presents; his attempts to do to so frustrate the shopkeeper (a marvellous Mel Blanc), who just wants Jack to buy his wallet and leave.
Tiny quibbles and adjustments give way to escalating farce, as Jack just cannot settle on his decisions. Elsewhere, Jack’s valet Rochester, and friend Dennis looks for the perfect gift for his mother. The Jack Benny Program’s setup was interesting, primarily a sitcom that also featured variety show elements – though this show is heavier on the former than most entries – and was notable for starring its primary regular cast as slightly skewed, exaggerated versions of themselves. A show well ahead of its time.
48. 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN – Jolly Old St. Dick
USA/Season 2/1996Aired on NBCdirected by Robert Berlinger, written by Bill Martin & Mike Schiff
Alien sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun takes the fish-out-of-water concept to its logical extreme in this gem. Tommy, Dick, Harry and Sally — aliens come to Earth in human form – do their best to understand the very intricate, very human construct of Christmas during their first holiday season on the planet. With no understanding of even the most basic tenets of the season, they’re overcome with mixed emotions at the prospect of a completely new experience.
Sally and Harry get seasonal jobs at the mall; Tommy frets over what present to buy for his girlfriend August; Dick finds it difficult to fully embrace the Christmas spirit (“bug humbar!”) but eventually overcomes his misgivings to engage in the office festivities. It’s all funny, original material that pointedly observes a number of society’s festive quirks. John Lithgow as Dick continually demonstrates his place among the greatest sitcom performers of all time.
47. THE OC – The Best Chrismukkah Ever
USA/Season 1/2003Aired on Foxdirected by Sanford Bookstaver, written by Stephanie Savage
It’s not unusual for holiday episodes to acknowledge multiple December celebrations, but few embrace the diversity of the holiday season quite as markedly as The O.C., whose “Chrismukkah” concept even turned into something of a real-life movement. “Eight days of presents followed by one day of many presents” – who wouldn’t want to embrace that?
The blended celebration was a masterstroke, fuel for moments both comedic and dramatic, and the perfect festive solace for foster teenager Ryan Atwood, whose Christmases past have largely consisted of abuse and disappointment. But this year, a Chrismukkah miracle is in store: not only does Seth get the familial warmth he’s always yearned for, but he gets away free after being pulled over by the police post-party. (He’s not drunk, but his underage passenger sure is.) What more could he ask for?
46. PEEP SHOW – Seasonal Beatings
UK/Season 7/2010Aired on C4directed by Becky Martin, written by Jesse Armstrong & Sam Bain
Christmases aren’t always pleasant affairs, particularly when you’re forced into sharing the holiday with those you’d rather not spend time with – and the blisteringly funny, bitingly dark Peep Show demonstrates thorough understanding of that in its only Christmas episode. Neurotic Mark Corrigan is hosting Christmas at his flat for the first time, and family, roommate, friend and partner will all be in attendance – a veritable social minefield. As tends to happen in Peep Show, things don’t go particularly smoothly.
Even prior to the party proper, Mark is bickering with roommate Jeremy – Jeremy’s not too happy with Mark’s shoddy excuses for Christmas presents – and things go from bad to worse as more guests arrive. Mark asks girlfriend Dobby to pretend to be a platonic friend, which doesn’t go down well. Jeremy’s attempts at cooking the Christmas dinner don’t pan out very well. Mark’s dad continually insults and mocks him; Mark’s sister flirts with druggie friend Super Hans. The scene escalates into an explosion of festive resentment: cringe comedy at its very finest.
45. THE MIDDLE – The Christmas Tree
USA/Season 5/2013Aired on ABCdirected by Lee Shallat Chemel, written by Tim Hobert
The first Christmas back from college is a ritual familiar to TV fans: typically a time for reflection and nostalgia, the moment when the old adage “you can’t go home again” really hits. Not so much for Axl Heck, mind. Home for the holidays he may be, but he seems hellbent on spending as little time with his family as possible: mum Frankie has to negotiate for every minute. Elsewhere in the Heck household, Christmas is going about as smoothly as usual: Brick has inadvertently got himself stuck in a wrapping paper Ponzi scheme, while eternally unlucky Sue is having an unfortunate allergic reaction to the family’s new Christmas tree.
It’s a typically frantic, funny episode of The Middle, with all of the cast on top comedic form – but it’s escalated into the upper echelons of the Christmas TV canon thanks to an unexpected, touching moment with emotion-shy dad Mike. As he tries to persuade Axl to spend more time with the family, he finds himself breaking his steely façade and baring his soul – just a little – with a touching, lump-in-throat-inducing “Cats in the Cradle” moment.
44. VERONICA MARS – An Echolls Family Christmas
USA/Season 1/2004Aired on UPNdirected by Nick Marck, written by Diane Ruggiero
The first season of Veronica Mars is often lauded for its meticulously-drawn arc, focusing on teen Veronica’s private investigation into the murder of her friend Lilly. Bringing elements of film noir into 21st century high school, it’s a harmonious blend of several genres, and is rightly regarded as a classic in mystery television. What’s often overlooked, though, is its episode-to-episode strength: Veronica Mars worked just as well in relatively self-contained confines, and season one’s Christmas special is home to a fantastic mini-mystery: how did friend Logan’s poker money go missing during a game?
It’s a simple setup, but it reaps dividends, as Veronica’s attempts to get to the bottom of the matter proves one of the series’ most satisfying subplots. Elsewhere, season one’s major arc sees a major development, as Veronica’s dad Keith investigates Aaron Echolls’ stalker – but doesn’t quite figure out what’s going on in time..
43. THE JEFFERSONS – 984 W. 124th St., Apt 5C
USA/Season 4/1977Aired on CBSdirected by Jack Shea, written by Roger Shulman and John Baskin
Louise Jefferson discovers that husband George has been making payments and sending Christmas gifts to an address in Harlem that she doesn’t recognise. When she calls him on it, he’s cagey; naturally she becomes concerned and suspicious that he may be masking an affair. Misunderstandings like this are a pretty standard sitcom setup, but this one seems like a particularly difficult situation to explain away: what possible reasoning could there be? It makes for a surprisingly compelling story, as viewers join in with Louise in her detective work, discerning what is actually going on.
She follows him to the address one evening, and all becomes clear: it’s the address where George grew up in poverty, and as successful as he is now, he made a pact with himself to never allow anyone else to grow up there in such terrible conditions. It sounds mawkish, but it’s a sincerely moving revelation, a compassionate and touching gesture from a character hardly renowned for such. A great concept for a heartwarming Christmas episode that really captures the festive spirit.
42. SCRUBS – My Own Personal Jesus
USA/Season 1/2001Aired on NBCdirected by Jeff Melman, written by Debra Fordham
Working in a hospital and being religious: it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile the two, as a distraught Turk finds out after a particularly rough Christmas Eve in the emergency room at Sacred Heart. It’s a busy Christmas both personally and professionally for all of the Scrubs gang here, but Turk’s story is the driving through-line: from his crisis of faith and the reaction of his co-workers to such, right up to the touching, spirited conclusion wherein he finds a missing pregnant girl that Elliot had been desperately searching for and regains a little hope.
There’s great material elsewhere too: Dr. Cox asks JD to videotape the birth of a friend’s baby, with predictably funny results; Elliot fights against Kelso’s preconception that she will end up working in OB-GYN; the Janitor is disappointed that JD took down his mistletoe. All the great Scrubs tropes are present, correct and put to great use – the closing narration is a touching denouement, JD’s fantasy sequence featuring Turk as a gospel minister is a highlight, and the brief “not buying it” bookstore cutaway gag is one of the show’s all-time funniest gags.
41. HOME IMPROVEMENT – ‘Twas The Flight Before Christmas
USA/Season 5/1995Aired on ABCdirected by Andy Cadiff, written by John Vandergriff
Home Improvement – perhaps the biggest 90s sitcom that no-one seems to talk about anymore – had a real affinity for holidays. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas all proved fruitful fodder for the family comedy led by power tool-mad TV host Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, as the family patriarch attempted to make every celebration bigger and better than ever before, year-on-year.
Surprisingly, though, this low-key season five episode is the best entry in the Home Improvement holiday canon: on Christmas Eve, Tim and co-host Al are stranded at a small regional airport due to inclement weather. Their interactions with the airport’s rather limited staff are classic sitcom material. Meanwhile, at home, Tim’s boys are forced to go it alone in the neighborhood Christmas lighting contest. Season 2’s “I’m Scheming of a White Christmas,” a more traditional example of the show’s holiday programming, is also a worthy watch.
40. BOB’S BURGERS – Christmas In The Car
USA/Season 4/2013Aired on Foxdirected by Bernard Derriman and Jennifer Coyle, written by Steven Davis and Kelvin Yu
Quietly ascending to become the jewel in the crown of Fox’s animated line-up, Bob’s Burgers strikes a unique tone, somewhere between the down-to-earth realism of King Of The Hill and the more frenetic, offbeat spirit of Home Movies. “Christmas In The Car” is a gobsmackingly creative, completely original festive episode – and there aren’t too many of those around these days, sixty years into the medium’s life – a prime example of a show firing on all cylinders, packing so much great character comedy into one twenty-minute package that it barely stops for breath.
A journey to purchase the Belchers’ third Christmas tree of the season (the first two have already died) turns into something rather more exciting, as a lorry decorated to look like a candy cane appears to be attempting to drive the Belcher family off of the road. It sounds sinister, and well, it is, a little bit – but there’s so many brilliant jokes along the way. The childrens’ Santa Claus trap, set up before the family set out, is a hilarious concept that the show takes complete advantage of.
39. CHEERS – Christmas Cheers
USA/Season 6/1987Aired on NBCdirected by James Burrows and Thomas Lofaro, written by Cheri Eichen and Bill Steinkellner
The bar where everybody knows your name: the perfect home-from-home to celebrate Christmas with those you love, right? Well, things aren’t quite as idyllic as that this Christmas at Cheers, as still-new boss Rebecca is forcing all of the staff to work regular hours on Christmas Eve. Not that the customers are particularly happy, either: Frasier’s downtrodden, Norm’s working extra time as a department store Santa, Cliff’s desperately focused on winning a trip to Disney World.
It goes from bad to worse for Sam Malone when he realizes he needs to buy Rebecca a nice gift – something that’s reasonably priced, but still indicates he wants to sleep with her. All of the characters get their own little storyline in this neatly structured, festive-feeling edition of one of TV’s greatest, longest-running series – and as if further seasonal spirit were required, the show both begins and concludes with the gang watching It’s A Wonderful Life on the bar TV.
38. BOTTOM – Holy
UK/Series 2/2001Aired on BBCdirected by Ed Bye, written by Ade Edmondson, Rik Mayall
When you’ve reached peak festive schmaltz, a bit of crude, violent filth is the only thing for it. Enter Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson’s Bottom with a Christmas special in which no-one learns a heart-warming lesson, nobody’s heart grows three sizes, and everybody stays despicable until the very end.
This half-hour episode sees Richie’s psychopathic attempts to follow Christmas tradition thwarting Eddie’s desire for a boozy, relaxing day in front of the TV. Christmas Day in the pair’s Hammersmith hovel involves gonad-electrocution, finger amputation, the invention of brandy butter-replacement vodka margarine, and Richie developing a God complex (or should that be Mary complex?) when an anonymous infant is found on the doorstep. Come for the slapstick violence and an inspired nativity gag, but stay for Rik Mayall’s brilliant, manic performance.
37. THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW – The Alan Brady Show Presents
USA/Season 3/1963Aired on CBSdirected by Jerry Paris, written by Sam Denoff and Bill Persky
One of the most celebrated sitcoms of the ’60s, The Dick Van Dyke Show – about TV comedy writer Rob Petrie, played by Dick Van Dyke – was an intelligent and sharp show, one of the earliest examples of TV about TV. The only Christmas episode of the 158-show run, “The Alan Brady Show Presents” is actually quite an unusual example of the show, structurally.
For the holiday, the (on-screen) creative team behind the in-universe variety program “The Alan Brady Show” take on the roles of the main cast, participating in a musical revue packed with songs and comedic sketches. It’d make for an odd introduction to the show for a newbie, but watched in the context of the show’s full run, it rates as one of the most enjoyable and unusual Christmas episodes of the era: an absolute blast.
36. THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES – Christmas At The Clampetts
USA/Season 2/1963Aired on CBSdirected by Richard Whorf, written by Paul Henning & Mark Tuttle
CBS’ “rural comedies” – The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, et al – have never really garnered much critical love. ‘Purged’ in the earlier 1970s despite strong ratings in a bid to appeal to more affluent demographics, they nonetheless have retained a sizeable fanbase over the ensuing decades. The Beverly Hillbillies is the most famous of the bunch, the pre-eminent fish-out-of-water sitcom about the Clampetts, a family who struck it rich with oil on their land and moved to Beverly Hills.
The juxtaposition of the hillbillies’ lifestyle with that of their upper-class neighbours was the series’ primary theme, and Christmas proved prime territory for such. This consistently funny episode sees Mr. Drysdale – the Clampetts’ neighbour and banker – shower the family with gifts, from a television right up to a boat manned by a trained chimpanzee. While dated in a few places, what really strikes is just how much of the comedy here holds up well over fifty years later. Granny’s confusion about the television – she thinks it’s a washing machine – is absolute gold, silly but spectacularly funny.
35. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER – Amends
USA/Season 3/1998Aired on WBdirected by Joss Whedon, written by Joss Whedon
It’s a nightmare Christmas for Angel, as he awakens from bad dreams, haunted by memories of those he slayed as Angelus in centuries gone by. Things go from bad to worse as Buffy gets sucked into his visions too, and the grim spectres of years gone by insist that he must kill Buffy to be released from his suffering. Angel commits to killing himself in a bid to free himself, but Giles and Buffy are able to determine the source of the insanity – the First Evil, a being able to manifest itself as anyone dead – and desperately attempt to set things right.
Meanwhile, Sunnydale’s experiencing unseasonably warm weather, and Willow is contemplating losing her virginity to Oz. It’s not exactly a traditional turkey-and-tree Christmas special – but Buffy was never one to live life by others’ rules. A compelling, tense episode that proved pivotal in the development of the Buffy and Angel relationship, getting the two talking again after having mutually decided to part ways several episodes prior.
34. THE ROYLE FAMILY – Christmas Special 1999
UK/Special/1999Aired on BBCdirected by Steve Bendelack, written by Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash & Carmel Morgan
Christmas with the Royles became something of a TV tradition in the new millennium, but it’s actually the 1999 special – pre-transition to BBC1 – that holds up best of all. The utterly banal non-adventures of a working-class Manchester family permanently affixed to the TV, The Royle Family tapped into the comedy of the mundane, through characters that – let’s be honest – often represented us viewers more closely than any other show before or since.
The first of the Christmas episodes, we hear about the big dinner they’ve just eaten – the turkey wasn’t as good as it could’ve been – and the presents they’ve given and received. The real excitement comes toward’s episode’s end, however, as heavily pregnant Denise goes into labour – with only patriarch Jim left at the house to assist. It was the first time The Royle Family became truly dramatic – and, to my mind, remains the finest example of the show delving beyond the living room.
33. MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE – Christmas
USA/Season 3/2001Aired on Foxdirected by Jeff Melman, written by Maggie Bandur & Pang-Ni Landrum
Malcolm In The Middle was on fire in its early seasons, one of the sharpest shows on TV and an oft-forgotten forerunner in the shift towards single-camera sitcom domination. Of the show’s three Christmas episodes, it’s this first entry that best captures the chaotic, working-class spirit of this wonderful show. Mom Lois has laid down the gauntlet: the boys must behave or Christmas will be cancelled. Things are going well, and Lois and Hal even contemplate celebrating Christmas with the boys a day early, as a reward.
Alas, simultaneously, Malcolm and co have begun to contemplate the prospect of Lois wheeling out this same threat in the run-up to every future celebration, and decide they have to break the cycle now. Family comedy at its most honest. Elsewhere, military school student Francis takes Christmas off to visit the utterly unpleasant Grandma Ida. It’s a horrible experience for everyone involved, and there’s no hugging or learning in evidence: just bitter frustration. Merry Christmas! A bitterly funny festive special.
32. THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN – Yule Never Leave!
UK/Special/2000Aired on BBCdirected by Steve Bendelack, written by Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith & Jeremy Dyson
No-one tunes into a League Of Gentlemen Christmas special anticipating peace and goodwill to all men… but Royston Vasey takes depravity to new lows in “Yule Never Leave!,” probably the most grotesque and unnerving Christmas special of all-time. Everyone’s favorite atheist reverend, Bernice Woodall, takes in three disturbing tales from parishioners seeking festive solace.
Charlie’s recurring nightmare about wife Stella’s dealings with local coven Solutions takes a turn for the deadly; an elderly man proffers the surprising conclusion that gay German exchange teacher Herr Lipp must be a vampire; Dr. Matthew Chinnery comes clean about an unfortunate curse that has doomed generations of his family. It’s a festive treat that completely lives up to the series’ uniquely horrific tone, and is capped with the greatest gift of all: circus ringmaster Papa Lazarou dressed as Santa Claus. Festive nightmare fuel at its finest.
31. SIX FEET UNDER – It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
USA/Season 2/2002Aired on HBOdirected by Alan Taylor, written by Scott Buck
When discussing the oeuvre of peak HBO, Six Feet Under often gets sidelined. There’s no shortage of The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire coverage, but Six Feet Under doesn’t really seem to garner as much attention as it deserves. A dark family comedy-drama set at a funeral home, its preoccupation with death probably prevented it from going truly mainstream, but those same thematic elements are what helped it to transcend the trappings of the genre, to become an all-time great.
The show’s most festive episode takes place on and around the one-year anniversary of the series premiere, in which patriarch Nathaniel Fisher was killed in a car crash on Christmas Eve. As a serialised show with a large ensemble cast, there’s a lot going on here – some Christmassy, some not so much – but perhaps the episode’s most seasonal subplot is the “funeral of the week” – a Hell’s Angels cyclist who died in a crash on his way to work as a mall Santa – which takes place on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, the big family Christmas dinner, which mother Ruth is desperately trying to arrange, proves the source of a number of the episode’s most memorable moments.
30. SOUTH PARK – Mr Hankey, The Christmas Poo
USA/Season 1/1997Aired on Comedy Centraldirected and written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone
Eighteen years on, I feel I can still write with confidence that South Park remains the only TV show to center multiple Christmas episodes around a sentient piece of human excrement. I mean, I haven’t checked all that thoroughly, but the odds look pretty good to me. South Park’s often used Christmas time to experiment with format: there’s the inspired “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics” music video collection, and the brutally violent Happy Tree Friends-esque “Woodland Critter Christmas.”
It’s this more traditional (well, relatively) episode that takes the show’s Christmas crown, though: as the Jewish Kyle takes solace in an apocryphal talking piece of faeces during the holiday season, the entire town seeks to eliminate Christmas altogether, in a bid for total political correctness. Everyone remembers this episode for the classic “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo” song – and that’s certainly justified, it’s hilariously disgusting and dumb – but there’s actually quite a lot of other great material here, and the reveal to the townspeople that Mr. Hankey really does exist plays out very well.
29. REV. – Series 2, Episode 7
UK/Series 2/2011Aired on BBCdirected by Peter Cattaneo, written by James Wood and Sam Bain
Christmas beckons for The Reverend Adam Smallbone, and far from being a source of relaxation and reflection, it’s getting him a tad stressed out. Early mornings give way to busy days, as religious pressures coincide with those in his personal life: Midnight Mass needs prepping, father-in-law is staying over, a turn as Father Christmas at the school is required.
Rev. has always been masterful at capturing the countless small joys and frustrations that dominate our daily lives, and that’s still true here, but it also gets a shot at the big moment here – as stress gives way to blessing on Christmas Day, Adam’s wife announces she is pregnant – and it delivers completely, emotionally resonant as ever. Tom Hollander and Olivia Colman deserve more recognition for this underrated show; this Christmas special is as good as anything the show ever did.
28. ALL IN THE FAMILY – Christmas Day At The Bunkers
USA/Season 1/1971Aired on CBSdirected by John Rich, written by Don Nicholl
Archie Bunker is not a happy man. That’s a statement that applies much of the time – the grumpy, angry racist often found things to get frustrated with. But this Christmas, it goes doubly so. At first, he’s reluctant to divulge the source of his depression, but eventually he is forced to: thanks to a mistake made by a colleague at work, he hasn’t been given a Christmas bonus.
His spirits fail to be heightened by the presence of his daughter Gloria and her hippie hubby Mike; neighbors the Jeffersons also jail to imbue him with festive joy. All In The Family is most noted for its brave social commentary – lead character Archie, while funny, was deliberately repugnant, and creator Norman Lear intended for him to be judged and disliked by viewers – but it also worked well as straight-ahead sitcom, and this first season Christmas episode is a fine example of such.
27. BLACK MIRROR – White Christmas
UK/Special/2014 Aired on Channel 4directed by Carl Tibbetts, written by Charlie Brooker
Charlie Brooker’s techno-paranoia-come-social-satire masterpiece Black Mirror is one of the most fascinating shows of the new millennium, a dystopian, discomfiting melange of jet-black comedy and Twilight Zone–style morality plays. Regular episodes of the show have been hour-long standalones, but for the Christmas special, Charlie Brooker opted for a slightly more unusual structure, with three loosely connected short stories taking place within a larger framework tale.
Set at a remote outpost in the dead of a snowy winter, Joe Potter and Matt Trent (portrayed by the inspired team of Rafe Spall and Jon Hamm) celebrate Christmas together. As Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” plays on the radio, the two begin to discuss why they opted to take the jobs they’re in. They recount a triumvirate of unnerving, disarming sci-fi tales – featuring augmented reality, smart technology and futuristic restraining orders – that meticulously coalesce in a jaw-dropping conclusion. This is festive drama at its most unconventional, challenging, and downright entertaining.
26. DOCTOR WHO – The Snowmen
UK/Special/2012Aired on BBCdirected by Saul Metzstein, written by Steven Moffat
The revived, revamped and reinvigorated Doctor Who was one of the great TV success stories of the new millennium. Bringing a cult icon back into the living rooms of fans old and new alike, Russell T. Davies’ new adventures of the Time Lord were a popular and critical success, and annual Christmas specials soon became a mainstay of the BBC1 festive schedule. A number of these entries are solid Who, but 2012 special The Snowmen is the very best, an amalgamation of everything the show does well.
Set in Victorian times, Matt Smith’s Doctor is devastated at the loss of Amy Pond and Rory Williams in the previous episode. He’s forced out of his retirement by Clara, a young governess living a double life as a local barmaid; the two team together to investigate the mystery behind a spate of self-building snowmen. Perfect Doctor Who material, a family-friendly yet high-stakes story packed with action and intrigue: it’s everything one could want from Christmas Day television.
25. THE TWILIGHT ZONE – The Night Of The Meek
USA/Season 2/1960Aired on CBSdirected by Jack Smight, written by Rod Serling
The Twilight Zone is most often remembered for its creepy morality tales, those with a final-act twist that left a real chill in the spine. “Night Of The Meek” doesn’t quite fit the formula, though: it’s a rather more touching story of a down-and-out department store Santa named Henry Corwin, frustrated at his lot in life and turning to drink to cope. Fired from his job, he proclaims his desire that he be able to live up to his role as Santa, and his wish that the meek could inherit the Earth.
The world of The Twilight Zone works its magic, and soon bestowed upon him is a magical sack of gifts that automatically presents recipients with a present suited to them. Police suspect that Corwin has stolen the items in the bag, but when they pick gifts from the bag they receive nothing more than empty cans and a cat; they’re soon convinced that the sack is magical. Asked what he wants for Christmas, Corwin wishes that he be able to dole out presents every year in the same manner; the episode concludes with the implication that Corwin has become the “real” Santa Claus, headed back to the North Pole. A touching, uplifting episode from a show that didn’t often deal in such positivity.
24. THE COLBERT REPORT – A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All
USA/Special/2008Aired on Comedy Centraldirected by Jim Hoskinson, written by Stephen Colbert, Allison Silverman, David Javerbaum, Michael Brumm, Peter Gwinn
Who better than right-wing pundit parody Stephen Colbert to host a traditional Christmas special, one that harkens back to those of years gone by? With his own straight-faced, satirical take on the classic format, Stephen invites us into his very own Christmas cabin to bask in the glow of old-fashioned music and entertainment. Regrettably, he becomes trapped indoors for a majority of the show’s runtime when he hears a bear prowling outside; this doesn’t prevent a number of special guests from joining him in a bid to break out, however, including Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Jon Stewart, Feist, and John Legend.
It’s spot-on parody from minute one – Toby Keith’s hilariously over-the-top right-wing country Christmas song is perhaps the highlight among highlights – and the closing relevation that the titular “Greatest Gift of All” is the self-same special on DVD is a brilliantly conceived capper.
23. LOST – The Constant
USA/Season 4/2008Aired on ABCdirected by Jack Bender, written by Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof
The intensely serialized Lost remains a difficult show to feature in “best episode” lists, as every episode is so inter-dependent on others. But it would be a sin to fail to acknowledge the emotional acuity of “The Constant,” one of the show’s very finest hours, and the only episode that draws on Christmas in any major way. During turbulence on a flight, Desmond’s consciousness traverses between 1996 and the present day (Christmas Eve 2004), recounting the aftermath of his breakup with ex-girlfriend Penny.
It’s a time-travel episode, but one very much grounded in humanity and romance, as we grow ever more desperate to witness Desmond reconnect with Penny. As the episode unfolds, we begin to grasp the scale of the Desmond-Penny connection, the manner in which it transcends time and space, and the way a sci-fi concept like that of a Constant – an anchor present in multiple time periods, to allow someone to snap out of a time travel situation – ties in with the greater mythos of Lost. It blends powerful, tear-inducing character material with exciting sci-fi thriller elements and a heart-warming festive ambience.
22. SESAME STREET – Christmas Eve On Sesame Street
USA/Special/1978Aired on PBSdirected by Jon Stone, written by Jon Stone and Joseph A. Bailey
Sesame Street is an international phenomenon, yet its presence on UK screens in recent decades has been close to non-existent. That’s a shame, as it’s always been one of the most intelligent shows for the pre-school set, an inherently likeable blend of fun and learning, letters and numbers, Muppets and humans. The show’s first Christmas special is structured with largely episodic segments set betwixt a wraparound story.
Big Bird is concerned when Oscar the Grouch draws to his attention that Santa can’t possibly fit down narrow chimneys – and if he can’t get in, there will be no presents. His exploits in a bid to test Oscar’s hypothesis are lovably innocent, likeable and sweet. Elsewhere, Cookie Monster – in sequences that remain genuinely funny no matter how old you are – is attempting to write to Santa, but keeps getting distracted; Bert and Ernie get themselves stuck in a “Gift of the Magi” situation; and Grover partakes in some brilliant Christmas-themed interviews with (human) children.
21. THE OFFICE (USA) – Christmas Party
USA/Season 2/2005Aired on NBCdirected by Charles McDougall, written by Michael Schur
The first, brief season of the US Office was tentative, drawing too heavily on the British source material to become a truly good programme. That all changed early in the second run, though, as the creative team – with a 25-episode run to fill – began to venture more freely from their predecessor’s template. One of their earliest out-of-the-ballpark classic episodes was the series’ first Christmas episode, “Christmas Party.”
An arranged game of Secret Santa transitions into Yankee Swap thanks to boss Michael Scott’s desire to swap his own gift, which he’s disappointed with. Jim isn’t too happy with this, as he’s put a lot of thought into wooing Pam with his carefully-curated, selection of in-joke presents for her. The present-swapping sequence is a fine example of sharp sitcom writing, as the laughs come thick and fast; the idea to have Michael himself put a $400 iPod into the $20-limit game mix was inspired.
20. KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU WITH ALAN PARTRIDGE – Knowing Me, Knowing Yule
UK/Special/1995Aired on BBCdirected by Dominic Brigstocke, written by Steve Coogan, Armando Ianucci & Patrick Marber
How better to spend one’s Yuletide than to peruse Alan’s chatalogue? Knowing Me Knowing You was Alan Partridge’s first full-fledged foray into television, and over 20 years later, its parody of the chat show format remains unparalleled. Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is full-formed and well-rounded by this final episode: incompetent, tactless, slightly quirky and a tad socially inept. This edition of his brilliantly terrible chat show – set in a mock-up recreation of his festive living room – features Tony Hayers, commissioning editor at BBC; Christian, BBC-critical Mary; a paralyzed ex-golfer and his wife; and a surprisingly prominent tray of chocolate Boaster biscuits.
Alan harangues each and every one of his guests to great comic effect – his attempts to discern from Tony whether his show has been renewed for a second series are genius. But it’s the utterly bizarre finale – featuring a massive Christmas cracker containing a kidney dialysis machine, and Alan Partridge in a Pear Tree – that proves the most quintessentially Partridge moment. We’re yet to spend another Christmas with Alan Partridge, in any form, which is a shame. A-ha!
19. COMMUNITY – Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas
USA/Season 2/2010Aired on NBCdirected by Duke Johnson, written by Dino Stamatopoulos & Dan Harmon
Never a show willing to coast on its laurels, Community pushed boundaries further than ever before in its stop-motion animated season two Christmas episode. Ostensibly a show about an oddball study group at a community college, the comedy had developed throughout its first thirty-odd episodes to become something far more complex than a standard gang sitcom. Playing with structure, stylish flourishes, and intelligent, self-aware plotting was the name of the game. In “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” the show gains profound emotional resonance, too. Abed awakes to viewing the world in stop-motion animation; drawing on his pop-cultural knowledge, he determines that this a reference to classic ’60s Christmas specials, that it must be a sign that this year will be “the most important Christmas in the history of Christmas,” and that the gang must go on a journey to rediscover the meaning of Christmas.
Unsurprisingly, the gang are a tad concerned with Abed’s mental wellbeing, and draft in Professor Duncan’s professional opinion; this also takes place within Abed’s stop-motion vision, his animated adventure intersecting cleverly with the world outside. Eventually, an explanation for Abed’s break is discerned: it’s his mind’s attempt to deal with his mother’s Christmas card announcement that she won’t be able to visit this Christmas. It’s an adult, complex concept, but Community pulls it off with finesse. Beyond the beautiful animation, the silly songs, the funny dialogue and the clever concept lies a deep message: we all need Christmas, but what we need from Christmas is personal. Christmas means something different to every single person: the key is that it means something. The gang’s subsequent bid to help Abed get through his first mom-less Christmas – to find new meaning in the season – is beautiful. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is a funny episode of television. But, more than that, it’s a profound treatise on the reason for the season.
18. PORRIDGE – No Way Out
UK/Special/197directed by Sydney Lotterby, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
Prison must be a particularly bittersweet place at Christmas time. Even if the staff go all-out to recreate the festive spirit, and everyone’s feeling a little more jolly than usual, it must be more heartbreaking than ever to be missing out on the world outside: family, friends, Christmas markets, Christmas lights, parties, advent calendars, trees, the Radio Times double-issue (OK, maybe that last one doesn’t apply to everyone). For a few days, the world’s a little brighter on the inside; but you just know that that goes doubly so on the outside.
Porridge’s first Christmas special, “No Way Out,” does a great job at reconciling those emotions, painting Christmas in the clink as pretty bleak at first, with slivers of festive spirit breaking through the darkness at episode’s end. Bleak doesn’t mean there’s no room for comedy, though, as this is a hilarious episode, intricately plotted – involving an escape plan and its subsequent foiling by staff – and utterly packed with classic Fletcher one-liners. A final act that sees Fletcher wind up in the infirmary after falling down the breakout tunnel is a gem, and allows proceedings to conclude on a high note, with one slam-dunk final joke and finally, a true dose of Christmas spirit.
17. FRIENDS – The One With The Holiday Armadillo
USA/Season 7/2000Aired on NBCdirected by Gary Halvorson, written by Gregory S. Malins
Thanksgiving was always the real Friends holiday tradition – the creative team tended to push the boat out for that occasion, leaving Christmas rather more in the shadows. Even though the Friends spent Christmas with us most seasons, it was often a sideline rather than a focus. There’s one mighty exception, though: “The One With The Holiday Armadillo,” an all-time great gem from the show’s seventh season. Ross is concerned that his son Ben is growing up learning only about Christmas and not about Hanukkah, so he attempts to teach him about his Jewish heritage. It backfires, though, as Ben becomes concerned that Santa won’t be visiting this year.
Ross attempts to get a Santa suit to dress up in to quell Ben’s worries, but everywhere is sold out. Thus, one of Friends’ finest sequences is born, as poor old David Schwimmer rattles about in a rather unwieldy alternative: an armadillo costume. It’s an inspired recipe for comedy, and subsequent entrances from Chandler and Joey in their own costumes serve to generate yet more laughs. Elsewhere, renovations are taking place in Phoebe’s apartment block, and she’s growing concerned that roommate Rachel is enjoying temporarily living with Joey a little too much; her attempts to supply Joey with Christmas presents to drive Rachel away are hilarious.
16. IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA – A Very Sunny Christmas
USA/Special/2009Direct-to-DVD, then aired on FXdirected by Fred Savage, written by Charlie Day & Rob McElhenney
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is just about the darkest, most cynical comedy on air, so it’s no surprise that its Christmas special rates among television’s more disturbed hours. Revenge, backstabbing, ruined childhood memories: it’s all here, and it’s all disconcertingly hilarious. For years, Frank (Danny Devito, in his greatest role to date) has ruined the Christmases of Dennis and Dee by purchasing the gifts they yearn for most and keeping them for himself. They seek revenge, drafting in an old enemy of Frank’s to aid them in their misdeeds.
The plans don’t quite plan out… but they certainly make for entertaining viewing. Meanwhile, Mac and Charlie discover an old home video from Mac’s childhood Christmas, which spurs them to make some darkly comic discoveries about the source of Mac’s presents, and later, the role Charlie’s mother played in making Charlie’s spirits bright. A climactic Claymation finale drawing the gang all back together also works wonders, blissfully violent and brutally unseasonal; the whole episode culminates in a hilariously depressing denouement. It’s Christmas as only Always Sunny can deliver.
15. BLACKADDER – Blackadder’s Christmas Carol
UK/Special/1988Aired on BBCdirected by Richard Boden, written by Richard Curtis & Ben Elton
Parodies and pastiches of A Christmas Carol are nothing unusual in the world of TV and film (geek TV included) – but Blackadder’s unique, satirical take on the classic Christmas novel is in a class of its own. Set in Victorian England, between Blackadder The Third and Blackadder Goes Forth, we meet Ebenezer Blackadder, the most likable member of the Blackadder clan to date – extremely generous, always friendly, an all-around nice fellow. Alas, these attributes prove to be his downfall, as a run of acquaintances take advantage of his nature, to the detriment of his – and Baldrick’s – Christmas plans.
Luckily, the magnificent Robbie Coltrane is on hand as the Spirit of Christmas, bearing clips from Blackadders past and future, inspiring Ebenezer to change his ways and become the bad guy he always had inside him. It’s an inspired turnabout, the perfect choice for this clever and twisty gem, which takes a number of clever turns throughout its extended runtime. Rowan Atkinson is, as ever, pitch-perfect here, portraying pre- and post-vision Ebenezer convincingly; look out also for Miriam Margolyes and Jim Broadbent in memorable supporting roles.
14. ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES – Christmas Crackers
UK/Series 1/1981Aired on BBCdirected by Bernard Thompson, written by John Sullivan
The Only Fools And Horses special is a festive tradition right up there with mince pies and Boxing Day sales, an indelible icon on the landscape of the British Christmas Day. But very few of those excellent episodes actually take place during the holidays: like so many of its UK brethren, most are extended-length one-offs that actually bear little connection to Christmas. Christmas did mean Christmas back in the series’ earliest years, though, and it’s here that we find underrated gem “Christmas Crackers,” a low-key day-with-the-Trotters escapade that rests entirely on character-driven dialogue.
John Sullivan’s trademark sharp wit is in full supply here, as we spend act one with the family at home witnessing Grandad ruin the Christmas dinner, and act two with Del and Rodney as they venture out to the Monte Carlo Club in a bid to liven up their day and attempt to meet some women. Prima facie, this is standard sitcom material, but it’s elevated beyond the confines of the format completely thanks to the consistently hilarious banter (Del’s faux-French is on great form here) and the ever-stellar performances of the primary cast.
13. THE SIMPSONS – Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire
USA/Season 1/1989Aired on Foxdirected by David Silverman, written by Mimi Pond
The Simpson family didn’t celebrate Christmas too often during the so-called “golden age” of the show: of the first ten seasons, just three episodes featured Christmas prominently (with an honourable mention to season 4’s “Mr Plow,” which featured plenty of snow but no festivities). What a triumvirate, though: there’s “Marge Be Not Proud,” in which Bart steals video game Bonestorm from the local Try’N’Save; there’s “Miracle On Evergreen Terrace,” which sees Bart accidentally burn down the Simpson family tree; and there’s the series’ first-ever episode, “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire,” the finest of the lot. Early Simpsons looks a little different from what the show would later become, the animation style and character designs not yet refined. But in tone and content, it’s a show that sets the template for what’s to come, subversive and sharply funny.
It’s a lean Christmas for The Simpsons: Marge’s savings have been wasted on removing Bart’s impulse mall tattoo, and Homer can’t bear to admit that Mr. Burns hasn’t given his employees any Christmas bonuses this year. Taking matters into his own hands, Homer attempts a second job as a mall Santa, but it doesn’t prove particularly financially fruitful, and he gambles his meagre earnings away at the dog track. All is not lost, though, as they return with losing dog Santa’s Little Helper – abandoned by his owner, and welcomed by the Simpson family as the greatest gift of all. While this early screenplay is heavy on realism and light on cartoon comedy, the series’ potential is still very much in evidence: Bart cites Charlie Brown and Tiny Tim as evidence Homer’s gamble will win out, seconds before he loses everything.
12. THE X-FILES – How The Ghosts Stole Christmas
USA/Season 6/1998Aired on Foxdirected and written by Chris Carter
Christmas time has a long, storied association with ghosts. From Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, there’s something about the reflective nature of the season – and the repressive, cold and dark outdoors – that casts December as the perfect atmosphere for spirits to make themselves known, for our pasts to come back to haunt us: be that metaphorically or literally. The X-Files’ greatest Christmas episode, a standalone entry in the series’ sixth season, embraces that concept wholeheartedly.
Mulder and Scully investigate a haunted house in Maryland: home to a lover’s suicide pact eighty years prior, rumor has it that all couples who enter the house will meet the same fate. Once inside the house, things get spooky, as Mulder and Scully make their way through labyrinthine, contradictory layouts; meet the elderly, ghostly inhabitants; and eventually appear to be turned against each other by said spirits. It’s an atmospheric, moody episode – unconventionally small-scale by X-Files standards, but all the better for it. Perfect lock-the-doors, snuggle-by-the-fireside festive viewing.
11. ER – I’ll Be Home For Christmas
USA/Season 8/2001Aired on NBCdirected by Jonathan Kaplan, written by Dee Johnson and Meredith Stiehm
Emergencies still happen over Christmas – and don’t the staff at County General Hospital in Chicago know it? Throughout its run, ER featured 15 Christmas episodes, and they tended to bring out the very best in the show, even during its waning later years. The emotional and magical nature of the season really ties in well with the show’s recurring themes of desperation and hope in the face of adversity. Season 8’s entry, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” is the perfect example. While the serialized nature of the show dictates that not every plot strand at hand is festive, these 44 minutes feel utterly imbued with seasonal atmosphere.
In his final regular appearance on the show, Dr. Peter Benton’s custody trial climaxes, a satisfying conclusion to one of the series’ strongest arcs that ends with on suitably joyful, tearful high; elsewhere, it’s business as usual in the ER proper as it’s unclear whether a critically-injured boy will survive. The staff cling to hope for a Christmas miracle in a suitably emotionally-charged plot thread. (Like this one? Also check out season 1’s “Blizzard” – a must, even if it’s not as festive as most of the show’s later Christmas episodes – and season 5’s “The Miracle Worker.”)
10. MR. BEAN – Merry Christmas Mr. Bean
UK/Special/1992Aired on ITVdirected by John Birkin, written by Richard Curtis, Robin Driscoll & Rowan Atkinson
Blackadder might be his more acclaimed work, but let’s face it: when most people think of Rowan Atkinson, they think of Mr. Bean. The link is inextricable. Bean is ingrained on our cultural consciousness, and this Christmas episode is a huge part of the reason why. Episodic and largely visual in nature, like all Bean outings, the sketches featured here are utterly hilarious from start to finish, rapidly checking off every festive touchstone – shopping, cards, food, presents, crackers – with genuinely inspired material.
There’s the hilarious fiddling with the model Nativity scene; the comedic attempts at conducting the brass band; the desperately poor present selection (in a sequence featuring on-again off-again girlfriend, played by Matilda Ziegler). Oh, and there’s the turkey. On Bean’s head. Need anything else be said? Merry Christmas Mr. Bean is a deserving classic of the genre, and the laughs come thick and fast.
9. FUTURAMA – Xmas Story
USA/Season 2/1999Aired on Foxdirected by Peter Avanzino, written by David X. Cohen
Futurama is a wonderfully strange show, an animated sci-fi comedy set a thousand years in the future, a world where robots star in soap operas and scientists have increased the speed of light in a bid to make inter-planetary travel more efficient. Yet while the show’s Christmas episode has all the irreverent trappings such a brilliantly futuristic show warrants – a Robot Santa with an unfortunate programming error, palm trees in place of now-extinct pine trees – its themes are universal. Ultimately, this is a show about a man (Fry) trapped 1,000 years in the future, spending his first Christmas away from everything and everyone he’s ever loved, searching for renewed connection with distant relative Professor Farnsworth, one-eyed mutant and love interest Leela, and robot friend Bender.
Fry misses the traditions of home and childhood; whether we’ve moved ten miles down the road or a thousand years into the future, that’s a sentiment we can all share, and this episode is a great early example of Futurama playing for drama as well as comedy. The pogoing lobster, voice-activated ski course and the hilariously violent St Nick are 30th-century icing on a traditional cake, and the interplay between sentimentality and nutso humour makes this a festive standout. (The following year’s “A Tale Of Two Santas” is also exceptionally good fun.)
8. KING OF THE HILL – Pretty Pretty Dresses
USA/Season 3/1998Aired on Foxdirected by Dominic Polcino, written by Paul Lieberstein
King Of The Hill set itself apart from the animated sitcom pack with its commitment to realistic tone. It seems apt, therefore, that its greatest Christmas episode rates among the darkest festive comedy episodes in history. Eternally-depressed Bill sinks ever-deeper into the slough of despond, ruminating over the anniversary of his wife Lenore leaving him. Attempts at suicide prompt stern responses from neighbors, including Hank Hill, but their tough love leads to a complete mental break, as Bill begins to dress as, and impersonate, Lenore.
Not exactly ripe for mining comedy, you might think, but King Of The Hill manages it, addressing the dark subject matter with tact while still delivering hefty doses of character-driven humour. The screenplay is one of the most impressive in the show’s history – it’s attributed to Paul Lieberstein, who would later put his many talents to use both on- and off-screen in the US version of The Office. Also worthy of an entry in the classic Christmas TV canon: season 2’s “The Unbearable Blindness Of Laying,” in which Hank goes temporarily blind after witnessing his mother partaking in sexual congress with her new boyfriend.
7. THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR – ‘Twas The Night Before Christening
USA/Season 4/1994Aired on NBCdirected by Eddie Gorodetsky, written by Samm-Art Williams
The greatest joy of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – a classic, workmanlike sitcom that, despite universal love of that theme tune, never truly gets its critical due – is the way it finds every possible way to take advantage of its fish-out-of-water premise. Class and social contrasts were the key to many of the series’ finest moments, as Philly-born, street-smart Will Smith adjusts to life with his bourgeois aunt and uncle in upmarket Bel-Air. “’Twas The Night Before Christening,” the third of the show’s four Christmas episodes, draws heavily on this theme. Set several years in the future and told in flashback to the “present day,” the Banks family are approaching the Christening day of newborn baby Nicky, Philip and Vivian’s fourth child.
As he learns of the lavish gifts his wealthy cousins have purchased for the occasion, Will feels inadequate, and in a moment of desperation, claims he’s managed to get Boyz II Men to sing at the Christening. He uses their Philadelphia connection as explanation, in a bid to demonstrate that money isn’t the only currency that has value. Of course, Will has no genuine means to get the band involved, and as the lie spreads, inspired hi-jinx ensue, as he attempts to make the impossible happen. The episode features a lot of music from the band’s exhaustive Christmas repertoire; their smooth, R’n’B stylings are the perfect complement to one of African-American sitcom’s finest half-hours.
6. THE WEST WING – In Excelsis Deo
USA/Season 1/1999Aired on NBCdirected by Alex Graves, written by Aaron Sorkin & Rick Cleveland
I’ve always thought that one of the strangest things about being in a position of great power – like, say, President of the United States – is how you can never really switch off. Sure, you get time with your family some evenings and weekends, but you’re forever waiting, on edge; you can’t defer a major matter of national importance because you’re relaxing in front of the box with a glass of wine. The inherent difficulty of reconciling the season of goodwill and a time of relaxation with a world that never stops turning, never pauses for breath, is the crux of The West Wing’s greatest Christmas episode.
President Bartlett addresses a group of excited schoolchildren with childish jokes and festive spirit; he’s pulled away to be told that a teenager who was beaten to a pulp for being gay has passed away, and that it’ll be important to revisit hate crime legislation in the New Year. How can a person acclimatise to such juxtaposition? How can you go back to those children and maintain that same joie de vivre? It’s just one scene from Aaron Sorkin’s script, as pacey and witty an affair as ever, but it speaks for the entire episode, bracing between upbeat holiday traditions and more downbeat, gloomy elements. Of an episode packed with cleverly criss-crossing plots, running the gamut from the glorious to the devastating, the funeral for a homeless veteran who died wearing a coat Toby had donated to Goodwill resonates most strongly, a touching and personal tribute from one of the show’s most complex characters.
5. FATHER TED – A Christmassy Ted
UK/Special/1996Aired on Channel 4directed by Andy DeEmmony and Declan Lowney, written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews
“A Christmassy Ted” is a Christmassy tradition. Since its first broadcast in 1996, it’s become a key part of the festive TV landscape, and it’s hard to imagine a year going by without C4 or More4 dusting off the transmission tapes once again. Surprisingly, though, co-writer Graham Lineham isn’t the biggest fan of the show. In both the DVD commentary and the Father Ted script book, he notes that he feels the episode runs too long – at nearly 55 minutes, it’s well over double the length of a standard Ted – and he regrets pushing Channel 4 for an extra five minutes of airtime.
It seems fair to say that any such concerns from behind the scenes haven’t blighted the show’s appeal to fans, though: so many memorable moments can be found in this gem. The Priest Chatback line, Ted’s Golden Cleric award speech, Mrs. Doyle’s devastation at her gift of a tea-making machine. Like all the great Father Ted episodes, the character comedy and farce are punctuated with just a touch of the surreal – Mrs. Doyle’s increasingly convoluted windowsill falls never fail to amuse; the desperate, epic attempts of the gang of priests to evacuate “Ireland’s biggest lingerie section” are sublimely ridiculous.
4. THE OFFICE (UK) – Christmas Special, Part 2
UK/Special/2003Aired on BBCdirected and written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant famously ended The Office at the height of its powers, after just two series and fourteen episodes. It was an act of remarkable restraint, but then again, few TV series end on quite the highs of “Christmas Special, Part 2,” an episode that resolves every major plot thread and concludes every major character arc with tenderness and affection. David Brent spends much of the episode seeking a date for the Office Christmas Party: as ever, he’s made promises he can never live up to, and having left the office months earlier, pressure’s on to look good upon his festive return.
The trials and tribulations of his woman-seeking are utterly hilarious and completely in-character, but his crowning glory here is entirely independent of that: the final-act moment when he stands up to bully Chris Finch. As marvellous a character as David Brent is, though, this finale belongs to Dawn and Tim. Arriving back from the States with fiancé Lee for the party, Dawn’s chemistry with Tim is immediately rekindled, and awkwardness gives way to friendship gives way to romantic inevitability. It’s one of the most touching sequences in TV history, and it feels so genuinely earned. Fourteen episodes doesn’t sound like a lot, but the story of Dawn and Tim is so complete, so perfect, that anything further would serve only to gild the lily. This is perfect television.
3. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW – Christmas And The Hard-Luck Kid II
USA/Season 1/1970Aired on CBSdirected by Jay Sandrich, written by James L. Brooks & Allan Burns
Mary Richards’ first Christmas working for WJM Minneapolis’ Six O’Clock News is a rough one. “Christmas is just like any other day when you work in a newsroom”, she’s told – she has to work on the big day, leaving her unable to return home to her parents as promised. Plans to reschedule her festivities to Christmas Eve also fail, as a desperate co-worker begs her to cover his shift that day, too. Forced to make the best of a disappointing season, Mary prepares for a quiet holiday with friend and neighbour Rhoda, and finds surprisingly entertaining company in remote transmitter operator Charlie, with whom she communicates via microphone during her lonely festive shift.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show signalled a tidal shift in the world of American sitcom, the first primetime comedy series to focus on a single, independent career woman, and its importance in trailblazing that route cannot be overstated. But it’s also a wonderfully entertaining show, as funny and sharply drawn as you’d expect for a show co-created by James L. Brooks (The Simpsons, Taxi, Broadcast News). The show would re-visit Christmas later on, but this first festive episode truly nails the bittersweet feeling of the first Christmas from home, a funny and intelligent classic.
2. HEY ARNOLD! – Arnold’s Christmas
USA/Season 1/1997Aired on Nickelodeondirected by Jamie Mitchell, story by Craig Bartlett, Steve Viksten and Joe Ansolabehere, written by Steve Viksten
’90s nostalgia has prompted wholesale revisitation of many childhood favorites, but few hold up to the scrutiny quite like Hey Arnold! The critically-acclaimed Nicktoon offered something truly different to other kids’ cartoons, a funny fourth-grade perspective on big-city life imbued not just with awe and excitement but also a palpable sense of melancholy and a willingness to tackle life’s big questions head-on. The stunning jazz soundtrack further distinguished the show from its brethren.
The show’s Christmas episode is its definitive moment: Arnold’s boarding house is running a Secret Santa, and Arnold draws Mr. Hyunh, a Vietnamese restaurant worker. We learn that he gave his daughter to a US soldier during the Vietnam War, in a bid to secure her a safer life, and hasn’t been able to track her down since. Arnold and his friend Gerald do their best to track her down as the big day imminently beckons. Meanwhile, eternally insecure bully Helga desperately yearns for the year’s must-have Nancy Spumoni snow boots. The stories coalesce in a touching manner, leading to a real triumph-of-the-human-spirit conclusion guaranteed to deliver heartwarming festive feels. It’s a deep Christmas special with an emotional intelligence far beyond its years.
1. FRASIER – Miracle On 3rd Or 4th Street
USA/Season 1/1993Aired on NBCdirected by James Burrows, written by Christopher Lloyd
Frasier was a truly magical sitcom, a show where the sum of the constituent parts – the stunning ensemble cast, the team of top writers – conspired to become something truly transcendent. (It might also be the only spin-off in television history to surpass its predecessor in quality – and that’s no mean feat, Cheers is a fantastic program.) Throughout its eleven years on-screen, we spent Christmas with the Cranes eight times, and a number of those episodes are exceptional holiday programming – but “Miracle On Third Or Fourth Street,” from the first season, is the finest. When Frasier learns that his son won’t be with him for his first Christmas in Seattle – mum Lilith will be taking him on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Austria – he slides into the slough of despond, arguing with dad Martin and writing off the holidays entirely, volunteering to work the Christmas afternoon slot at his radio station. Unsurprisingly, the callers to his call-in psychiatry show are particularly despondent themselves, and post-broadcast, he ventures to a cheap diner in a bid to drown his festive woes.
The episode, penned by co-creator Christopher Lloyd (no, not that one) and directed by sitcom legend James Burrows, is a masterclass in the juxtaposition of light comedy and dark drama: Frasier’s day is dire, as Christmases go, but there’s sunshine to be found and warmth to be had if you’re willing to look in the right places. Humor is mined at every turn, as all the great Frasier scripts do: from act-one bickering over Christmas décor right through to Frasier’s bitter sarcasm at the final diner scenes, laughs come thick and fast. What really sets the episode apart from the pack is its deftly-handled undercurrent of melancholy, the upset and resentment that seeps through the comedy giving way to more measured disappointment, before a neatly understated finale that leaves things on a warm note. It’s an episode that captures everything great about the season: the family arguments, the disappointments, yes, but also the solace to be found in humility, the desire for joy and laughter, and the simple pleasure of spending time in the company of fellow man. “Miracle” is a microcosm of Christmas as a whole; it’s the greatest festive episode of all-time.