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 favourite 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 humour 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 humour 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-learning-and-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 programmes 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. The show’s 2018 festive special will air live, so expect the unexpected.
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 neighbourhood 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.)
Read entries 80 – 61 of the Top Christmas TV episodes of all time here and come back tomorrow for entries 40 – 21.