At Thanksgiving, full of good food and fine whisky, my guests and I free-associated a streaming playlist of programs appropriate to the holiday, and binged ourselves into a glassy-eyed stupor. Somebody asked for a Christmas watch list, except they wanted it in advance. How hard could it be? I started compiling that list, but it proved much more difficult without the devil-may-care influence of Jack Daniels Single Barrel (Barrel Proof). My initial Christmas list came in at an unwieldy 42 items, including dramas, sitcoms, specials and movies. To impose some order, I decided that the wonderfully arbitrary Top Ten format would control, and I limited the scope to sitcoms. Even that was tough, but this list, like all top ten lists, should start conversations and tell you something about the author. It is not definitive, except in the sense that it captures what I thought was best at a (sober) moment in time.
10. Sports Night – The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee Tech (S1/EP11/1998)
Nobody writes a Christmas episode like Aaron Sorkin; BUT his best teleplays in that category were for hour-long dramas: The West Wing (In Excelsis Deo, Noël), and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (The Christmas Show). Sports Night never found the audience it deserved; if the show aired today, people would call it the summation of Sorkin’s career. This episode is representative of the program’s 2-season run: the rapid-fire dialogue, the quick-cut edits, most of all the Sorkinesque didacticism that drives you crazy even while you admire that he actually went there (also the superfluous laugh track. If Hell exists, it reserves a special place for TV executives who insisted on laugh tracks.) So. This episode is one of those nominal Christmas episodes (Christmas isn’t its theme), but the word Christmas IS mentioned, there are wreaths and there are Christmas lessons to be learned. The lump in your throat is fully earned.
9. The Big Bang Theory – The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis (S2/EP11/2008)
Like many sitcom episodes that air near Christmas, this one is only incidentally about the holiday. The “A” plotline concerns a bromance/rivalry between Leonard and rival scientist David Underhill. The “B” story is about Sheldon’s search for a socially acceptable reciprocal Christmas gift, once he finds out Penny has one for him. The last five minutes are worth everything that went before, as Penny’s gift for Sheldon proves to be unmatchable. The high point of the series – it would never again so effortlessly combine geek nirvana with Hallmark sentiment.
8. M*A*S*H – Death Takes a Holiday (S9/EP5/1980)
The later seasons of M*A*S*H were lesson-oriented, which always goes down easier in a Christmas format (thank you, Charles Dickens.) The 4077th throws a potluck party for Korean orphans, while Hawkeye, B.J. and Margaret attempt to keep a mortally wounded soldier alive until the day after Christmas. If Dickens wrote for TV, he might have penned this.
7. 30 Rock – Ludachristmas (S2/EP9/2007)
Liz’s family visits for Christmas, Jack is jealous, his mother sets everything right again. Tracy can’t drink, Kenneth brings Reverend Gary in to explain the true meaning of Christmas, and the writer’s room tries to chop down the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Exceedingly silly; also, 30 Rock at its best.
6. How I Met Your Mother – How Lily Stole Christmas (S2/EP11/2006)
Sure, HIMYM was a Friends knock-off, but it had better holiday episodes than Friends ever did. Lily finds out that Ted called her a nasty word, causing her to un-decorate Marshall and Ted’s apartment. At the same time, Marshall is taking a final exam, and he expects the full wonder of Christmas (cookies and decorations) when he gets home. Ted ends up at his Evangelical cousin’s home on Staten Island, and the gang rescues him. It’s a packed episode with some good jokes; the series’ voice-over narration by Bob Saget ultimately provides the right homey touch that makes all the difference.
5. The Andy Griffith Show – Christmas Story (S1/EP11/1960)
Diabetics beware – Andy’s Christmas show is traditional, sugar sweet Americana. This story take its cues from Dickens (of course): Ben Weaver (Scrooge) catches Sam Muggins moonshining and insists Andy lock him up, even though it’s Christmas eve. Andy arrests Sam’s wife and children, then deputizes Ellie, Opie, and Aunt Bee to help him “watch the prisoners.” Ben spies on their party and tries to get himself arrested because he’s too ornery to admit he wants to participate. Andy finally arrests Ben, but allows him to stop by his store to pick up presents for the others. Damn if it all doesn’t work; like moonshine for your Christmas spirit.
4. Parks and Recreation – Citizen Knope (S4/EP10/2011)
This show might have had the deepest comic bench ever, and each episode stayed in lockstep with the characters – they were consistent. This one pays off on the idea that Leslie always gets the best gifts for everyone else; ultimately, they figure out how to return the favor.
3. Cheers – Christmas Cheers (S6/EP12/1987)
For Cheers, the incidental occurrence of Christmas on the calendar only underlined that every episode was about the message of Christmas – connection and salvation in an indifferent world. Here, Rebecca schedules the employees to work Christmas Eve, and the bar ends up packed. While the regulars exchange presents, Sam searches for a last-minute gift for Rebecca and buys a pair of diamond earrings from a stranger – a dead-ringer for departed Diane (he thinks she’s an angel.) In the meantime, Santas gather at the bar and Frazier gets over his anger about Christmas.
2. The Dick Van Dyke Show – The Alan Brady Show Presents (S3/EP13/1963)
A show-within-a-show that showcases the incomparable Dick Van Dyke’s vaudeville chops. Worth the price of admission and secures its place in history via the dynamite song and dance between Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as two street-corner Santas. (MTM’s Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid was bumped by this one; hard critical decisions like that are why I get the big bucks.)
1. Community – Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (S2/EP11/2010)
Community effortlessly embraced different visual mediums in homage during its run – one episode was mostly felt puppets (Muppets), and another was in the style of a Saturday morning cartoon (G.I. Joe). This episode is the best of those – animated in stop-motion like a Rankin-Bass holiday special (Rudolph). Danny Pudi’s Abed tries to reconcile his desire for a wonderful Christmas with the fact that his family is not what it used to be when he was growing up. Dan Harmon provides lines that eviscerate what Fox News continues to insist on calling the “War on Christmas.” Whatever. This is the greatest holiday-themed sitcom episode ever. With that said, it works better if you know the characters before you watch the episode. This was the first episode of Community I saw, and the emotion didn’t register until I saw the characters in other episodes. Dan Harmon is a comic genius with a wounded heart; if you haven’t seen Community yet, get busy.