With Christmas upon us, everyone’s thoughts turn towards the holiday. It’s hard even for those not celebrating Christmas to be immune to the season, with stores bustling, selling huge amounts of merchandise, and decked out with various festive decorations.
This extends to our favorite television programs, with a great many of them, especially on the broadcast networks, going for a Christmas-themed episode. Hollywood may be full of Jews, but even (some) Jewish characters put up a tree these days. Or maybe not just these days, since the very Jewish Irving Berlin wrote the classic song “White Christmas.”
There are a lot of ways to do a Christmas episode, though some have become cliche. Here are some of the most obvious scenarios, and if you’re writing for a television show, please try not to do them any more. Unless you have a new, fresh twist on an old idea. Which, admittedly, maybe be hard to judge when writing it.
These come in quite a few different forms. Some are parodies, others copy the film’s story, and some barely touch on more than a couple of themes. Often, episode titles make the connection obvious.
The most commonly used one, of course, is It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a character falls into a coma or has a dream, and imagines what life would be like were a different choice made, or circumstances varied. Glee did it this year, albeit for only one act. But many, many other series have done it in the past.
It’s a nice idea, getting to see familiar characters in a different light, acting ways they normally would not. And yet, it has been done to death. Some shows have tried moving this bit away from Christmas, but is still obvious what is being done. Unless there is a good reason, plot-wise, to show this, or one hundred percent effort is put into making it the best it can be for pretty much the entire length of the installment enough is enough.
A close second is A Christmas Carol, in which a grumpy puss decides to be nice. Everyone hates a Scrooge, but they love a tale of redemption. The change won’t last, of course, so it’s merely comfort food, rather than serious development. The story is classic for a reason, and these episodes do resonate with us. But they’ve been done. Move on.
How many times have you been watching a holiday episode when the plot takes the characters to a dire place? Maybe their gifts have been stolen, maybe someone is missing, or maybe there’s just a grinch in their midst who is ruining everyone else’s good time. Whatever the setup, things are bad, and the characters cannot do anything to help themselves or others.
And then Santa Claus, or a man who looks very much like our stereotypical portrait of the jolly old elf, swoops in and saves the day. There is a happy ending, but not one that really makes sense to the story, or even has been hinted at all prior til that moment. He’ll bring the presents or warm a heart, and basically make everything better. It’s the Christmas version of dues-ex-machina.
This trope sucks because it’s weak storytelling. Can our favorite characters not solve things themselves? Do they really need some supernatural being to fix their problems for them? If it’s a sci-fi/fantasy genre series, and people with abnormal powers already exist in the universe, it almost sort of works. But most of the time, Santa pops up in sitcoms, not among the superheroes.
Yes, I admit, being grouchy about Santa is a humbug thing to be. It feels cruel to pick on this device too much. However, I know there are plenty of television writers out there who can come up with something original and brilliant, so the dissatisfaction is merely disappointment at an easy out, rather than a condemnation of the season.
For some reason, families on television are always dysfunctional. Although many viewers enjoy warm exchanges with beloved relations, that premise doesn’t make for interesting television, so drama is tossed into the mix, arguments ensue and lead to huge, blown-up exchanges, until a central character finds a way to bring everyone back together for a peaceful meal in the end. Unless it’s funnier not to.
This one, I am not going to pick on too much. I prefer seeing parents and siblings to friends hanging out during the holidays because it seems more realistic. Some people don’t see their families all that much outside of these special occasions, and so it makes sense for family, not friends, to be the holiday focus.
I just wish, however, there would be more lead-up to the family gatherings. Can’t they spend at least one episode talking about, or preparing for, the celebration before the actual episode? Family Christmases are a marathon, not a sprint. They deserve more than 20 minutes.
When families are not available, or travel is prohibitive, so all the main series characters find a way to celebrate together, even though they are not related. I’m sure this does happen sometimes in real life. And yet, it’s far from the norm, which you would not get if your total understanding of the holiday experience stems from television.
Now there are exceptions to the rule. If the characters are working in a hospital, for instance, they may not be able to get Christmas off. Should they find the time to gather at work or late at night, that actually works pretty well, and can be sweet. But it is easy to forget the times this device works because of all the times it doesn’t.
Normal Episodes That Just Happen to Take Place at Christmas
I am a fan of these, mostly because they keep the momentum of the show going. A lot of serial shows might ditch their larger arcs in favor of a one-off Christmas celebration, but those that don’t do themselves a favor. Life doesn’t stop from late November through early January. Nor should the stories of these characters.
Of course, we could go into what makes a brilliant Christmas special, as some shows have achieved (Community!), but that could be a topic for a whole other column. Plenty of series deliver good Christmas episodes, even among the others that fail.
Here’s the dirty little secret though, that the television industry totally gets: we don’t care if Christmas episodes are bad. Make them schmaltzy, ridiculous, and over the top. We’re so occupied with our own good will and holiday feelings, that we’ll overlook a weak script, or maybe even praise it because it piles on what we’re already feeling.
This means that no matter what fans of good television everywhere think, the trend won’t stop anytime soon. Even few critics care to complain, falling victim to the same good will as everyone else. I can sit at my computer today and pick things apart to my heart’s content, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to smile and watch more of this same stuff later today, enjoying every minute of it. Thank goodness, in the name of quality, that Christmas only comes once a year.
And also, thank goodness that there is a time of year where we can embrace pure, unadulterated happiness, and forget to be so cynical. That’s why the Christmas episodes work, because they remind us of that childhood joy, before we had the stress and wisdom of age. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, and this is never truer than at Christmas. Should we complain about the simple-mindedness of such special, or rejoice that they take us back to innocent experience of being a kid? Obviously, most people think that latter, and who am I to argue?
So I wish you and yours plenty of cheer, and will join you in continuing to watch these Christmas episodes. Why not? It’s called finding the holiday spirit. Otherwise, you’re just a grinch, and no one likes a grinch.