Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Twelve Greatest Christmas TV Episodes I've Seen

If the brightly coloured lights, decorated trees, holly, and mistletoe were not enough to let one know it is the Yuletide, then watching television would certainly alert him or her to it. In both the United States and United Kingdom television shows have had a long tradition of airing Christmas themed episodes during the holiday season. In the United States these holiday episodes have always aired during the regular runs of shows sometime in December. In the United Kingdom they more often than not take the form of "Christmas specials", often airing on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Either way there have been many great Christmas episodes of various shows on both sides of the Pond.

In the spirit of the holiday I thought I would list the twelve greatest Christmas episodes I have ever seen. I chose twelve because it is a number inextricably linked to the holiday. I've specified that they are episodes I have seen because I could not very well include episodes of shows I have not seen (contrary to popular belief I have not seen every show ever made). It was hard for me to decide on a favourite, much less list them from best to least best, so I've elected to list them in alphabetical order by the title of the show.

1. Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Together": What is the holiday season without a little murder? Joseph Cotten plays Tony Gould, who finds himself with a bit of a problem at the office Christmas party when his mistress calls him and tells him that he must divorce his wife and marry her. When his mistress confronts him at the office, he kills her. Unfortunately for Tony, that's when his real problems begin. Joseph Cotten gives one of his best television performances ever, while the direction by Robert Altman foreshadows his work in film.

Here it must be pointed out that Alfred Hitchcock Presents featured other Christmas episodes also worthy of inclusion on any best list, including " Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid" and "Back for Christmas" (directed by Hitchcock himself),

2. The Avengers "Too Many Christmas Trees": The only Yuletide episode of The Avengers is also one of its strangest. John Steed is having terrible nightmares that seem to be coming true. Its climax takes place at a Christmas party held by a man who collects all things Dickensian. This episode features some of the best interplay between John Steed and Emma Peel, and even an in-joke involving a reference to Steed's former partner, Mrs. Cathy Gale. We even get to see Emma dressed up as Oliver Twist.  Sadly, "Too Many Christmas Trees" was the only Yuletide episode of The Avengers.

3. The Andy Griffith Show "A Christmas Story": Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry is willing to let moonshiner Jim Muggins spend the holidays with his family rather than in jail. Unfortunately, Mayberry's resident Scrooge, wealthy department store owner Ben Weaver demands that Andy keep Sam in jail even if it is Christmas. Fortunately Andy is able to come up with a solution that will keep everyone happy. With "A Christmas Story" The Andy Griffith Show accomplished something very few American sitcoms could with their holiday episodes. It is sweet without being overly sappy, yet at the same time hilariously funny. Sadly, The Andy Griffith Show never had another Christmas episode.

4. Blackadder "Blackadder's Christmas Carol": In between the series Blackadder The Third and Blackadder Goes Forth there was this Christmas special set in the Victorian Era. As might be expected from the title, "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" is a pastiche of Dickens's novella. The twist is that its protagonist is not a mean and stingy miser like Scrooge, but instead the only truly decent person in the long line of Blackadders, Ebenezer Blackadder. Ebenezer is the kindest man in England, so much so that others take advantage of his generosity. "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" is one of the best episodes of Blackadder ever made and one of the best send-ups of A Christmas Carol.

5. Community "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas": Of all the sitcoms ever aired, Community is one of the very few that could get away with a stop-motion animated Christmas episode. The episode begins with Abed viewing the world as if it was a stop-motion animated special in the style of the old Rankin/Bass specials. This convinces him that this will be the most important Christmas ever. To this end he draws his friends into a quest to find the meaning of Christmas. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is a remarkable achievement not only for capturing the look of the old Rankin/Bass specials, but even the feel of those specials, right down to the songs. What is more, better than most Christmas episodes of other sitcoms, it captures the meaning behind the Yuletide in a way that is profound.

6. The Dick Van Dyke Show "The Alan Brady Show Presents": The Dick Van Dyke Show only featured one Christmas episode, and it did not appear until the show's third season. Fortunately it was well worth the wait. In "The Alan Brady Show Presents", the fictional star of The Alan Brady Show decides that instead of using the script his writers (Rob Petrie, Sally Rogers, and Buddy Sorrell) wrote for his Christmas show, he will simply hand the show over to the writers themselves. Rob, Sally, and Buddy, along with Buddy's life Laura, then find themselves in front of the camera performing what is essentially a Christmas variety show. For any other sitcom this might be disastrous, but The Dick Van Dyke Show had one of the most talented casts of all time. Dick Van Dyke (Rob Petrie) is one of the greatest song and dance men of all time. Mary Tyler Moore (Laurie Petrie) is a trained dancer. Rose Marie (Sally Rogers) is a singer and comedian whose career goes back to when she was three. Morey Amsterdam had been a comedian since the days of vaudeville. "Alan Brady Presents" then turned out to be the best Christmas episodes of any TV show ever.

7. Doctor Who "The Next Doctor": It is perhaps because of Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol that Christmas and the Victorian Era are so intertwined in the minds of English speakers. Then what could be better than a Doctor Who Christmas special set in Victorian London? "The Next Doctor" finds the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) arriving in London on Christmas Eve in 1851. It is not long before he encounters a man who thinks he is The Doctor (Morrissey). What is worse is that there are Cybermen about as well. "The Next Doctor" is easily the best of the Doctor Who Christmas specials. Not only does Morrissey give a great performance as "The Doctor" (I'd always hoped they do a spin-off series with him), but the whole special has a nice steampunk feel to it.

8. Father Ted "A Christmassy Ted": Father Ted simply wants a quiet, run-of-the-mill Christmas. Unfortunately, given Father Ted's usual luck, his Christmas turns out to be anything but run-of-the-mill. Quite simply, things keep happening to keep Father Ted from having the perfectly ordinary Christmas he wants, until it is clear that this Christmas will be nothing but ordinary. Father Ted only had one Christmas episode, which is a shame. "A Christmassy Ted" is easily one of the best episodes of a show that produced a number of remarkable episodes.

9. The Jack Benny Program  "Christmas Shopping Show: "Christmas Shopping Show", wasn't exactly a new idea when it first aired on December 18 1957. Episodes in which perpetual skinflint Jack Benny tried to do his Christmas shopping all in one day had been done a few times before on his radio show. That having been said, "Christmas Shopping Show" might be the best permutation of the idea. Much of the reason the episode is so good is that it features many of Jack Benny's regular performers. Mel Blanc plays a poor store clerk with the misfortune of having to serve Mr. Benny.  Jack has the misfortune of crossing a floorwalker played by Frank Nelson (the "Yeeeeeeeeesssss? man"). There are also appearances by Richard Deacon, Benny Rubin, and, of course, Eddie Anderson as Rochester. "Christmas Shopping Show" is easily one of the funniest Christmas episodes of a TV show ever made.

10. The Mary Tyler Moore Show "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II": "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II" deals with an experience all too many have had in real life. Mary not only has to work Christmas Day, but Christmas Eve as well. She had been planning to spend Christmas Day with her parents in her hometown, but has to cancel when she learns that she is working Christmas Day. She then decides to spend Christmas Eve with her best friend and neighbour Rhoda, only to agree to work Christmas Eve in place of a fellow employee at the TV station who hasn't gotten to spend Christmas with his family in years. "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II" is not only extremely funny, but also very touching as well. By the way, the episode's title is a reference to the 1966 That Girl episode "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid", which was also written by James L. Brooks (co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

11. WKRP in Cincinnati "Jennifer's Home for Christmas": WKRP in Cincinnati produced what what is considered by many to be the greatest Thanksgiving episode of all time, "Turkeys Away", but the show also produced one of the best Christmas episodes as well. "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" deals with a problem common at the Yuletide. Quite simply, everyone seems to have Christmas plans except for Jennifer, who has no family to spend the holiday with. "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" is not only a very funny episode, but also a very touching one as well. It gives new life to a premise that was fairly old by the time WKRP in Cincinnati got to it. WKRP in Cincinnati also did one other Christmas episode, "Bah, Humbug", which is also highly recommended.

12. The X-Files "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas": The X-Files was always at its best when it steered clear of its convoluted mythology and simply did "monster of the week" episodes. This is not only the best Christmas episode ever written for The X-Files (there had been two earlier Christmas episodes), but also one of the best "monster of the week" episodes ever. Quite simply, at Mulder's insistence, Mulder and Scully investigate an allegedly haunted house in which two lovers had committed suicide. As it turns out, the house is actually haunted, with the ghosts played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin. Not only does "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" have all the trappings of the holiday but it is also a very effective X-Files episode, with all the thrills and chills one can expect from the very best episodes of the show. As might be expected, Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin give fantastic performances as the doomed lovers haunting the mansion.

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