What is Christmas all about? Sure, this time of year means trees with blinking lights, wreaths of spruce and pine, Bing Crosby and Eartha Kitt on the radio, mashed potatoes and gravy at dinner. Christmas also means hip-checking old ladies during the Black Friday consumer extravaganza, drinking heavily with one’s dysfunctional family, and serious electronic investment in Christmas lights. It also means television! On the boob tube this week you can’t channel surf for long without coming across reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story.
Finally, the yuletide means Christmas TV specials. Some are good, some are great, and some are totally forgettable. We at The Fourth Wall are here to pound some Christmas spirit into you with a Listicle of our favorites. We don’t mean to discriminate against other holidays–it just so happens Christmas specials are a time-honored tradition, and frankly there just aren’t a lot of Hannukah or Kwanzaa specials to be seen. Join William Bibbiani and me (Julia Rhodes!) as we delve deeply into the season and bring you our seven favorite Christmas specials. Happy holidays from California Literary Review and The Fourth Wall!
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (dir. Chuck Jones, 1966)
Any list of Christmas specials would feel empty without the Grinch, that king of sinful sots, that three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce. Chuck Jones, the director behind many a Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and Road Runner cartoon, lovingly brought Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the small screen with Boris Karloff’s distinctive voice in 1966.
Is there anyone who hasn’t seen “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”? (And I don’t mean that Jim Carrey remake.) It’s perhaps the most ubiquitous Christmas special there is, and it’s hard to imagine the holiday without it. When I was a kid I loved the imagery. The Whos riding atop their weird little instruments, dancing with ting-tinglers, slicing roast beast. The ice cubes and candy falling piece by piece into the Grinch’s vile bags. I remember being terrified poor Max the reindeer-dog was going to get run over or crushed by the Grinch’s sled. As an adult I feel the same way. The animation is gorgeous–jagged snowy peaks, the Grinch’s grotesque features, the primary-colored skies. The Whos down in Whoville and their tormenter, whose heart grows three sizes that Christmas day, hold up forty-five years later. That is the mark of a great Christmas special.
“Six Feet Under: Pilot” (dir. Alan Ball, 2001)
Christmas is ostensibly about family. It’s about coming together, falling apart, and learning to love each other despite or because of our myriad flaws (at least you hope so). The pilot episode of HBO’s dramedy “Six Feet Under” introduces us to the dysfunctional Fisher family during a Christmas season that changes their lives forever. There’s father Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins), who dies in a car accident after his lovingly nagging wife Ruth (Frances Conroy) berates him about smoking in the new hearse. There’s elder son Nate (Peter Krause), flying home from Seattle only to jump into a supply closet for a quickie with mysterious stranger Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). There’s younger brother David (Michael C. Hall in all his pre-”Dexter” glory), stuck so far in the closet he can’t see the light, and his cop boyfriend Keith (Mathew St. Patrick). Finally, there’s Claire (Lauren Ambrose), sixteen and miserable, smoking crystal meth with friends so that news of Nathaniel’s death “burns a little brighter.” All of this on, you guessed it, Christmas eve. Happy holidays, Fishers!
“Six Feet Under” is about death and the way people deal with extreme circumstances. Ruth deals by shrieking and throwing a pot roast. David deals with extreme propriety and only loses control with Keith. Nate, manager of a Seattle Whole Foods who has had four root canals at 35, finds himself in the grudging position of man of the house. Claire throws a canteloupe, perches on a chair, and pushes everyone away. The only one who deals with his death in a functional way is Nathaniel, who appears in visions to each of his kids (David Fisher and Dexter Morgan have in common a dead father who shows up randomly).
Having grown up in the midwest and moved near the east coast, Christmas in southern California makes little sense to me. For a lady who’s used to frigidity and white powder, palm trees adorned with tinsel and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the radio while joggers wear tee shirts and shorts is completely inconsistent. Nonetheless, even the exoticism of L.A. Christmas comes with familiar dysfunction. As Nate says, “My father’s dead, my mother’s a whore, my brother wants to kill me, and my sister’s smoking crack…I’m a f$&%ing mess.” That’s the kind of TV family we know and love.
“Veronica Mars: An Echolls Family Christmas” (2004, dir. Nick Marck)
The tenth episode of the WB’s too-short series “Veronica Mars” weaves together alternating storylines amidst yet another southern Cali Christmas. In Neptune, California, home of teen sleuth Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), Christmas is about the haves and have-nots. The “09ers,” or those rich kids living in the prestigious 90909 zip code, have it all. Weevil (Francis Capra), a bad boy biker with a soft heart, joins in a basement poker game hoping to win five large. When someone steals the money, Weevil exacts his revenge on Veronica’s ex-boyfriend Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), former friend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), movie star Conner Larkin (Travis Schuldt), and richie Sean Friedrich (Kevin Sheridan) by stealing various bits of their property until Weevil gets his cash. Enter Ms. Mars, part Sam Spade and part California beauty, to discover the thief and save the day. Meanwhile Veronica’s father Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), dethroned sherriff turned private eye, investigates Logan’s father Aaron’s possible stalker. The Echolls, played by real life B-list couple Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna, host their annual Christmas party while Veronica ferrets out the culprit. Just in time for the rich to make real snow fall in the warmth of the evening, Aaron finds himself the target of a pumpkin-carving madwoman.
The episode holds up as a stand-alone, distilling characters’ traits into some of my favorite lines: “Annoy, tiny blond one, annoy like the wind,” Logan tells Veronica. “It’s Christmas, even for delivery guys,” Weevil scolds the rich kids who don’t want to tip the pizza dude. Finally, Veronica sums it up: “The lights and the tinsel they use to cover up the sordidness, the corruption. No, Veronica, there is no Santa Claus.” It’s not the most heartwarming Christmas special ever, but it sure is entertaining.
“My So-Called Life: So-Called Angels” (1994, dir. Scott Winant)
“My So-Called Life” is probably the best teen drama series ever to air on television, but unfortunately no one was watching so it was canceled. The show follows fifteen-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) as she navigates the troubled waters of high school, drugs, booze, sex, and parents. Her new friends Rickie (Wilson Cruz) and Rayanne (A.J. Langer) struggle with their own family issues while Angela’s old companions Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa) and Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) come face-to-face with loneliness.
You know how you can tell a girl isn’t a hard-hearted bitch? The Christmas episode of “My So-Called Life” can reduce her to tears every time. That’s right: even when I know my sentimental buttons are being pushed, I can’t help the tearducts. Poor Rickie, who’s “bi” (although by the end of the series he’s pretty comfortable being gay) and wears eyeliner and thus has a penchant for getting beaten up, coughs up blood from a split lip onto the freshly fallen snow. Angela tracks him to an abandoned warehouse where he’s taking refuge from his abusive parents. Rickie and the elusive, airheaded pretty boy Jordan Catalano (pre-gothed-out Jared Leto) bond over asshole dads while Sharon and Rayanne take over the helpline only to get a call from poor Brian Krakow, whose Jewish parents left him alone on Christmas. Meanwhile Angela and her mother Patti follow a mysterious girl with a gorgeous voice (remember Juliana Hatfield? Yeah, her strong suit is not acting).
“Do we have to keep talking about religion?” Angela’s mostly-invisible little sister Danielle asks. “It’s Christmas!” Danielle and parents Patti and Graham watch TV specials throughout “So-Called Angels,” including the Mr. Magoo version of Scrooge and It’s a Wonderful Life (they know what Christmas is all about). For many of us the holiday isn’t about religion, but it is about togetherness. Part of being a teenager is trying to figure out what you believe, discovering your parents aren’t infallible, and understanding who you can help and who you can’t. What “My So-Called Life” portrayed so well is the antagonistic, status-obsessed way teenagers turn on each other, never quite realizing how alike they are, even if it’s only misery they all share. While “So-Called Angels” doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the show–it contains religious and fantastic elements the series never touches on again–it’s still a heartbreaking slice of holiday spirit. Even the lonely (and what teenager isn’t, on some level, lonely?) can find solace in the holidays.
“A Very Brady Christmas” (dir. Peter Baldwin, 1988)
Friends and regular readers know that I am not one for saccharine nonsense. Good-natured cheer can screw right the hell off, thank you very much. But I am not without a heart. I just keep it locked away in a safe deposit box, taking it out only for special occasions like my parents’ anniversary and Christmas. I have a soft spot for Christmas, as long as I don’t have to listen to the stupid music, look at children or buy them gifts. And that’s why I love “A Very Brady Christmas.” Because it’s about the insufferable Brady clan after they’ve all grown up, found themselves some real problems for a change, and somehow fix them all over the course of a single Christmas day. Who says I don’t have a heart?
Oh, you say that? Well, aren’t you observant.
“A Very Brady Christmas” was a Made-For-TV movie that reunited almost the entire cast of “The Brady Bunch.” Only Susan Olsen, the original Cindy, was unable to return. It’s easy to imagine some horrible Hollywood dust-up over money, drugs or some kind of weird hybrid “money-drug” but you know what? She was on her honeymoon. Isn’t that sweet? The story kicks off with Mike Brady (Robert Reed) and Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) trying to buy each other secret Christmas gifts using their vacation fund, but they both try to buy a different vacation trip at the same time at the same travel agent, so the jig is up. Instead they decide to use the money to fly all the kids – and all the kids’ new families – to the Brady house for Christmas. Nothing could possibly go rong. Um… Possibly go “wrong?”
Don’t mind if they do!
All the kids have new, real-life adult problems to deal with and because of that – and despite some awful sweaters and burly facial hair – this Christmas special still resonates today. Jan’s going through a divorce but hasn’t told her parents. Marcia’s husband lost his job and doesn’t know how to care for his family. Bobby quit grad school to become a racecar driver… Well, I guess they aren’t all very good subplots, but they’re all resolved thanks to the healing power of family just in time for Mike to get trapped under a collapsed building. Luckily there’s a Christmas miracle and he’s freed by… um, actually he just sort of saunters out like nothing happened. I never claimed this was a good Christmas special, just an impossibly sweet one.
The goodness of The Brady’s, implausible though it always was, is infectious. Even the satirical Brady Bunch feature movies, which owe their very existence to the show’s sudden boost in popularity after “A Very Brady Christmas,” can’t deny the purity of this ridiculously stupid family, their obnoxiously naïve lifestyle and their infectiously wholesome spirit.
Oh, so that’s what that infection was…? Here I thought it was Christmas.
“Invader Zim: The Most Horrible Xmas Ever” (dir. Steve Ressel, 2002)
In contrast to “A Very Brady Christmas,” the “Invader Zim” Christmas special may in fact be the most evil piece of yuletide cinema ever created. Darker than Silent Night, Deadly Night and more subversive than Bad Santa, “The Most Horrible Xmas Ever” is a nightmare come to hilarious life thanks to creator Jhonen Vasquez and the episode’s co-writer Eric Trueheart.
Short-lived though it was, “Invader Zim” retains an enthusiastic cult following thanks to its unusually cruel sense of humor, exceptional animation quality and the tendency of most of the characters to scream their lines for no reason. Invader Zim (voiced by Richard Stephen Horvitz) is a pint-sized alien who has been sent to infiltrate and conquer Earth’s people, except his evil overlords don’t actually care about our planet and just sent the inept and annoying Zim here to keep him out of their hair. Most episodes of the series featured Zim coming up with a new plan to rule the world, usually based on some new nugget of cultural information he discovers at the start of the episode. When he learns that humans think hamsters are cute, for example, he turns one into a giant monster in the hopes that humanity will be paralyzed by his adorableness.
In “The Most Horrible Xmas Ever” Zim discovers that mankind worships Santa Claus, a conspicuously absent religious leader. So Zim programs a high-tech Santa Claus suit with all the Christmas data he’s able to violently suck out of a mall Santa’s brain and sets about his merry task to convince the human race to teleport themselves into space to become his species’ slaves. How does he do this? He promises that it will be “fun and Christmasy” and brainwashes them with his unique brand of Christmas carols. Let’s watch, shall we?
Zim’s arch-nemesis Dib catches wind of this foul plot and sets out to save Earth (and by extension Christmas) using his father’s super-powered anti-Santa robot. Meanwhile, Zim’s plan backfires as the Santa suit takes control of his own body and begins actually being nice to people. It all culminates thousands of years in the future, where we learn that Zim’s Santa suit lives in space and comes to Earth every Christmas to destroy humanity, so that’s why everyone lives in a protective dome.
“The Most Horrible Xmas Ever” is the perfect antidote to the typical Christmas special: witty, action-packed and disturbingly cynical not so much about Christmas, but about our culture’s naïve worship of Christmas artifice. “Invader Zim” is a highlight of modern nonsense, and nobody could do a damning indictment of the ridiculous Christmas nonsense we’ve concocted better. And nobody has.
“Justice League: Comfort and Joy” (dir. Butch Lukic, 2003)
But my favorite Christmas special ever – and I mean this: “Rudolph” and “Frosty” and all the rest are just wonderful but don’t hold a candle to this – is “Comfort and Joy,” a very special episode of “Justice League” written by the inimitable (no matter how hard I try) Paul Dini.
“Justice League,” and its later incarnation “Justice League Unlimited,” are simple shows on the surface. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, The Green Lantern, Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter (and more) unite to save the world from supervillains, monsters, Gods and mad scientists. But although the series lacked anything even remotely resembling a “high concept,” executive producer Bruce Timm and his mighty team of writing and directing geniuses – many of them culled from the comic book industry – pulled out all the stops. It’s a gloriously animated series that boasts many of the best superhero stories of the last decade, in any medium.
The Season 2 episode “Comfort and Joy” was a bit of a break from the series’ tradition of heavily dramatized action-packed extravaganzas. The League has just saved an alien race from colliding with another planet and has thoroughly earned their Christmas off. The episode then cuts between many of the heroes, revealing how they spend their Christmas. The Flash makes his annual visit to a local orphanage and promises to bring the kids the toy they want, unaware that it’s sold out all over the world (which is exactly where the fastest man alive runs). Green Lantern and Hawkgirl are single and in love – not that they’ve admitted it yet – and spend Christmas in an epic snowball fight (multiple catapults are utilized) followed by drinks and carousing in an alien bar. And since Martian Manhunter has no one to spend the holidays with, Superman takes him home to Smallville.
“Comfort and Joy” is that rare Christmas special that concerns itself with how adults spend the holidays. From last minute shopping to holiday dating to visiting family, it illustrates aspects of the holiday that are often eschewed in favor of reaffirming childrens’ beliefs in Santa Claus. (Although when Ma and Pa Kent reveal that they used to wrap Superman’s gifts in lead foil so he wouldn’t peek, he replies, “You mean, Santa wrapped them.” The awkward pause afterwards is very sweet and very telling.) For curmudgeons like me there’s also The Ultra-Humanite, a supervillain snob who sabotages The Flash’s tacky gift “DJ Rubber Ducky” into a toy of class and sophistication. But the heart of the tale is The Martian Manhunter, as a lonely man(hunter) who experiences the discomfort, and later joy, of being a guest with a strange family for Christmas.
“Comfort and Joy” may not be the most famous Christmas special ever, but you know what? I really do think it’s the best, the most mature, and the most fun. Pick it up this Christmas. You’ll be glad you did.
We know we’ve missed a few on this short Listicle…what are your favorite Christmas specials, fair Fourth Wall readers?