Five great Christmas TV specials

1. Peanuts – ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (Airdate: 9th December 1965)

By Imogen Rolfe

Image: Bill Melendez Productions

Image: CBS

A humble celebration of the smaller virtues of the Christmas holiday, and a subtle and kind urge away from the bombastic commercialism that we are expected to celebrate the holiday with.

At the beginning of the episode, Charlie Brown says ‘I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.’ Not only does this epitomise Schultz’s commentary on marginalisation and depression in Peanuts comics, but also captures the urgency of the Christmas paradigm – the sense that we must generate our happiness. Charlie Brown cannot experience happiness under the conditions he is presented with. It takes the courage and humility of fellow underdog Linus to bring his peers back to Earth when they are distracted by the minutia of holiday decoration.

The animation was personally supervised by Charles M. Schultz himself, and the story was adapted by a screenplay that he had written. It is intimately his signature, personally and viscerally, across the art, the story, the timing and the music.

This is the most sincere and honest Christmas special that you will ever come across. It contains all the flourishings of a genius, the joy of Christmas through childlike eyes, and also the sobriety of acknowledging that Christmas is not a utopia, and that the world remains a hard and scary place to be if you’re Charlie Brown.

2. South Park – ‘Red Sleigh Down’ (Airdate: 11th December 2002)

By Jonathan Peters

Image: Comedy Central

Image: Comedy Central

Everything great about South Park encapsulated in twenty-two minutes of glorious anti-Christmas spirit.

After Cartman discovers he has committed far too many evil deeds to earn a cool Christmas present, he decides to perform the nicest act ever, and convinces Santa to spread his Christmas cheer in Iraq. The plan goes awry, and Santa is shot out of the sky, Black Hawk Down-style, by a rocket launcher. Soon the boys, with the aid of a machine-gun wielding Jesus, travel to rescue him from some horrific, childhood destroying torture: ‘he shocked Santa’s balls!’ Meanwhile poor, disabled Jimmy embarks on an episode-long rendition of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ as he switches on the town’s lights.

Sharp social satire (America was on the verge of declaring war on Iraq) blends with the utterly absurd (Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo, anyone?) to create one of the all-time best episodes of South Park. This is the show at its most outrageously funny and offensive, yet it succeeds in finding a balance between extreme blasphemy and offering heartwarming messages about the true meaning of Christmas.

3. The Office – ‘The Christmas Specials’ (Airdate: 26-27th December 2003)

By Hugo Camps-Harris

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

Concluding the greatest love story told since Romeo and Juliet, The Office Christmas Special (UK version of course) is indeed Shakespearean in its eminence within British society.

The final episode of TV shows are all too often unsatisfactory and leave a bitter aftertaste. You only need hint at The Sopranos‘ finale to resuscitate numerous deeply-held complaints. This was not an issue affecting Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s creation that, after two sweet seasons of comic ingenuity, departed our screens on a resounding high. Dawn and Tim finally got together after their excruciating ‘will they, won’t they’ relationship, whilst David Brent was left with a modicum of his dignity at the very end.

Over ten years after The Office ended, the mockumentary is still the pedestal to which up and coming comedies are compared. Let’s just hope that 2015’s Life on the Road, the movie that will picks up David Brent’s life many years on, doesn’t taint the unadulterated legacy of The Office that its Christmas special was so crucial in creating.

4. Community – ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ (Airdate: 9th December 2010)

By Jonathan Peters

Image: NBC

Image: NBC

Community, conceived by the twisted mind of creator Dan Harmon, is possibly the most underrated comedy series of the 21st Century. Ostensibly following the lives of seven mature students at a community college, most episodes break radically from a traditional sitcom format – one week the show might be presented in 8-bit animation, whilst the next week will feature explosive mayhem directed by an established action movie helmer. The best instalments use those format changes to comment on issues plaguing the characters, resulting in a show that’s weird, hilarious, but also refreshingly dark in places.

‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ is one of the show’s standout episodes. Abed (Danny Pudi) arrives in college one day to find everyone animated in Claymation. The rest of the study group worry about his state of mind, but decide to indulge his fantasy to discover the root of the problem. What follows is a fantastical, exquisitely animated journey to the North Pole. Revealed slowly over the course of the episode is a strong, poignant reason why Abed sees the world in this way.

Revealed slowly over the episode is a strong emotional reason why Abed sees the world in this way. The inventive visual comedy is supported by a strong emotional core. The show reaches a sincere conclusion, addressing the loneliness that can become prevalent during the holiday season, whilst also placing a strong emphasis on being together with loved ones.

5. The Simpsons – ‘Holidays of Future Passed’ (Airdate: 11th December 2011)

By Jonathan Peters

Image: 20th Century Fox

Image: 20th Century Fox

We’re now at the point where The Simpsons has spent longer in perennial decline than it did as the absolute greatest show on TV. However, it still manages to knock it out of the park once or twice a season (see last year’s Lego crossover ‘Brick Like Me), providing pleasant respite for its devoted fans. ‘Holidays of Future Passed’ is a recent classic – originally intended as the series finale, the episode takes us thirty years into the future, where Homer and Marge decide to have the kids back for Christmas dinner together.

Unlike a lot of modern Simpsons episodes, the jokes come thick and fast, and most of them hit. The future references are all good fun – strangling your child is now illegal, ever since they passed ‘Homer’s Law’, whilst Google has enslaved half the world, but it’s ‘still a damn fine search engine.’ The animators also have a lot fun designing Futurama-fied versions of staple Springfield locations (the Kwik-E-Mart gets a District Nine-esque makeover) and characters (Ralph Wiggum: ‘I got cloneded!’).

Most importantly the show has a lot of heart. Previous versions of future Bart featured him rather depressingly stuck in a dead-end job, but here he has kids who provide a chance at redemption. The episode gets a lot of mileage out of exploring the relationships between different generations of Simpsons, from Lisa and her offspring to Homer and the now-cryogenically frozen Grampa. Every character has a moment in the spotlight, and a reflective, emotional conversation in the treehouse between Bart and Lisa is genuinely one of the best scenes the show has ever done.

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