I like annual viewings of the traditional Christmas TV specials. It is hard to imagine the holiday season without seeing Charlie Brown futilely attempt to direct the school Christmas pageant, the Grinch attempt to get Max to pull his sleigh, or Rudolph attempt to speak with his nose plugged by a prosthetic. As my friends and I have been discussing on Facebook, none of these shows are complete unless they are preceded by a notification of exactly how special they are. But, believe it or not, other episodic TV shows have attempted the Christmas special, with varying degrees of success. Shocking but true.
If you are seeking something to watch to help put you into the Christmas spirit, I have a few modest suggestions, some familar, others obscure. Some family-friendly, others geared towards adults. Some exist to make you laugh, others to make you contemplate the true meaning of Christmas.
If any of these shows are new to you, in most cases you don’t need to know any of the backstory in order to appreciate the specific episodes. If available for purchase, I’ve included links to iTunes or Amazon (sorry Google Play, maybe next Christmas). If unavailable for purchase, I’ve tried to locate links to clips found online.
“Top Gear” Middle East Special (Series 16, Episode 1)
If you are asking yourself how a show ostensibly about cars could possibly do a Christmas special, you obviously haven’t seen “Top Gear.” In this episode, Jeremy, James, and Richard attempt to drive from Iraq to Bethlehem in open-top coupes, in search of the Baby Jesus. Along the way, they must find suitable gifts, disguise their cars to avoid getting killed, and one of them ends up in the hospital. An epic yuletide road trip through the original Bible Belt.
“Man Lab” Christmas Special (Series 2, Episode 5)
This series hasn’t officially made it to the US yet, but a UK friend tipped me off to it. Imagine a cross between “Mythbusters” and “The New Yankee Workshop,” where the focus is on outfitting the ultimate man cave (erected inside a wherehouse), and related masculine activities. Hosted by James May from “Top Gear,” the Christmas episode features how to use explosives to “cut down” a tree, how to make it a White Christmas by cloud-seeding (indoors and outdoors), how to decorate a massive tree in minutes instead of hours (using a homemade mortar), and other yuletide experiments.
“West Wing” In Excelsis Deo (Season 1, Episode 10)
Obvious to any fan of the series, writer Aaron Sorkin worked overtime to make holiday episodes special. For the first Christmas special, the White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler unexpectedly gets involved when a homeless Vietnam veteran is found dead wearing Toby’s coat. Meanwhile, the President slips out of the White House to do some last minute Christmas shopping. Richard Schiff as Toby gives a heartfelt performance in this episode.
“Titus” Houseboat (Season 3, Episode 6)
The sitcom “Titus” never did anything normally. The family takes the notoriously Scrooge-like Papa Titus out on a houseboat in an attempt to force him to celebrate the holidays. He is reluctant at first, but when his friend gets drunk and seemingly falls overboard and drowns, the rest of the family uses it as an excuse to con Papa Titus into being merry. In a series of comedic backfires and misunderstandings, everybody learns a valuable lesson, specifically: Don’t mess with Papa Titus.
“The Tick” Tick vs. Santa (Season 2, Episode 10)
A sinister man dressed as Santa Claus has a freak electrical accident, causing him to replicate himself whenever exposed to electricity, the Tick is powerless to stop him because he simply cannot bring himself to punch the face of Santa. Eventually, the original S. Claus appears to give the Tick the spirited pep talk he needs.
“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” The Christmas Show (Episode 11)
Another of Aaron Sorkin’s Christmas episodes, this time from a lesser known series that takes place behing the scenes of a sketch comedy show based in Hollywood. It is Christmastime, and the cast and crew are finding it hard to get in the spirit of the season when it is 90 degrees outside and the internet exposes several myths about the holiday. But while one producer attempts to work through his feelings for a woman, another producer promises to bring Christmas to Hollywood in grand fashion.
“Lovejoy” The Lost Colony (Series 5, Episode 14)
Ian McShane is best known as either Al Swearengen in “Deadwood” or Blackbeard in the most recent of the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies. But he also held the title role in a British series called “Lovejoy,” in which he played an antique dealer with an inate gift at differentiating the real thing from the forgeries. In this, the second of the show’s two Christmas specials, Lovejoy journeys to America to uncover a con job and stumbles upon some long lost members of his own family. As he was also a recurring guest star on the TV series “Dallas,” McShane was able to recruit some of that show’s actors to appear in the episode.
“Little House on the Prairie” A Christmas They Never Forgot (Season 8, Episode 11)
This episode of “Little House” should have been granted Christmas classic status, but somehow fell just short of the mark. I call attention to it because it is partly a clip show, but it also features some inspired short stories about Christmases in post-Civil War America. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will be absolutely convinced that life was just better back then.
“Animaniacs” Christmas episodes (Season 1, Episodes 49 & 50)
This animated series was groundbreaking for many reasons, but in their two-part Christmas episode, they really managed to breath new life into some classic Christmas stories. Most notably in this day and age is “Little Drummer Warners,” which offers their touching yet humorous take on the story of Jesus in the manger. That a mainstream, daytime, children’s cartoon would incorporate the Biblical story is both remarkable and reminiscent of Linus telling Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about.
Joel and his robot pals are forced to endure one of the worst Christmas movies ever made. To muddle through somehow, they try to find humor and happiness where they can. This includes the introduction of a new Christmas carol, inspired by the Patrick Swayze movie “Roadhouse.” Sadly unavailable, but the “Cinematic Titanic” version featuring many of the MST3k gang is for sale.
“Blackadder” Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (released between Series 3 and Series 4 as a standalone TV special)
I’ve never liked the writing of Dickens, and perhaps my least favorite of his works is his story of Scrooge. But this series twisted the story on its ear as it presented Ebineezer Blackadder, a kindly merchant whom everyone in town takes advantage of, until he is visited late one Christmas Eve by a spirit who shows him what other Blackadders have gained by being decidely less than Christ-like. This is dark Christmas comedy at its best.
So that wraps up my Christmas list. If you have your own suggestions, leave them in the comments section. And have a Merry Christmas.