Tomorrow I’m starting our annual tradition, the 12 Days of Christmas Episodes. And with this year’s batch, I’m going to pass 100 Christmas episodes watched and reviewed. I mean, I’ve watched more than that, but I haven’t covered every Christmas episode that I’ve ever watched. You get it. Anyway, besides my annual reviews, I have some holiday episodes that I make sure to watch every December. Some of these go back decades and some are new favorites from the last couple of years. And I’m not going to say these are the all-time best episodes – they’re just the ones that I make a point of watching. They’re the ones that get me in the right holiday mood every time.
With one exception, I’m limiting my list to one episode per series. But just know that at some point during the holidays, I will fall into a serious Doctor Who hole.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 – “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” – Real talk. I think Season Five’s Santa Claus, featuring a truly bizarre movie where Santa Claus lives in Heaven with Merlin, is actually a better episode. Like, actual effort went into the movie itself even if it was misguided. Martians is much lazier all around. And that shouldn’t matter, but when you watch these episodes every Christmas for 20+ years, you eventually really focus on the movies themselves. Still, both episodes remain enjoyable after all this time, and Martians was a family tradition for a few years there, so if I only have time to catch one, it’s going to be this one. It’s great fun as Joel and the ‘bots watch a movie where the Martians kidnap Santa Claus and surprisingly little happens. Plus, the interstitials include the classic song “Let’s Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas”. It feels like home.
The Office – “Christmas Party” – The Office brought us a bunch of classic Christmas episodes, but the first one (from Season Two) holds a special place in my heart. This one, if you can’t tell from the generic title, is the one where Michael tries to make the office party more fun by adding alcohol and then turned Secret Santa into Yankee Swap. It’s so good – by this point, the characters were pretty well established (We still had some tweaks to come, but everybody was recognizable by this point.) and there are so many great beats in here. There’s a certain psychological torture aspect to the gift exchange and it’s one of those episode that punches you in the soul. But man, those early days of Jim and Pam just wreck me.
Batman: The Animated Series – “Holiday Knights” – This episode actually comes from the New Batman Adventures era of the series, but these days everything kind of gets lumped under one banner. It’s a collection of three(ish) vignettes spread out over the holiday season. There’s a fun short where Poison Ivy mind controls Bruce Wayne (or so she thinks). Playing along, Bruce funds Ivy and Harley Quinn’s shopping spree until he can shut them down as Batman. Then on Christmas Eve, Bullock, Montoya, and Batgirl go after shoplifters at the mall, only to learn that each of the thieves is a piece of Clayface. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, Joker threatens to destroy Gotham City with a sonic bomb. Once Batman stops him, he meets up with Commissioner Gordon at a local diner for their annual tradition. It’s that last bit that gets me – it’s the best Batman/Gordon scene in the whole run of the series.
Doctor Who – “A Christmas Carol” – The most Christmas-y of the Doctor Who specials, this one has Matt Smith’s Doctor trying to convince a mean old man to turn off his atmospheric controls and save the lives of a lot of people. When it doesn’t work, he goes all Dickens, but he does it in the way that only the Doctor can. Instead of showing the man his past, he actually goes into the past to spend every Christmas with the man’s younger self in the hopes of making him a better person. There’s such a joy to these scenes, tinged with the sadness of a traveling companion who’s running out of time. The Ghost of Christmas Future reveal is a total gut punch, and there are some great action scenes, many of which involve air sharks. I love it.
Homicide: Life on the Street – “All Through the House” – This isn’t necessarily a standout episode of Homicide, but it’s one of my favorite shows ever and there’s never enough time anymore to go back and do the full series rewatch that I used to do every year. So I always make a point to watch their Christmas episode at least. The part that sticks with me is Detective Munch having to hang out with a kid on Christmas while Bolander tries to find out if the dead Santa they found is the kid’s dad. So it’s Munch just dodging questions and not addressing how weird it is for a detective to just spend Christmas with a child. I love Homicide.
The Simpsons – “Marge Be Not Proud” – So, the first episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is one of the most significant single episodes of my life, but I’ve seen it maybe a hundred times and I don’t necessarily rewatch it every year anymore. But this Season Seven delight is maybe in my Top 5 Simpsons episodes of all time. It’s the one where Bart steals a video game and ruins Christmas. It’s brutal and almost turns into a Very Special Episode, but it’s so funny. Lawrence Tierney, who didn’t understand the jokes and was openly hostile the whole time, is great as security guard Don Brodka. Even if he didn’t understand why “Next thing you know, he’s stealing a stadium or a quarry” is funny, it’s so funny. It’s got “Buy me Bonestorm or go to hell!”, and the origin of “Thrillho”, which is still the most coveted user name on any gaming service. “Mom, Bart’s smoking!” I mean, virtually any episode from Seasons 4-8 is a thing of wonder, but this one has a special place in my heart.
Dragnet – “A Christmas Story” – I discovered this one fairly recently and thought I was going to end up goofing on a silly ancient show, but this is really good. Jack Webb liked it so much that he did basically the same script as a radio episode, then for Dragnet‘s first TV incarnation in black-and-white, and finally the one I love, the color version. Now, I’ll acknowledge that there are no women of any consequence in the episode and the lead characters are ill-defined at best. But the story is great – the cops are trying to find a Baby Jesus stolen from a Nativity scene before Christmas Day. You get these amazing performances from the priest and the suspects and it ends up selling the idea that this is an Important Case. (“We’ve had children in the parish, they’ve grown up and married. It’s the only Jesus they know. And we’ve had children who died. It was the only Jesus they knew.”) The climax is clever and sweet, and this episode genuinely puts me in the Christmas spirit. Also, there’s an amazing line where Joe Friday says a suspect “looked like a man who’d had his troubles at bargain rates”.)
Community – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and “Regional Holiday Music” – Yeah, I had to include two. The first is a Claymation parody of Christmas specials that manages to be funny and sad and gives us some painful insight into Abed (and gets in a dig at LOST). It’s silly and wonderful and I will watch it every year. The second is the culmination of Community‘s low-key feud with Glee, and it still holds up even as that show disappears down the memory hole. Taran Killam plays the new Glee Club director who tries to recruit everybody except Britta onto the team so they can win Sectionals. (Pierce: “What the hell are Sectionals?”) Donald Glover and Danny Pudi have a really great musical number and Alison Brie does a sexy performance of a song about being dumb and the only way you can process all the conflicting emotions is to let yourself feel guilty. It’s not Christmas without Community!
What are your Christmas favorites? And I will not accept the MASH episode “Death Takes a Holiday” because it has too many puns. Like, way too many.