There’s a lot to talk about in today’s Christmas episode, not the least of which is Denzel Washington as a regular on a network TV series. You can know that, and it’s still going to shock you when he pops up in the credits. We’re talking about the series that broke TV, St. Elsewhere.

St. Elsewhere – “Santa Claus is Dead” 

Original airdate: December 18, 1985

This has nothing to do with Christmas, but St. Elsewhere has a very weird legacy. The series famously ends with the reveal that it’s all been in the imagination of an autistic boy (Tommy Westphall) staring into a snow globe. And that would be weird enough, but because St. Elsewhere crossed over into other shows (notably Cheers and Homicide: Life on the Street), it means that those shows are also Tommy’s imagination and because Homcide‘s John Munch has appeared on more TV series than any other character, it spins out into hundreds of shows from The Simpsons to LOST and Arrested Development. There’s also a weird hitch that splits the Westphall Multiverse into two separate branches, one where Jean Claude Van Damme is dead and one where he’s alive. I’ve written about it before and I’ll probably repost it with new information. Suffice it to say, most of TV before 2005 or so is in Tommy Westphall’s imagination.

A lot of this is due to Tom Fontana, who co-wrote this episode and was the showrunner on Homicide. He loves making connections to other shows, but also I don’t think he imagined just how many times Richard Belzer would appear as Munch. That has very little to do with this episode, but it’s hard not to think about given that both Tommy and a snow globe appear in separate scenes.

Also, this cast is wild. You have Denzel, Howie Mandel, and Mark Harmon (who does not appear in this episode) who are all incredibly successful in completely directions. And David Morse is in it! I always forget what he was known for before he headed into character actor territory. Now he always plays a guy who is understood to be tough and threatening to the main cast despite the fact that he always looks like he’s about to cry. Ed Begley Jr. is here. Now we know him as the guy who’s thirty years ahead of the curve on environmental activism, but here he plays just an absolute dick and it’s great.

This is a real ensemble show so I’m just going to cover the various stories instead of trying to recount it chronologically. This would have been a very hard show to recap. The plot that gives the episode its title comes from a Santa Claus hired to visit the children at the hospital. One smart-ass kid insists that Santa’s not real and calls him “an old fairy”, at which point, Santa has a heart attack. It looks like he’ll pull through and Dr. Auschlander’s grandson comes to visit him in his room and tells him about how he wants a snow globe to replace the one that he broke. At that point, Santa crashes and a child watches Santa Claus die. But before he leaves the hospital, he finds a wrapped snow globe.

Victor (Begley) is upset that nobody is giving him a Christmas present, even after he gives all of his co-workers envelopes containing a one dollar bill. Others pass out poinsettias or clay balls, but not to Victor. People have to explain to him that you don’t give gifts to get them in return, but they overlook that he gave everybody one dollar, which is really just a spite gift. He tries to get a patient to stay for a Christmas dinner after he procedure, but she bails and finally he bums cab fare off of one boss to go to another boss’ party. (Hilariously, after getting ten bucks from Auschlander, he decides to take the bus and save money.) He gets there after the party ends, which is pretty funny.

Dr. Westphall celebrates with his children and his daughter’s boyfriend. Said boyfriend misses his family and convinces the younger Westphalls to go to church with him. Westphall initially refuses but shows up at the end.

And for me the best part was Dr. Mark Craig’s Christmas party. Craig is played by William Daniels, who was the voice of KITT. He was on St. Elsewhere and Knight Rider at the same time and the quality whiplash must have been so jarring. He’s extra fussy about every single detail and pointlessly mean to his wife. And when the party starts, he’s mean to his guests and reads a long toast in Middle English twice before breaking down and admitting that he just misses his son. (Said son passed away fairly recently – there aren’t a lot of details in this episode.) He’s throwing himself into the holiday to occupy his mind, but he’s struggling with the religions aspect and worshipping the God who took his son. At the end of the episode, he passes the same church where most of the cast ends up and he just keeps walking.

It is a very good episode of television. St. Elsewhere is one of those shows I want to watch in its entirety but never really find the time. But what I’ve seen has been mostly excellent. This is a solid adult drama without any real gimmicks – it’s smart and sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking. A lot of big name writers came from this show, like the aforementioned Tom Fontana and frequent David Milch collaborator Mark Tinker. And the cast is absolutely stacked with talent. And despite having a million characters, I could follow pretty easily even without having all the details. That’s solid storytelling right there. And I can also really identify with the primary theme of middle-aged men being sad during the holidays. That speaks to me.

Best Line: “Just a small token for a small token.” — Victor giving a dollar to Luther (who is both short and black). Guys, Victor is a dick.


Holiday Tropes 

Santa Claus – The titular Santa Claus dies. It’s pretty rough.

Christmas Decorations – Both the hospital and the homes we see are decorated, but they’re all decorated in different ways that speak to different tastes. You don’t see that as often as you should in Christmas episodes and it’s nice.

Gift Exchange – Victor gives everybody dollar bills. Santa leaves a snow globe. Tommy’s sister gives him a stuffed duck.

Christmas Dinner – There’s food at Craig’s party, but mostly finger foods and hors d’oeuvres. It’s really just there to soak up the extremely spiked punch.

A Christmas Miracle – Where the heck does that snow globe come from?

Holiday Cheer-O-Meter – I really loved watching this episode, but it’s pretty evenly split in its holiday message. Some find comfort and joy and some find only further sadness. Plus, a child watches Santa Claus die. So in terms of cheer, I think a 5 is more than fair.

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