With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series or genre, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing. This week: We break from the format to give you a 10-episode guide to celebrating Christmas, sitcom style.
Driven by forces spiritual, commercial, creative, and nostalgic, no yearly occasion has seized on the pop-culture imagination like Christmas. A religious holiday observed the world over, Christmas has inspired its fair share of art across the millennia—traditional hymns, a Victorian novella of redemption (and ghosts!), a Franco-Russian ballet set in a winter wonderland—but the idea of Christmas as it is celebrated in the United States today came into being alongside Nat King Cole singing about chestnuts and George Bailey being named the richest man in town. Clement Clarke Moore may have introduced most of our notions about Santa Claus, but it was Coca-Cola (and that Norelco ad people used to ask Don Draper about all the time) that fixed the image of the jolly old elf in our minds.
None of those works would’ve endured into the 21st century without television. It’s A Wonderful Life, for one, earned its status as a cinematic classic through regularly scheduled Yuletide broadcasts. The medium has produced its own store of perennial favorites in the past seven decades, but no TV format gives itself over to the sprit of Christmas like the situation comedy. Viewers form strong relationships with a sitcom and its characters, and they want to share the holiday season with them just as they would flesh-and-blood friends and relatives. The people in charge advise against it—as the writers of The Simpsons have stated, programmers dislike Christmas episodes because they can only rerun one month out of the year—but there’s no denying the truth. Sitcoms pair particularly well with Santa, reindeer, presents, lights, eggnog, and the occasional virgin birth.
In its versatility, the sitcom makes Christmas’ December TV domination feel much less suffocating. In the most treacly of examples, Chirstmas is a time to exchange laughs for pathos, as The Fonz reluctantly accepts the generosity of the Cunningham family or the Winslows indulge Steve Urkel’s belief in Santa Claus. The otherworldly elements of holiday lore were a natural fit for the fantasy sitcoms of the 1960s: A visit to the North Pole was just another week at the office for Bewitched, and it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to learn that Santa Claus actually was a member of The Addams Family. On other shows, the holiday creates its own familiar refrains, like Dr. Bob Hartley’s annual reminders that the holidays are a very difficult time for the people in his psychological care. That’s not to mention the familiar strains of comic riffs on established favorites like It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, or “The Gift Of The Magi,” a seasonal canon that has, fortunately, opened up in recent years to include unorthodox modern Christmas classics like Die Hard. (The greatest crime of Community’s fourth season was its staging of a sort-of McClane family Christmas without the input of then-ousted showrunner/noted Die Hard acolyte Dan Harmon.)
Part of the sitcom’s Christmas versatility is wrapped up in its ability to satirize as well as celebrate, to trade seasons greetings for “Bah! Humbug!” and jab a finger at everything that’s wrong or empty or too commercial about the holiday. Thumbing your nose at the nativity scene isn’t the edgy joke it used to be, but that hasn’t stopped American Dad from unearthing a whole child’s treasury of childhood-ruining, nostalgia-spoiling Christmas episodes. Elsewhere, the truly innovative Grinches try to beat Christmas at their own game: They shun Christmas in favor of their own made-up holiday. Frank Costanza’s “Festivus for the rest of us” has inspired real-life gatherings around the aluminum pole, though advances in artificial intelligence have yet to produce a Bender-like prophet spreading word of the six-and-a-half-week, work-free miracle of Robanukah.
In sitcom life as in real life, there’s no “correct” way to celebrate Christmas. (Though a moratorium on It’s A Wonderful Life parodies is long overdue.) The depth and variety of the entire genre demonstrates that, as does the selection of episodes below. Though you won’t find Seinfeld’s “The Strike” among the selections—that’s more of a Festivus episode, after all.
The Andy Griffith Show, “The Christmas Story” (season one, episode 11)
Given how long The Andy Griffith Show was on the air—and how generally heartwarming the show was—it’s odd that there’s only one proper Andy Griffith Christmas episode. Maybe that’s because Griffith and company knew they could never top the first one. When local scrooge Ben Weaver demands that Andy lock up a moonshiner on Christmas Eve, the sheriff decides to make the best of a bad situation and throw the moonshiner’s family in jail too, and to throw a big party at the courthouse. Ben fusses about it, but when he tries to get himself arrested too, Andy realizes that the old man’s not really mean, he’s just lonely. The episode ends with a powerhouse tear-jerker moment, with Andy finally arresting Ben and Ben carrying in a sack full of presents for the children. But the most beautiful scene in “The Christmas Story” comes earlier, when everyone in the jailhouse sings “Away In A Manger,” and the camera slowly moves through the room before stopping at the window of one of the cells, where Ben is peering in, singing softly and sadly to himself. [Noel Murray]
M*A*S*H, “Dear Sis” (season seven, episode 15)
Actor William Christopher used to joke that M*A*S*H was a show “about a priest in Korea,” and in the case of “Dear Sis,” that was actually true. One of M*A*S*H’s epistolatory episodes, “Dear Sis” is structured as a series of vignettes, described by Christopher’s Father Mulcahy in a letter home to his sister. He writes about how useless he feels, in a place where no one has much time for his church services, and where even the wounded reject his help—sometimes violently. In the end, Mulcahy does make a difference, by cheering up the eternally sour Major Winchester. The priest has company clerk Radar write to Winchester’s family back in Boston, who sends him the knit toboggan cap he loved as a boy. In return, Father Mulcahy gets a generous donation to his orphans’ fund from the Major. It’s a happy ending—at least until another round of wounded soldiers arrive. But as is often the case with M*A*S*H’s Christmas episodes, the most heart-rending moments come when the doctors, nurses, and staff of the 4077th wax nostalgic about what the holidays are like at home, painting word-pictures of idyllic winter tableaux while sitting in a cold, dirty camp. [Noel Murray]
Roseanne, “White Trash Christmas” (season six, episode 12)
In “White Trash Christmas,” Roseanne and Dan Conner receive a passive-aggressive note from their homeowners’ association urging austerity and restraint in exterior holiday decor, an initiative the Conners can’t help but take personally given that the letter calls out their gauche lawn ornaments in detail. The Conners respond by creating a Christmas display that goes beyond tacky into outright sacrilege, according to reviews of the mostly unseen artwork. “The wise men are supposed to be adoring the baby Jesus, not leering at Mrs. Claus,” says a mortified Bev. What’s most shocking about “White Trash Christmas” is not that the Conners would spite their hoity-toity neighbors with a decorative scheme better suited to a modern art museum than a suburban lawn, but that it took them all the way until season six to do it. The Conners were so adept at turning peoples’ classist assumptions against them, it seems a repulsive Christmas display is an instinct that would have hit them much sooner, but better late than never. [Joshua Alston]
NewsRadio, “Xmas Story” (season two, episode 10)
The etiquette of workplace gift-giving gets extra-complicated when WNYX’s billionaire owner Jimmy James gives his employees cheap baseball caps for Christmas, after they’ve given him a vintage autographed Yankees baseball jersey. To make up for the gaffe, Jimmy buys everyone on the WNYX news team a Miata sports car—except for Matthew, who gets a box of Fibber McGee & Molly cassette tapes. Having already asked Mr. James for one Christmas do-over, the station’s news director Dave Nelson isn’t sure how he can make things right for Matthew. Eventually, Mr. James reveals that there was more to the gift than Matthew had realized, but up until that happens, NewsRadio gets a lot of comic mileage out of a common holiday experience: feeling totally ripped-off. [Noel Murray]
The Simpsons, “Marge Be Not Proud” (season seven, episode 11)
The first half-hour episode of The Simpsons is a Christmas show, and for several years afterward, the series’ writers were reluctant to revisit the holiday. When they did so, they used Christmas as more of a backdrop: “Marge Be Not Proud” puts snow on the ground and lights in the windows, but the story of Bart disappointing his mother with a dalliance in shoplifting would play any time of the year. The wintry setting takes the episode to a whole new level, though, an atmosphere of December melancholy that suits the “naughty or nice” morality play at the center of Mike Scully’s script. This being vintage Simpsons, the opportunity is also taken to parody leaden holiday variety specials (“Hey! It’s respected private citizen Tom Landry! And South American sensation Xoxchisha? Xoxchoshe… Xo… Oh boy”) and trends in “must have” Christmas toys. (Bonestorm, anyone? Or maybe Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge is more your speed.) Marge Simpson’s hopes will be eternally dashed by her son, but only in “Marge Be Not Proud” are those hopes restored with help from a red-and-green frame with the receipt still attached. [Erik Adams]
South Park, “Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo” (season one, episode nine)
“Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo / He loves me, I love you / Which means, vicariously, he loves you,” goes the clear winner for the title of history’s most scatological Christmas carol, sung frequently during South Park’s first of many vicious Christmas specials. In addition to being South Park’s first Christmas riff, “Mr. Hankey” is also its most insightful holiday episode, created so early in the show’s lengthy run creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone hadn’t yet burned through all of the best satirical targets. The town’s Christmas festivities collapse after Kyle’s mom—who, according to a South Park standard first sung in this episode, is a big, fat bitch—complains that her family’s Jewish faith is being disrespected by Kyle’s forced participation in a nativity play. As with most South Park episodes, the one pulled thread causes the entire Christmas sweater to unravel, with the mayor ridding the town of all holiday iconography that could potentially offend someone. The only way to restore Christmas to South Park is for Kyle to get everyone to believe in a festive turd, which sounds difficult, but the idea isn’t that hard to accept when it comes with the assurance that, vicariously, he loves you. [Joshua Alston]
Friends, “The One With The Holiday Armadillo” (season seven, episode 10)
Non-Christmas holidays tend to get the short shrift on TV—and in America in general, at least according to Ross Geller on Friends. Given the chance to spend the season with his son Ben, Ross is determined to satisfy Ben’s demands for a magical Christmas visit from Santa Claus and to teach the kid about his Jewish heritage. But when he can’t scare up a Santa suit, Ross settles for the only costume he can rent, and surprises Ben as Santa’s helper, “The Holiday Armadillo.” (“Santa was unavaaaail-able!,” the Armadillo booms.) Then Chandler shows up as Santa, and Joey pops by as Superman. (“It looks like the Easter Bunny’s funeral in here,” Rachel remarks.) Eventually, Ross is able to enlist his friends to help him tell Ben the story of Hanukkah, but not before the Armadillo and Santa have a confused, loud conversation over Ben’s head. When Chandler-Santa arrives and asks, “What are you doing here… weird… turtle… man?” Friends delivers one of the funniest scenes in Christmas sitcom history. [Noel Murray]
The Office (U.S.), “Christmas Party” (season two, episode 10)
Christmas was a huge deal for the employees of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, and that had a lot to do with this triumphant, Emmy-nominated installment from season two. The Office still had plenty of workplace customs to lampoon when “Christmas Party” debuted, taking aim at a ritual lousy with discomfort humor: petty decoration-and-refreshment tyrants, for example, or the awkward process of buying a gift for someone you see almost every day but don’t really know. The script, by future Parks And Recreation showrunner Michael Schur, is enlivened by The Office’s incredible season-two character work, portraying Michael Scott as less of a malicious incompetent and more of a well-meaning buffoon. And thus was born unto us this day in the city of Scranton a party savior, which is Yankee Swap, a variation on White Elephant made necessary by Michael’s too-generous Secret Santa present. Chaos (and heroic drinking) ensues, as lovesick salesman Jim loses (and wins, and loses again) another chance to explain his true feelings to receptionist Pam. While expertly sending up corporate America’s love of mandatory fun, “Christmas Party” teaches Michael Scott that a good time is the best gift a boss can give his employees at the end of a tough year. [Erik Adams]
30 Rock, “Ludachristmas” (season two, episode nine)
The people responsible for TGS With Tracy Jordan have parental anxieties that spike the punch at any celebration: Most of the male leads were abandoned by their fathers, and nearly every mother figure who enters 30 Rockefeller Plaza is domineering and/or severely critical. Naturally, the cast and crew have devised a way to avoid such unpleasantness, gathering as a surrogate family to revel in the booze-soaked traditions of Ludachristmas. The 30 Rock gang’s very own Festivus passes Liz Lemon by, however, as she’s the one TGS staffer who actually wants to see her parents and brother, respectively represented by A-plus guests Buck Henry, Anita Gillette, and Andy Richter. Seeing this different kind of Lemon party (Quoth Henry as Richard Lemon: “It isn’t a Lemon party without old Dick!”) as the family Christmas he never had, Liz’s boss Jack Donaghy gloms on to their Big Apple holiday, while his mother Colleen Donaghy seeks to prove that Liz and her folks are just as miserable as the rest of us. The whole episode is a lesson in managing Yuletide expectations, with its biggest, funniest, and most heartwarming surprise unwrapped by the Donaghys at episode’s end. [Erik Adams]
Community, “Regional Holiday Music” (season three, episode 10)
For obvious reasons, “Regional Holiday Music” is typically grouped with and evaluated among Community’s Christmas-themed episodes, but it fits more comfortably beside the show’s horror spoofs. In fact, it could easily be the eighth spooky step to “Horror Fiction,” another episode directed by Tristram Shapeero that, despite its Halloween theme, is nowhere near as terrifying as “Regional Holiday Music.” Taran Killam guests as Cory Radison, who is both Greendale’s Glee Club coach and some kind of joy demon, exploiting the study group’s weaknesses to infect them with holiday cheer. Even cynical Jeff falls victim to Radison’s hypnosis, and only Britta’s complete tone-deafness and lack of rhythm can break the spell over the gang. When it seems the episode is at its darkest, it’s revealed Radison murdered the previous Glee Club members and drafted the study group to replace them. It’s basically the Silent Night, Deadly Night of sitcoms. [Joshua Alston]
And if you like those, here are 10 more festive picks to put under your TV tree: The Honeymooners, “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” (season one, episode 13); The Dick Van Dyke Show, “The Alan Brady Show Presents” (season three, episode 13); The Brady Bunch, “The Voice Of Christmas” (season one, episode 12); The Bob Newhart Show, “Bob Has To Have His Tonsils Out, So He Spends Christmas Eve In The Hospital” (season four, episode 15); Happy Days, “Guess Who’s Coming To Christmas” (season two, episode 11); Three’s Company, “Three’s Christmas” (season two, episode 14); Cheers, “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One” (season one, episode 12); Futurama, “Xmas Story” (season two, episode eight); Happy Endings, “No-Ho-Ho” (season three, episode seven); Bob’s Burgers, “Christmas In The Car” (season four, episode eight)