Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I'll Be Spending Christmas With My Television Families (How About You?)...

Christmas has become such a commercialized (versus religious) holiday in recent years that popular television shows have wanted to capitalize on the season's yuletide cheer. The traditional family sitcom, like Full House in 1988, was notorious for dedicating one of it's twenty-two minute episodes to a equally traditional holiday celebration-- usually complete with spontaneous caroling at the end credits or one of those "from our family to yours" messages. Full House's "Our Very First Christmas Show" had the Tanners getting snowed in at an airport, prompting Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) to fret over whether or not Santa will be able to find them. Uncle Joey (Dave Coulier) plans to dress as Santa in order to assuage her fears, but with a little bit of magic, Santa visits Stephanie before Joey has a chance to don the costume.

However, as the years have gone on, and network and cable programming alike expanded their definitions of what makes a family, more and more shows have gotten in on the Christmas spirit, even if it is a bit unorthodox. How I Met Your Mother waited until its second season to debut a Christmas episode ("How Lily Stole Christmas"), and instead of showing Old Ted with his two kids and the wife we've still never seen sitting around a tree and opening presents, we got 2006 Ted and his "family" of friends. After Lily (Alyson Hannigan) overhears an old answering machine message in which Ted calls her a Very Bad Word (which the show replaces with "grinch" to avoid censors and put a cute modern spin on a favorite holiday tale), she decides to take Christmas away from his apartment. While Marshall (Jason Segel) is in the middle of a huge law school exam, she crams all of the paper snowflakes, colored lights, statued reindeer, and the tree itself into her sad little place, leaving Ted (Josh Radnor) to fight with himself over whether he should apologize just to save Christmas for his best friend and roommate even though at the time he sad the Very Bad Word, he really believed she was being one.

The blink-and-you-may-have-missed-it Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip did their own "Christmas Show" revolving on the celebration in the television studio. One executive (Bradley Whitford) realized he may be falling in love (the perfect sentiment at such a sappy time), while the other (Matthew Perry) strived to write a non-corny holiday show within the show for their sketch comedy program. The humor in this episode focused mostly on the fact that Perry's character was Jewish but the only one who seemed to be into the holiday at all, while D.L. Hughley's character strove to prove everything we have come to love about Christmas was simply thought up by some ad executives. There was also a gag with melted potato flakes (to act as fake snow) and a Santa statue that looked like Hitler. But the show all skidded to a sentimental halt when they featured some real life New Orleans musicians who were displaced after Katrina performing "O Holy Night," earning this show its first-- and only-- place on the map of pop culture history and reminding us about what the holiday season is really supposed to be.

Of course shows that were on for years and years undoubtedly provided at least one, if not half a dozen, Christmas episodes. In 1991, Saved By The Bell did a two-part holiday special called "A Home For Christmas," in which the gang, working at the mall to earn some extra cash for presents this year, befriends a homeless girl and her dad. Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) ends up "adopting" the duo, so to speak, and bringing them to his house for cookies, eggnog, and some singing by the piano... and a wad of cash in a stocking to help them get back on their feet. Saved By The Bell offered a lot of lessons on morality, but this one just might have been the most generous. On the flip side, though, was Seinfeld, with a gang who was known for being extremely self-involved and selfish, and instead of celebrating with millions, they opted to create their own holiday, "Festivus (for the rest of us)," which revolved on a pole instead of a tree and the airing of grievances. Their holiday special is the kind you watch when you want to feel better about your own family and their weird quirks and traditions.

Similarly, The O.C. created its own holiday, "Chrismukkah," for Adam Brody's character who was half-Catholic and half-Jewish and used it year after drama-filled year. Their holidays specials were never particularly cheery, though, and in one the two leads (Mischa Barton and Benjamin McKenzie)'s lives even hung in the balance, a sad Charlie Brown Christmas tree between their hospital beds.

"A Very Supernatural Christmas" may not have created its own holiday, but it did reinvent the way one might spend theirs if they knew this was their last one. Dean (Jensen Ackles) is suddenly all gung-ho while little bro Sam (Jared Padalecki) wants nothing to do with it because of past bad experiences. We are treated to flashbacks of the boys in their pre-teen days, when Young Dean breaks into a nearby home to steal presents just so Young Sam has something to open on Christmas morning, and we also get one of the better lines of "I can't believe I may have to bump off Santa" when the demon they're hunting may be the "Anti-Clause." Despite the touching moments between the brothers, both in those flashbacks, and in present-day when they exchange gas station gifts, with images of guys getting dragged up chimneys, and Santa bludgeoning a father in a sack in front of his kid and then stopping to have a bite of cookie, this is one Christmas episode that might not be suitable for the little kiddos.

South Park
has had so many Christmas specials, the creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker actually released a full DVD featuring just those seven episodes, giving their fans a one-stop-shop for all things sardonic holiday fun! It also comes in handy for those who want to watch the episodes back-to-back but are too lazy to get up and swap out the DVDs every twenty-two minutes. Though they brought us "Mr. Hankey The Christmas Poo" straight away in season one, "Red Sleigh Down" is another stand-out for the return of Kyle's gas-prone cousin Kyle and his tally that Cartman has been too naughty to earn a visit from Santa this year (though it is unclear how this is different from any other year), and he decides he has to cram in all the good deeds possible before midnight on December 24th. He convinces his friends to travel to the North Pole to convince Santa to visit Iraq this year (even though they are Muslims), and while there is a big action sequence where Santa is shot down and needs to call in back-up help from Jesus, the true gem of this episode is Jimmy stuttering through "O Christmas Tree" in front of the whole town who are patiently (and then not-so) waiting to light the tree.

But the hands-down best Christmas television episode has to be Friends' "The One With The Holiday Armadillo" because it incorporates both Christmas and the lesser-talked about Channukah when Ross (David Schwimmer) has his son (Dylan and Cole Sprouse) for the holidays and wants to use the time to explain to him how he's half-Christian and half-Jewish. In his awkwardness, though, he manages to make the kid think he hasn't been good enough for Santa to come this year, but by the time he goes to rent a Santa suit, they are all out, and he picks the only thing that is left, a "weird turtle man" costume that is actually an armadillo suit. He creates a Channukah character out of it, but things really get interesting when both Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) show up in costumes of their own, and Ross tries to incorporate them all into a twisted, unorthodox tale of how the holidays came to be.

So if you need a break this holiday season from your own family, shows of television past and present offer a nice alternative and escape.

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