It's December, which means all over the dial TV characters are learning the true meaning of the holiday season. Below, a few of Grantland's favorite Christmas specials.
"Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"
Michael Weinreb: I don’t know how many television sitcoms have ever started their run with a Christmas special (other than South Park, which did it on the Internet, but not on the airwaves), but this is why The Simpsons is The Simpsons: They shattered so many rules about television that this episode — which originally aired December 17, 1989 — doesn’t even seem particularly good anymore (even when some mysterious dork remixes it in sepia tones and speeds it up to 78 rpm). I have a distinct memory of watching it as a teenager and thinking I’d never seen anything quite like it, but now it comes across as so earnest and slow-paced that it doesn’t even feel like parody. All of which is further proof of The Simpsons' colossal brilliance: No writing staff has ever lapped itself this many times over the years.
And so it’s fair to say that there may be Christmas specials on this list that hold up better over time, and there may be Christmas specials that are funnier or more endearing, but this is still the most culturally important Christmas-related program ever to air on television. Even the dumbest greyhound on earth can see that.
Katie Baker: Here I present to you the Christmas episode of Newlyweds, which might to this day still be my favorite reality show of all time. (Joe Millionaire is no. 2.) What I love about this video is that it shows how, even for celebrities, Christmas can be just as non-magical as it tends to be for us regular folk, from the baggage carousel to the mystery mincemeat pie at grandma's ("good boy!") to Jessica not having picked out a present for Nick yet and Nick asking only for "a sex guarantee for a year." I feel like 75 percent of couples have had that exact same conversation. Also, their house is disgusting. Also, "a plasma TV." ALSO, I miss you, Newlyweds! If I had the chance I would go back and major in American Studies and write my senior thesis on you. Oh come, all ye faithful ...
Star Wars Holiday Special
Mike Philbrick: If you're going to screw up a Star Wars special, then you'd better do it so wrong that George Lucas will one day say, "If I had time and a hammer, I'd track down every bootleg copy and smash it." Here's the basic plot: Han Solo, Chewbacca, and other Star Wars favorites head to Chewie's home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day (what? You didn't think they would call it Christmas, did you?) and they have a bunch of "oh no!" moments with Darth Vader & Co. That's all you really need to know about the first hour and 55 minutes of this two-hour spectacle.
The scene above tells you everything else you need to know but were afraid to ask: All the Wookies come together around the Tree of Life wearing what look like bad bootleg Snuggies. We get classic gems like C3PO saying, "At times like this, R2 and I wish we were born not just mechanical beings and were really alive, so we could share your feelings." Everyone is together, so roll credits, right? No Princess Leia gives a speech about good vs. evil that should be given Tim Tebow "The Promise" treatment, and then she bursts into a holiday song to the tune of the Star Wars theme. And you wonder why Carrie Fisher ended up in rehab.
Rembert Browne: Sheneneh has a special man these holidays. This man is played by Jackie Chan. His character's name on the show: Jackie Chan.
David Cho: In my first few months at Grantland, I've said some dumb things in front of my coworkers. For the most part, I don't disagree with the ribbing that followed my social missteps, but one of the few times where I thought the general Grantland consensus — in this instance led by Bill (Simmons) and (David) Jacoby — was way off base, was when I was forced to defend Friends while they were all disparaging it.
Their main argument against the show was that after Season Two, they took Joey and Chandler, the two most identifiable male characters (Ross was never really that easy to relate to, unless you had a wife who divorced you to become a lesbian, and then you subsequently procured a pet monkey that you proceeded to name Marcel, which, I guess if that's your life, whoa), started to become these weird, neutered male caricatures that were unlikable and unwatchable.
I don't necessarily disagree that this happened. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all of the characters — not just Joey and Chandler — started going left and became weirder versions of themselves around the third or fourth season (for a frame of reference, "We Are On a Break" was Season Three). The clip chosen for this installment of the YouTube HoF (taken from Season Six's holiday episode) is the perfect example of this. There's no way Season One, grounded in reality Ross and Monica, would ever have had a choreographed dance routine from their childhood prepped for the day when they would appear on the Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, but you know what? That's fine! The fact of the matter is, I don't want to watch a TV show about my actual friends. If they were as entertaining as the TV show Friends, I probably would be hanging out with my real friends instead of watching the show Friends.
There's also something to be said for the caliber of actors who were on the show. The main cast was completely stacked. There was no weak link. Honestly, even the guy who played Gunther, the manager of the coffee shop (Central Perk — hilarious), was entertaining in his role. Do you know who Friends' recurring characters were? Oh, I don't know, maybe a little guy by the name of Paul Rudd here, some nobody named Jon Favreau there? I mean, come on, could these cameos BE more starry and delightful?!
All of this isn't to say that Friends wasn't a flawed show. By the time they were at "will they or won't they" with Ross and Rachel for the fourth time, and Chandler and Monica were trying to figure out whether they should move to the suburbs, it got to be not so great. But by that point they were in their ninth and tenth season, and you know what's hard to make great for nine or ten years? Almost everything.
"Noël" (The West Wing)
Sarah Larimer: I have a group of college friends who live in Washington, D.C. Their favorite pastime is arguing. One of the few things they don’t bicker about is this: The best season of The West Wing is "The One When We Learn Josh Was Shot." And they are correct.
I was in high school when Josh got shot by a couple of white supremacists. The West Wing was my favorite show and Josh was my favorite character. So naturally, I took it pretty hard. But apparently, West Wing producers thought a two-part special featuring almost-dead Josh at the beginning of Season 2 was not enough. No, I needed PTSD Josh. And I needed him at Christmastime.
Here are the highlights of my favorite West Wing holiday-season episode, Noël. Josh is back at the White House, being governmental. Then Yo-Yo Ma shows up for some fancy Yo-Yo Ma concert, and Josh FREAKS OUT and there’s a shrink and a bandage and Leo McGarry gives some pep talk/reminds us he's an addict. Somehow, Toby makes things worse by hiring a bunch of carolers or bands or something.
Oh my god, why were you so dark, West Wing? Why was your Christmas episode so sad? Did you really need Yo-Yo Ma there? Not great, President Bartlet!
I called my friend Courtney on Tuesday night and asked her if I was a bad person for laughing at how absurdly dramatic this episode was. She pointed out that it was part of a proud tradition of depressing West Wing Christmas episodes. A year earlier, Toby gave his coat to a homeless man. Then the homeless man died.
Here is the summary of that episode, which I have copy-and-pasted from Wikipedia:
- "In Excelsis Deo" is the 10th episode of the first season of The West Wing. It originally aired on NBC December 15, 1999, as the show's Christmas special. Events circle around Toby getting involved in the fate of a deceased Korean War veteran, reactions to a severe hate crime, and the ongoing controversy surrounding Leo's pill abuse.
Happy Holidays, America!
The Office Christmas Special
Lane Brown: Tonight, NBC will air some Nard Dog-fueled yuletide stinker that, by episode's end, will probably make you want to shake your fist at the sky, cursing Ricky Gervais and the entire Office franchise. So for fuck's sake, watch the above episode — the original British Office's holiday-themed finale — and forgive him in advance.
Previously: YouTube Hall of Fame: The Worst Music Videos of All Time
The Deleted Scenes Hall of Fame
YouTube Hall of Fame: When Sitcoms Got Dark
YouTube Hall of Fame: Tom Hanks on Late Night, Pandas on a Slide, and Helen Hunt on Crank