Television is, in a sense, a highly traditional medium. Every show, from the most standard sitcom to the drama-of-the-moment on HBO, seems obligated to air certain big-ticket events in the lives of its characters: the wedding, the birthday or birth of a child, the drug intervention. And then, of course, there's Christmas, which takes over the airwaves as comprehensively as it does malls, office lobbies, and public service announcements.
The networks' adherence to tradition also carries over to the very plots of these yuletide specials. In a true Christmas episode—one that centers around the holidays, as opposed to an installment that just happens to take place around the winter solstice—something threatens to wreck the celebrations before the inevitable happy ending. That menacing force, furthermore, always seems to fit one of three boilerplates.
Gift woes threaten to ruin Christmas
Despite many homespun sayings to the contrary, Christmas is very much about presents, and a holiday season without gifts doesn't really feel like a holiday at all. In a 1971 episode of All in the Family, Archie Bunker doesn't get his usual Christmas bonus—punishment for shipping a package to London, England, instead of London, Ontario—and he can't spring for a nice coat for Edith or a new TV for himself. Homer faces the same struggle in the first episode of The Simpsons: After Mr. Burns callously announces that there will be no holiday bonuses for the power plant employees (and the family has to spend the little spare cash it has paying for Bart to have a tattoo removed), the master of D'oh tries to make up the difference by playing mall Santa. Alas, the gig nets him a mere $16, which he tries to turn into more money by betting on a scrawny dog named Santa's Little Helper at the greyhound track. But hark! As Bart says, "If TV has taught me anything, it's that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas." The losing greyhound, Santa's Little Helper, becomes a part of the Simpson family—and the best Christmas gift of all.
Not all working-class patriarchs are as innocent as Archie and Homer in their gifting straits. In Married … With Children, Al Bundy tries to avoid shelling out for presents by instituting a predictably cruel rule: If his wife and kids have been naughty, they don't get any presents whatsoever. But one year, after realizing that his family has behaved themselves rather well, he spends the episode scrambling to fulfill his gifting obligations.
Work threatens to ruin Christmas
To afford all of those Christmas presents, we have to work. But jobs also jeopardize the holiday spirit, whether it's a stressful office party or a last-minute assignment. 30 Rock, my favorite workplace comedy,has played it both ways: In Season 2's epic "Ludachristmas" episode, Kenneth feels repulsed by his co-workers' plans to celebrate the birth of Christ by drunkenly eating Christmas meats off a hacking, phlegmy stripper. So he locks them in a room with a fire-and-brimstone reverend who, after several shenanigans, teaches them the real meaning of Christmas. The next season, Jack Donaghy forces the TGS crew to put on a Christmas Eve special, ruining everyone's plans. It could have been worse: In a classic episode from 1970, Mary Tyler Moore takes pity on a co-worker who hasn't spent the holiday with his family for many years, and she ends up working both Christmas Eve and Day. Sometimes, the Christmas spirit haunts us.
The writing team behind The Office regularly delves into the awkwardness inherent in workplace parties: the battle to keep things loose when HR forbids alcohol; the person who turns the innocuous holiday gift exchange into a competitive activity; the party-planning micromanager who wants every last detail to be perfect. But Arrested Development's second season best captures the stress of networking while intoxicated. The tyrannical Gob, temporarily president of the Bluth Co., steals booze from his mother's liquor cabinet, threatens to perpetrate bodily harm on any employee who hits on his sister, and gets the party started by growling "Everybody dance now." For good measure, he wraps things up by firing everyone. But even Arrested Development has a happy ending: Gob gets hoisted into the air in a banana suit, and everyone gets their jobs back. It's a Christmas miracle.
Absent holiday spirit threatens to ruin Christmas
It's hands-down the most popular holiday story line: Beloved TV characters enter the Yuletide season with dread in their hearts and a moan on their lips. But if a little holiday magic can make Ebenezer Scrooge embrace the Christmas spirit, it can do the same for just about anyone—even the undead. In the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the evil-turned-good-turned-evil-and-back-to-good Angel struggles to come to terms with his bloodsucking past on Christmas Eve. A freak Christmas-morning snowfall in Southern California keeps Angel from committing suicide via exposure to sunlight.
Missing holiday spirit can also appear as a crisis of faith —or, as the case may be, interfaith.After all, though Christmas can be celebrated secularly, its roots are religious—and for Christian TV characters, losing faith can dampen the holiday. This year, 30 Rock's Kenneth, the most devout TV character since Touched by an Angel last graced the airwaves, grappled with whether religion comes from God or man. Those of us from less-than-coherent spiritual backgrounds, meanwhile, must make peace with our religions, or lack thereof. In Friends, Ross, concerned that his son is ignoring his Jewish roots, tries mightily to make the little boy just as excited for Hanukkah as for Christmas.
Longing for what was can rob us of enthusiasm, too. In Futurama, that underrated animated gem, Fry time-travels from the dawn of the 21st century to the dawn of the 31st and learns that Santa has become a robot—an evil one: "Due to a programming error, Santa's standards were set too high, and he invariably judges everyone to be naughty. If he catches you after dark, he'll chop off your head and stuff your neck with toys from his sack of horrors." If learning that Santa doesn't exist can dampen a little kid's Christmas enchantment, finding out that the jolliest man of all has turned into an evil executioner has got to sting.
In my research for this article, I was able to find just two episodes that cleanly deviated from these three story lines. One was Seinfeld's famous Festivus episode. An invention of George's father, the holiday celebrates nothing; instead, its traditions include the "Airing of Grievances" around the dinner table and a wrestling match between the head of household and an opponent of his choice. That may seem like an "absence of holiday spirit" episode—but in keeping with the show's worldview, there's no magical happy ending. The other novel episode was a 1956 installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents about a murderous husband.
But TV land's strict adherence to the three standard plots isn't necessarily a bad thing. The holidays are about tradition, after all.
Have a favorite holiday episode, or know of one that doesn't fit the three story lines I outlined above? Let us know on the Slate Facebook page.