The three television Christmas plotlines.

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Dec. 18 2009 7:07 AM

The Christmas Episode

There are only three yuletide plotlines on television.

The Office "Secret Santa" episode . Click image to expand.
The Office "Secret Santa" episode

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.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

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

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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.

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