As Christmas draws ever near, so too does the prospect of our favourite shows releasing their Christmas specials. We take a look back on the top five festive special episodes over the years. Starting with…
Spin City – ‘Miracle Near 34th Street’ (1997)
Spin City is a show that doesn’t nearly get enough love on all those best TV comedies of all time lists – but it should. Maybe it’s because while Spin City was a popular, very well-respected show with audiences and critics, it was ultimately dwarfed by the heavy-hitters Friends, Seinfeld and Home Improvement. Still, Spin City was enough of a hit to stay on the air for many years (although I choose not to acknowledge the Charlie Sheen years. To me they DON’T exist. Sorry.)
For some reason, season one never featured a proper Christmas show. Perhaps it was because Mike (Michael J. Fox) and his on-screen girlfriend, Ashley (Carla Gugino), were given major story lines to play out during that period. By season two, Ashley had long left the series so the time had come for a full on holiday episode and what a great episode it was.
It’s Christmas time inside the mayor’s office of New York City Hall and the gang are decorating the tree and hosting the winner of the kids spelling bee championship to come visit with Santa. This goes bad immediately when Mayor Winston (Barry Bostwick) inadvertently informs the young tyke that Santa isn’t real during a press conference. Time for the mayor’s staff to do what they do best – damage control as Mike, Carter and Paul (dressed as Santa), decide to pay a visit to the boy’s house to prove Santa is real. Of course, Paul gets stuck in the chimney while a bunch of Santas are fighting in city hall which leads to one of them getting hauled away lifeless on a stretcher before the episode ends. A lot happens in this episode and its various plot lines and dark humour is the closest thing to a Seinfeld episode Spin City has ever done.
The Simpsons – ‘The Fight Before Christmas’ (2010)
While everybody loves Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, the episode that started it all 29 (!) years ago, there were a lot of other great Christmas episodes of The Simpsons – 13 in fact (so far). A standout was season 22’s The Fight Before Christmas (written by Homer voice actor Dan Castellaneta and his wife, Deb) which takes the anthology aspect of the show’s classic Treehouse of Horror episodes and places it in a holiday one.
The four mini-episodes are all pretty good starting with the first one where Bart vows to kill Santa (portrayed here by Krusty the Clown) after he didn’t get the dirt bike he wanted. Story two takes on Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as Lisa envisions Marge as a soldier during WWII, and brings home a tree to decorate in Marge’s honour while Marge is busy assassinating Hitler. Story three has Marge enlisting Martha Stewart to come by to decorate the Simpson home for the holidays, and story four takes a cue from The Muppets as Simpsons characters enter a live-action world/show/musical which just happens to star Katy Perry wearing a red, skin-tight latex Simpsons dress. When Perry grants Moe a kiss at the end of the show, he can unfortunately only reach up to her stomach. Oh, that Moe. Even at Christmas he still gets the shaft.
NewsRadio – ‘Xmas Story’ (1995)
Along with Spin City, NewsRadio was the other great workplace comedy of the 90s, but unlike Spin City this series did a holiday episode their first year and it is one of the most memorable of the decade. When the gang at WNYX are presented with thoughtless, cheap knock-off hats as gifts from their boss Jimmy James (Stephen Root, a blast to watch as always), Dave (Dave Foley) takes it upon himself to let Jimmy know that the crew isn’t happy. Jimmy makes it up to them by gifting them each with brand new Mazda Miati’s – everyone except Matthew that is who gets handed a box of tapes of an old-time comedy radio show called ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’. It’s hard for the team at WNYX to enjoy their new expensive cars while Matthew sits by himself listening to his tapes in a near catatonic state. Ultimately, Jimmy informs Matthew that he wasn’t just given tapes to the show – he was actually given the rights to the show which could be worth millions.
This episode showcases one of NewsRadio’s running narratives which exhibits itself every now and again and it is that Jimmy does genuinely care about his workers whom he considers family and that everybody who works in the WNYX building looks out for each other. Except for the lobby Santa who spends the episode telling Bill (Phil Hartman) that he’s going to kill him. Wait, what?
The Sopranos – ‘To Save Us All from Satan’s Power’ (2001)
Easily one of the more enjoyable (and funnier) Sopranos episodes made during its entire run. It’s Christmas time for the Jersey crew and while Carmela (Edie Falco) is burning herself at every end of the candle to get everything ready, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is living it up with the fellas at The Bing while occasionally being reminded of past Christmases with his departed best friend Big Pussy, killed by Tony and the gang a year earlier. The memories of Pussy haunt the minds of Tony and his gang, especially when they realise he was the one who played Santa for the neighbourhood kids every year. Stuck for a Santa, they enlist Bobby to fill in – much to his detriment. Bobby is not much good at being jolly to the block kids and when he tells one kid in particular he’s going on the naughty list, the young fella tells Bobby off in true Sopranos fashion.
Of course not all of it is jokes and laughs. Meadow is still not speaking to Tony after she blames him for what happened earlier in the season with Noah, and now that she is moving on by dating Jackie Aprile Jr., Tony catches Jr. engaging in some holiday cheer with a stripper which results in a bathroom beat down Jackie will not soon forget.
With Tony feeling disrespected by Jackie, Meadow, and Carm, and Pussy’s absence weighing heavily on his conscience, while he also wonders what Pussy might have told the FBI, this is one holiday that Tony will be glad to just get through alive.
Sports Night – ‘The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee’ (1998)
The first holiday episode of Aaron Sorkin’s comedy/drama is one of the most perfect holiday shows ever – full of humour and heart. It was rare to see both qualities in a sitcom at the time, considering Seinfeld had left the air just seven months earlier. While that show was absolutely great at making audiences laugh, Sports Night was great at making audiences feel.
Young Roland Shepherd, a black student/athlete at Tennessee State University, has refused to participate in any more college games while the Confederate flag is displayed. Because of this, he is facing college expulsion. Five other of Roland’s teammates decide to stand with him and are facing the same penalty. It then falls onto Sports Night’s managing-editor, Isaac Jafee, to address the matter in one of the series’ most poignant and powerful moments. As for Sports Night anchor Casey McCall, he is admonished by a staff dresser after he appears on The View where he takes credit for his sharp wardrobe. To make up for this oversight, Casey and Dan name the staff members who contribute to the creation of Sports Night on the air in the nights leading up to Christmas. What makes this moment all the more meaningful is that these are the names of the actual people behind the real Sports Night. It’s noteworthy whenever a television show manages to make the audience emotionally tear up even once. This supreme episode of Sports Night makes viewers do it twice.