Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ho Ho Homicide: Christmastime in TV Land

So this is Christmas. And for TV writers around the world (or, I guess, around Los Angeles), that means that they need to don their Santa hats, get in the Christmas spirit, and write the obligatory Christmas episode. Oh joy.

For most shows, the obligatory Christmas episode is just that: a perfunctory acknowledgment that there's snow on the ground and people are buying a bunch of crap for each other. Wikipedia lists hundreds of Christmas-themed episodes of popular TV shows. Naturally, just about every sitcom has at least one Christmas episode, and so do a number of kids' shows.

But the list of straight-up dramas that have produced one or maybe even multiple Christmas episodes is a bit more head-turning: not only did Dragnet and CSI: NY (but not any of the other CSIs) produce a number of Christmas episodes, but seminal cop show Homicide: Life on the Streets put out two Christmas-centric hours of television. At first blush, the marriage of the typically saccharine Christmas special and the gritty, nihilistic world of Homicide would seem to be awkward at best and downright disquieting at worst. Indeed, when Richard Belzer's John Munch picks up the phone at one point during the episode, he answers, "Ho ho homicide." Weird.

But while the idea of your favorite homicide detectives hunching over a dismembered corpse while Bing Crosby plays in the background is certainly enough to make you cringe, I like to think of the Christmas episode as throwing down a gauntlet for TV writers. Specifically, the holiday season challenges scribes to craft an episode acknowledges just about all of the varied reactions to the season, from "CHRISTXMAS IZ TEH GR8EST TIHNG IN TEH WORLD LOVEZZZ JEZUSSSS" to "Christmas makes me want to quit AA," without coming across as snarky, arch, clichéd, or out of sync with the tone of the series as a whole. So the question shouldn't be, "did [Christmas Episode A] work?" Rather, we should be asking, "can Christmas episodes work?"

Surprisingly enough, they can, and though Christmas episodes don't succeed often, it's magic when they do.

In fact, thinking back, some of my favorite episodes of my favorite shows are Christmas-themed. These episodes, like all great Christmas episodes, define the holiday in a way that's relevant to the show's characters and world while still maintaining enough holiday hallmarks (togetherness, giving, alcoholism) to not seem oblique or inaccessible. The infamous Star Wars Holiday Special fails spectacularly (but hilariously) because its version of Christmas is irrelevant to both its own world and the world of its viewers. The great Christmas episodes, on the other hand, number among their respective shows' finest hours and, indeed, the larger body of Christmas-themed television (i.e., the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

Take "Noël," an episode from The West Wing's second season, widely considered one of the greatest seasons in the history of television. That season included not only the riveting two-part "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" episode, but the giddily optimistic "Stackhouse Filibuster" and "Two Cathedrals," my personal favorite episode of television, period. So "Noël" certainly has some stiff competition. But through the efforts of writer Aaron Sorkin and director Tommy Schlamme, "Noël" emerges as one of the best episodes of the season and one of the finest works in all of Christmas-centric television. The Citizen Kane-esque flashback structure has become a common trope in modern television, but its rarely used to such startling and evocative effect as in "Noël."

The episode follows White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman's (Bradley Whitford, who won an Emmy for his performance in this episode) conversation with a psychotherapist from the fictional American Trauma Victims Association, who is summoned by Chief of Staff Leo McGarry when Josh nearly loses it in the Oval Office. The therapist forces Josh to remember the shooting that nearly took his life in "Two Gunmen," which Josh realizes is still a serious source of anxiety for him. The sequence where Josh realizes this, as Schlamme cuts between the conversation with the psychotherapist and shots of Josh trying to suppress the memory of how he ended up with a large gash on his hand, is one of the best in the series' history.

And the thing that triggered Josh's post traumatic episode in the first place? The sound of the brass quintet in the White House lobby, which reminds him of the sirens from the day of the shooting. "Noël," with its masterful utilization of the Christmas season to move the plot and develop the show's characters, is practically a college course in how to write a perfect holiday episode.

Other highlights spring to mind upon further reflection: Seinfeld's Festivus episode (which is both snarky and arch, but gets away with it because it's Seinfeld), just about all of The Simpsons' Christmas episodes, and, my personal favorite, The O.C.'s holy combination of Christmas and Hanukkah known as Chrismukkah, an inter-sectarian extravaganza fortified by the power of Jesus and Moses. This year brought three more additions to the canon of great Christmas episodes, with stellar holiday contributions from The Office, 30 Rock, and Community, with Community's episode, inspired by the abovementioned Rankin/Bass holiday specials, earning itself a spot among the classics.

In the end, a good writer can view Christmas not as an obligation to write a falsely cheerful lump of televised coal, but as an opportunity to hold a mirror up to his audience's understanding of a fraught holiday. It goes without saying that the holidays are a tough time for many, and the best Christmas episodes don't shy away from the dark side of the most wonderful time of the year. But in the oft-shot words of David Foster Wallace, the best Christmas TV can perform that fundamental goal that all the best fiction strives for: it can make us feel less alone. And that's surely a blessing during the holidays.