Top Ten Modern Classic Christmas TV Specials

A column article, Top Ten by: Laura Akers, Paul Brian McCoy

Okay people. Step away from your Rankin/Bass and your Charlie Brown Christmas. Hell, step away from anything you've watched every year since you were in footie pajamas and went to the toilet wherever you happened to be sitting.

This year, direct from the Comics Bulletin Bunker (because I'm still pretty sure the world just ended, but I'm not stepping foot outside to check and become zombie food – my momma didn't raise any fools!), we have our picks for contemporary Christmas TV specials that deserve a place in your yearly rotation.

Some are fairly anti-social, but that's to be expected in this post-apocalyptic world.

But before all that, Charo!

Oh yeah. That's what I'm talking about.

And now, The List.

Father Ted – "A Christmassy Ted"

If you're not familiar with Father Ted, then you really need to rectify that as soon as possible. Premiering back in 1995 on Channel 4 in the UK, Father Ted was the brainchild of genius comedy writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, who went on to also work together on Big Train, Brass Eye, and Black Books. Linehan is also the creator/writer/director of The IT Crowd.

If you don't know what any of those are, then I can't help you anymore. They're only about half of the best UK Comedy produced over the last 20 years. They put just about everything on this side of the pond to shame.

Anyway, Father Ted follows the adventures of three very bad Catholic priests, shunted off to the horrible Craggy Island in Ireland. We have shallow, shady Father Ted Crilly (the late, great Dermot Morgan), dim-witted Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O'Hanlon), and the hilariously repulsive Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly), along with their housekeeper Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn).

Though set during Christmastime, "A Christmassy Ted" focuses mainly on Ted's winning of the Golden Cleric award for his quick thinking when he, Dougal, and a group of other priests (including a young Kevin McKidd) find themselves lost in Ireland's largest lingerie section and in a war film parody, Ted leads them all out the side exit and away from another scandal that the Church really didn't need at the time.

Add to this mix, a creepy priest named Father Todd Unctious, who claims to be an old mate of Ted's that nobody can remember, Mrs. Doyle's battle against obsolescence when a programmable automated tea-maker is introduced to the household, and Ted's unrestrained resentment and arrogance after winning the award, then you have an hour of holiday television that provides an extremely satisfying and hilarious way to kick off your Christmastime viewing.

-- Paul Brian McCoy

Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special

While watching the Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special one year, someone (who will go unnamed) stopped in the middle of the show and very seriously asked, "Is Pee Wee gay?" There was a short discussion that concluded that Pee Wee's probably asexual, but with a guest line-up that includes Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Little Richard, and Cher, I suppose it was a valid question.

The special focuses on Pee Wee's Christmas preparations, which are constantly interrupted by V.I.P.s (Very Important Persons) stopping by or calling to wish him a Merry Christmas; V.I.P.s like Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, Magic Johnson, Dinah Shore, Joan Rivers, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Oprah Winfrey and Whoopie Goldberg. That's all cute and entertaining, but my favorite parts of the show are the yuletide carols sung by k.d. lang, the Del Rubio triplets, Charo, and my favorite, Grace Jones.

And Pee Wee even finds a use for all of the fruitcakes he keeps receiving as Christmas presents: a group of muscular, shirtless construction workers show up to add a room onto the Playhouse.

Nah, Pee Wee's not gay, but this is certainly one of the gay-friendliest Christmas Specials I've ever laid eyes upon.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

-- Paul Brian McCoy

X-Files – "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas"

Buried in the middle of the season six of The X-Files (the worst season, IMO) is a holiday gift: “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas.” Despite being a very un-Christmas-y show, The X-Files had several holiday episodes which use the Yuletide season as a backdrop to a larger story. But “Ghosts” is something special: an episode that not only focuses on the holiday, but uses it to deal with a deeper issue on the show—the nature of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) relationship.

I don’t mean that in “’shipper” terms, although there is definitely an element of that. Rather, regardless of the type of emotional relationship between two people, there are still questions about the relationship itself: what do the two people bring to the relationship? what do they get out of it? what is the essential importance of each to the other? “Ghosts” takes these on in a funny, horrifying, and touching way.

It’s Christmas Eve and Mulder has called Scully out to an old haunted house, and away from her Christmas preparations. Still, while she insists she has no time to waste, she complains about the familial holiday demands and her general annoyance at the associated festivities: “If I heard ‘Silent Night’ one more time, I was going to start taking hostages.” Mulder, on the other hand, has nothing better to do on December 24 than go poking around in a house haunted by two lovers who long ago killed themselves in a suicide pact so they’d never have to spend a Christmas apart. As usual, Scully put aside her normal life to follow Mulder into his paranormal one.

The ghosts themselves (played with morbid glee by Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner) have plans of their own, as they worry about the possibility of dropping off the important ghost-hunting guides and work together to drive Mulder and Scully to follow their example in order to garner more visitors. They hope to do this by playing on the psychological insecurities of the agents, the constant fear that they are wasting their own or each other’s lives in their quest for “The Truth.” Mulder, wracked with guilt for the impact he’s had on his partner’s life, is the easier target: “You’re a lonely man, chasing para-masturbatory illusions that you believe will give your life meaning and significance,” while Tomlin cryptically suggests that Scully is hiding a “dirty little secret” that keeps her at her partner’s side.

The episode works because it plays on relationship themes that have been there from the beginning of the show: Mulder’s need not just to believe but to make others believe with him, Scully’s rationality stretched to the point where it become irrational, the basic incompatibility of outlook and lifestyles paired with a (by the sixth season) nearly pathological (and, as Tomlin’s Lida points out, co-dependent) need for the other in their life. Chris Carter, with a deadly humor, takes the agents and us to the outer limits of a relationship (“A murder-suicide is all about trust”) and home again, tying the whole thing up with a Christmas bow and reinforcing that it’s not the trappings of the holiday but those we love who make the season bright.

-- Laura Akers

Sealab 2021 – "Feast of Alvis"

He was the holiest man to ever slap iron, he loved liquor, and he killed for your sins. That's Alvis! And when Capt. Murphy (Harry Goz) decides the Sealab is going to go all out to celebrate the Feast of Alvis, things get a little out of hand. Before everything is said and done, fights break out, the buffet tests positive for fecal matter, family services show up, and Alvis himself miraculously appears!

Yeah, everything kind of turns to crap.

But in the immortal words of Alvis, "The true meaning of Alvistime is drinking. Drinking and revenge... Now drink with me deeply of the bourbon, scotch, and rye until such time as we are fighting drunk. Then we shall find, and beat the asses of, the nonbelievers who ruined my feast!"

-- Paul Brian McCoy

Aqua Teen Hunger Force – "Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future"

A swimming pool full of Elf Blood, a Great Red Ape, much defecation, and a special appearance by Glenn Danzig. That's what Christmas is like on Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

'Nuff said.

-- Paul Brian McCoy

Doctor Who – "The Next Doctor"

If one Doctor is good, it would be hard to believe that two would not be better. And while I have my issues with the Multiple Doctor specials from the first incarnation of Doctor Who, the 2008 Christmas special “The Next Doctor” absolutely delivers, reminding us so much of why we love the character and the actors who play him.

“The Next Doctor” was the first of the Doctor Who specials that David Tennant did after it was announced that his tenure as a Time Lord was coming to an end. Writer and creative force Russell Davies played on the audience’s knowledge of this, using the title of the special to suggest that the Doctor played by David Morrissey is Tennant’s replacement, and thus sets us up from the beginning on much the same journey that Tennant’s Doctor will take.

What makes Tennant’s version of the Doctor stand out in the series is the way he brings both a wide-eyed and infectious joy with him and a ruthlessness that is utterly chilling. When the Doctor arrives in mid-nineteenth-century London, he discovers it’s Christmas time, and the holiday mood hits him immediately. We float with him in a Dickensian (in the best possible way) fog for a moment before hearing a female voice screaming for the Doctor’s help. He runs to her aid only to find himself competing with another him, another Doctor, to save her and London. Tennant’s enjoyment of Christmas is nothing compared to his narcissistic glee at running into a future reincarnation of himself.

Morrissey’s Doctor is bigger and broader than Tennant’s, apparently plagued with none of his doubts or the loneliness that has become the recurring theme of the reboot. “I’m the Doctor. Simply the Doctor. The one, the only, and the best.” The two quickly join forces against invading Cybermen (and the wicked Mrs. Hartigan, played with relish by Dervla Kirwan) and Tennant’s doctor vacillates between his intense trademark curiosity (about his future self, in this case) and an awareness that he’s better off not knowing. But eventually cracks begin to appear in the next Doctor’s façade and we discover not a threat, but a soul equally as lost and in need as the Time Lord who has just left behind the love of his life.

And this is where “The Next Doctor” shines. Tennant and Morrissey bring their considerable acting skills to bear as each character slides from the enthusiastic and larger-than-life personas common among Doctors to very human men struggling with overpowering emotions and inevitable flaws. Clever moments aside (the next Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and TARDIS ensure wide grins), “The Next Doctor” is an abject lesson for Tennant’s Who: No matter how much easier it may seem to be alone, life does not stop because of loss. True heroism is not really about saving humanity (repeatedly) from Daleks and Cybermen. It comes from sacrifice and a willingness to soldier on no matter the personal cost—the very thing that the Doctor loves about the human race: that we pick ourselves up and continue, with faith and hope in our hearts.

-- Laura Akers

Doctor Who – "A Christmas Carol"

In the first Christmas Special starring Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, his faithful companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) are placed off to the side, allowing Smith to really cut loose in wild Doctorly abandon. The adventure, written by showrunner Steven Moffat is a variation on Dickens' classic tale, as the Doctor travels through time in an attempt to soften the heart of Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) who refuses to allow Amy and Rory's crashing ship land safely.

The plot hinges on the Doctor tinkering with the past of (younger) Kazran (Danny Horn) and helping him express his love of Abigail (Katherine Jenkins), a young woman Kazran has kept in his cryogenic storeroom as "security" for a loan.  Every Christmas Eve, the Doctor appears and takes the two of them on magical adventures before Abigail must return to her frozen sleep.

It's a beautiful little story with beautiful singing by opera superstar Jenkins, and Michael Gambon outdoes himself playing an alien version of Scrooge. The end is heartbreaking, but romantic and one of the few times I've ever really been moved by a holiday special. If Matt Smith hadn't already established himself as my favorite doctor (in a three-way tie with Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee) this would have been the one that did it.

Although I do have some high hopes for this year's Christmas Special, "The Snowmen", featuring the return of Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and Jenny (Catrin Stewart), along with a guest-appearance of one of my favorite sort-of Doctors, Richard E. Grant as the mysterious Doctor Simeon.

Here's a peek:

-- Paul Brian McCoy

Trailer Park Boys – "Dear Santa, Go Fuck Yourself"

Trailer Park Boys is a Canadian comedy series set the Sunnyvale Trailer Park in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, following the criminal (and foul-mouthed) adventures of Ricky (Robb Wells) and Julian (John Paul Tremblay), as well as their best friend Bubbles (Mike Smith). Every season saw them trying to get rich on one poorly-thought-out criminal enterprise after another, while also dealing with their nemeses Jim Lahey (John Dunsworth) and Randy (Patrick Roach). And every season ended with some, or all, of them back in prison.

Set before the regular series, The Trailer Park Boys Christmas Special, "Dear Santa, Go Fuck Yourself" serves as a glimpse at the secret origins of many of the shows established characters and their relationships. We get to see Lahey and Randy's first meeting (well, the first time they told each other their real names), the reasons behind Lahey's divorce, and what turned Jamie (Jonathan Torrens) and Tyrone (Tyrone Parsons) into J-Roc and T.

But the heart of the special focuses on Ricky's attempt to be a good dad, Julian's attempt to find some peace over the holiday, and Bubbles' need for a real family Christmas. Even though most of the show is in hilariously poor taste, the conclusion is extremely satisfying – and even heartwarming.

Plus, the overall message of the show is hard to argue against. Here's Ricky laying down some truth:

-- Paul Brian McCoy

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia – "A Very Sunny Christmas"

Continuing with our look at Christmastime criminals and reprobates, I present to you It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. This is the ongoing tale of brother and sister Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) Reynolds, their not-father Frank (Danny DeVito), and their friends Charlie (Charlie Day) and Mac (Rob McElhenney) as they work in their bar, Paddy's Pub, and go around being just generally awful people.

Awfully funny, that is!

No. They're pretty horrible people. And that's part of what makes this Christmas special so much fun. It's split into two main storylines. The first follows the misadventures of Charlie and Mac as they try to recapture some of that Christmas magic from their childhoods. Unfortunately, as they do so, they come to realize that those old holiday traditions weren't as innocent as they seemed. Mac's family's tradition of breaking into people's houses and stealing their Christmas presents isn't what all the families in the neighborhood did, and Charlie's mom's constant stream of gentlemanly callers weren't just spreading good cheer, if you know what I mean.

Meanwhile, Dennis and Dee decide to make Frank pay for his lifetime of Christmas abuse (he would buy their favorite things and keep them for himself to teach them a lesson about earning their way or something like that), by subjecting him to a real-life Christmas Carol, when they discover Frank's dead former business partner Eugene Hamilton (David Huddleston) isn't really dead. Needless to say, the born-again Christian Eugene isn't really into the whole punishing spirit of the gang's plan.

Or is he?

It all culminates with Frank in the hospital, a Rankin/Bass-style animated segment, an elf's penis, and everybody learning something. Sort of.

And singing! There's some singing, too.

-- Paul Brian McCoy

AD/BC: A Rock Opera

And we close out the list with a return to the UK with the star-studded Mock Rock Opera AD/BC. Well, star-studded if you've been a fan of UK comedy over the past fifteen years or so.

This 2004 BBC Three Christmas Special is written by Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade and features guest appearances from the Mighty Boosh's Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding and Rich Fulcher, Barratt's wife and certifiable evil genius, Julia Davis, with Matt Lucas along for the ride as God.

Oh! And Graham Linehan pops up here and there as one of the townspeople!

AD/BC was ostensibly produced in 1978 and tells the musical story of the nativity from the point of view of the Innkeeper (Berry), whose life and work are falling apart while rival Innkeeper Tony Iscariot (Barratt) is set to run him out of town if he doesn't pay his rent. But God isn't done with the Innkeeper yet and reveals a divine plan in the works. Meanwhile Joseph Christ (Ayoade) is on his way to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife and their donkey. But before they can arrive, the Innkeeper and his wife Ruth (Davis) split up, and things look worse than they were before.

It's a hilarious parody of Jesus Christ Superstar and/or Godspell, with suitably bad dubbing, shrieking falsettos, and classic dance numbers. Any fans of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace will feel right at home with the slapped-together, quasi-amateur style of this amazing piece of work. I will admit that this isn't for everyone, but I can't get enough of it! This is hands down my favorite Christmas Special of all time.

Here's the entire show! Enjoy!

-- Paul Brian McCoy

There you go!

Now go spend the next eight to nine hours slamming eggnog and experiencing some Comics Bulletin Holiday Culture! And to truly set the tone, here's a little Lovecraftian Christmas Carol: 

Or, if you're into something more traditional...

See you in the New Post-Apocalyptic Year!

Community Discussion