10: The O.C., “The Chrismukk-huh?”
Technically, there should be a ranking of all the Chrismukkah episodes, since there’s one for every season. (Remember the yarmulklaus?) Lots of Christmas episodes try to do their own version of more popular Christmas stories. This one is an obvious nod to It’s A Wonderful Life, wherein Ryan Atwood discovers what Newport would have been like had he never arrived there, mixed with a Groundhog Day plot. Ryan and Taylor, the only two characters aware they’re trapped in an alternate universe, figure they have to “set things right” before they can get back to the “real world.” Taylor figures it out immediately, having “went through a sci-fi phase in the tenth grade.” Season 4 is noticeably weirder than the other seasons, mostly due to the prominence of Taylor’s character — Taylor’s neuroses are more interesting and unpredictable than Marissa’s ever were. The primary tension between Marissa and Ryan was that she was constantly slipping out of his hands; the primary tension between Ryan and Taylor is her refusal to abandon him and his inability to deal with it. This still bears out in the Christmas episode.
9: The X-Files, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”
As implied by the title, this is a ghost story. It’s not a very scary one compared to other X-Files episodes, and most of the episode feels like a well-crafted forgery — Mulder and Scully spend way too much time talking about who they are rather than being who they are. It also resolves far too tidily for an episode that is incredibly blatant about the romantic tension between our heroes. But Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner save the episode, mostly by playing the ghosts as tired carnival barkers who just want to get some punters in the seats. And the “pop psychology crap” that Asner complains of does grant insight into the characters: if nothing else, we learn how overwhelmingly lonely Mulder’s holidays are, and how desperate he is to be with Scully on Christmas Eve.
8: The Boondocks, “A Huey Freeman Christmas”
This is an obvious take on the best-beloved Charlie Brown special, in which Huey is tasked with producing the school Christmas play only to discover that none of his classmates actually want to do any work. But instead of floucing out, he fires everybody and hires Quincy Jones as a creative consultant to help him make “The Adventures of Black Jesus.” It’s a pretty great fable about insisting on complete creative control.
7: Invader Zim, “The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever”
I debated whether this was a Christmas episode or a Christmas special, but I love it so much that I had to include it. Also, it was the last episode to make it through production, so technically it was operating by episodic standards. But really, you have to include any Christmas episodes that starts two million years in the future and explains why one ruined Christmas resulted in the Earth encapsulating itself inside a giant dome to protect it from Lovecraftian creatures from the furthest reaches of space.
Also, there’s this song:
6: Gilmore Girls, “Forgiveness and Stuff”
Sometimes you spend Christmas in the emergency room. Sometimes you spend Christmas in the emergency room with people you love. Sometimes those people you love are also self-righteous, abusive, petty assholes whose moral outrage at — and ongoing punishment for — a single mistake you made years ago says more about them than it does about you.
5: Batman: The Animated Series, “Christmas with the Joker”
This one hits all the right Christmas episode notes, while still adhering to its action plot. It’s also notable for giving us a Mark Hamill rendition of “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells.” In it, the Joker escapes from Arkham and takes the Gordon family hostage live on television, in his own very special Christmas special. He wears an ugly Christmas sweater in signature Joker colours. It’s divine.
4: Veronica Mars, “An Echolls Family Christmas”
This episode really nails how fucked-up Christmas in SoCal can actually feel. It’s still bright and sunny and warm, but every surface is covered in fake snow. That contradiction, and the way it neatly epitomizes the inherent falsehoods of Hollywood life, play heavily in an episode that deals (as all episodes of this series do) with deceit and false impressions. It helps that the mystery is well-plotted and noticeably lacking in Veronica’s trademark voiceover — we learn who stole the poker pot just as the players do. (Here it’s an echo of The Thin Man, which also happens to be a Christmas story.) But meanwhile, Veronica finds time to learn more about the conspiracies surrounding Lilly’s death, and build tension with Logan.
3: Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”
“It’s the first season of Lost on DVD… It’s a metaphor. It represents lack of payoff.”
2: Supernatural, “A Very Supernatural Christmas Episode”
This is my personal favourite Christmas episode of all time. I still watch it every year. The year after this episode first aired, I went over to Dave’s house to celebrate Christmas and we insisted on watching this together — much to the chagrin of everyone else in attendance. I fell asleep on the floor during the slower parts of the episode (the ones dealing with the actual monsters of the week). I have a vague memory of waking up just as Sam and Dean exchanged gifts. (“Oh, the good part,” I said, sleepily.) I wasn’t asked back, the next year. This year, Dave asked me to marry him.
Also, this happens:
1: The West Wing, “Noel”
This is the ne plus ultra of Christmas episodes. (The series’ other Christmas episode, “In Excelsis Deo,” is a great deal more ham-handed. It’s a blatant attempt to get us to love Mrs. Landingham before her demise. The West Wing is emotionally manipulative at the best of times, but killing off Mrs. Landingham after she’s just told the audience about losing her twin boys in Vietnam on Christmas Eve? That’s the stuff of Rock Hudson movies.) It’s a season 2 episode, and follows up the “shooting in Roslyn” plot from the season 1 finale and season 2 premiere. In it, Josh Lyman has yet to process his experience of having been shot and almost bleeding out, and is now suffering PTSD. It’s to the episode’s credit that it never exploits the PTSD for humour (like Taxi or The A-Team) or categorizes it as something only military personnel have. It also highlights that PTSD has nothing to do with a person’s nature and everything to do with their experience. Josh, while kind of an asshole who can’t spot his own problems or deal with them without prompting, is an overachiever in the Sorkin mould who otherwise has his shit together. And it’s one of the few West Wing episodes that is told primarily in flashback, as the episode cuts from Josh’s session with the ATVA psychologists to his (unreliable) narration of the past three weeks (which correspond roughly to the season of Advent, for those of you playing along at home).
Which is how we get this moment:
Q: Why didn’t you mention Buffy?
A: Here’s why: “Amends” is a surprisingly lacklustre third-season episode gets minor points for a) taking on the issue of suicide right during a time of year when suicides spike in number, and b) introducing The First Evil, the primary antagonist of the final season. But otherwise, it’s just not that great. The plot hinges on whether Angel will kill himself, and ends in Buffy and Angel screaming at each other about whether he’s redeemable or not. After a season of awkward silences and pained glances, it feels dramatic. But with some perspective, you realize it’s a 200-year-old man making a 17-year-old girl responsible for his life choices.
Q: This list is super white.
A: It’s true. This list is currently in talks with Crest to patent its whitening process. Also, I have never caught a Christmas episode of The Game. I’m sure there is one, somewhere, but I’ve never seen it. (But seriously, have you watched that show?)