Previously on the Cinematic Journal… I gave you some of my favourite seasonal features to match the twelve magical days of Christmas. Today, let us look at twelve Christmas specials from the TV world, instead.

Once again, I’ve whittled my list down to the dozen, though I must give some loving nods to ‘The Office (US): Christmas Party’ (Season 2, 2005) and ‘The Office (UK): Christmas Special 2’ (Season 3, 2003) episodes before anyone else, followed closely by ‘Family Guy: A Very Special Family Guy Freakin’ Christmas’ (Season 3, 2001) and ‘3rd Rock From the Sun: Jolly Old St Dick’ (Season 2, 1996), as four of the best comedy morsels to ever come out of television specifically for this time of the year.

While I’m here, I might as well wholeheartedly recommend ‘Black Mirror: White Christmas’ (2014), ‘Cheers: Christmas Cheers’ (Season 6, 1987), and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm: Mary, Joseph and Larry’ (Season 3, 2002), too, as tasteful runner ups. But that’s enough cheating for now, let us get back to Twelve Days of Magical Television!


I. ‘The Andy Griffith Show: A Christmas Story’ (Season 1, 1960)

The Mayberry Sheriff’s Department is best known for the wholesomeness and generosity of its characters, and the winter festivities only serve to amplify the show’s overall sense of love toward our fellow humans. ‘The Andry Griffith Show’ is a staple of television, revered as much today as it was back in the Sixties. In ‘A Christmas Story’, Sheriff Andy has no choice but to imprison moonshiner Jim in the middle of the holidays, but he also goes out of his way to make sure everyone gets to celebrate Christmas Day—he finds excuses to imprison Jim’s wife and children with him, then temporarily deputises his own family to join in on the unusual festivities.

Maybe the era depicted in the show never existed. The level of kindness portrayed feels more like a pleasant dream, but it does manage to thaw even our 21st century hearts with its message of hope and love.


II. ‘The Twilight Zone: The Night of the Meek’ (Season 2, 1960)

Better remembered for its creepy or sci-fi-laden morality tales, ‘The Twilight Zone’ is a titan of television and a masterwork of screenwriting—well ahead of its time and always eager to leave viewers with a real chill tumbling down their spines. Yet for this Christmas special, Rod Serling abandoned the usual formula and tapped into the more palatable aspects of humanity. ‘The Night of the Meek’ follows a down-and-out department store Santa Claus named Henry, broken and turned to drinking as a means of coping with his problems. All he wants to do is to live up to his Santa Claus role, wishing for the meek to inherit the Earth.

Henry then finds himself in possession of a magical sack that automatically bestows gifts suited for each of its recipients. Even the police can’t stop this uncanny man from fulfilling his newfound mission. The story takes Henry all the way up to the North Pole as he becomes the real Saint Nicholas figure of old. For the first time, those familiar with ‘The Twilight Zone’ will appreciate its uplifting vibes, knowing that the show never made a habit of dealing in positivity.


III. ‘Moonlighting: ‘Twas the Episode Before Christmas’ (Season 2, 1985)

I’m not sure how many of you remember Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis as Maddie and David, but if you do, I salute you! ‘Moonlighting’ made its name through its avant-garde approach and playfulness with structure and form—a revolutionary of the Eighties, one might say, crisscrossing through genres almost shamelessly as it built its own unmistakable style. But it was its first Christmas-themed episode that left me smiling, a superb mixture of warm holiday sprinkles and reflexive wit topped by a dark spin on a classic tale.

A man named Joseph is killed by the criminals he testified against, and his wife Mary (see where it’s going?) abandons her baby in Agnes’ apartment. Maddie and David have no choice but to get involved, and their journey stumbles upon several eyebrow-raising characters such as three Kings. Leave it to David to point out the obvious: ‘We’re in an allegory!’. The rapid-firing banter does slow down for this episode, as even a show like ‘Moonlighting’ takes a breath to enjoy Christmas.


IV. ‘Tales from the Crypt: And All Through the House’ (Season 1, 1989)

One of HBO’s earliest contributions to pop culture was the horror/comedy show ‘Tales from the Crypt’, which consistently threaded a remarkably thin line between utterly terrifying and hilariously brutal—said ethos oozing out of every single minute of its Christmas special, too. In ‘And All Through the House’, a woman murders her husband for the insurance money, only to find herself targeted by a serial killer wearing a Santa Claus suit.

The episode descends from dark humour into blood-curdling dread, jumping back and forth between the two extremes with surprising agility. For those among us who like more gore with our cranberry sauce, this particularly gooey serving of ‘Tales from the Crypt’ does not disappoint.


V. ‘The X-Files: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas’ (Season 6, 1998)

I am often fascinated by how some of the more prolific shows manage to cross into the realm of Ol’ Saint Nick so easily. In that sense, the story often proves that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, leaving room for its characters to explore themselves while also drawing us closer with a sense of seasonal familiarity. But Chris Carter’s ‘The X-Files’ managed to pull a wickedly good special by throwing ghosts into the mix—perhaps he took a page from Charles Dickens.

‘How the Ghosts Stole Christmas’ is the show’s best Christmas episode, standalone and bold in its treatment of spectres and the holiday season, as Scully and Mulder find themselves trapped in a labyrinthine and seemingly haunted house in Maryland. It’s not an easy ride, as they struggle to keep their heads clear while the world around them devolves into insanity, and they’re even turned against one another by the resident ghosts, but Scully and Mulder break through and bring this moody ship down for something great to watch whilst snuggled beneath a fluffy blanket.


VI. ‘Huff: Christmas Is Ruined’ (Season 1, 2005)

Before the dark dramedy trend really took off in this decade that is about to end, Showtime’s ‘Huff’ was a two-season marvel and elegant precursor that revolved around psychiatrist Craig Huffstodt, brilliantly portrayed by Hank Azaria, and every aspect of his defective life. The man’s complex psyche was the true star of the series, in my opinion, and Paget Brewster was a wonderful added bonus. But it’s the Christmas special that really stood out, thus sliding into this season’s viewing list, mainly because of Thania St. John’s ability to write the disparate elements of Huff’s otherwise scattered life back together.

‘Christmas Is Ruined’ has every variant of frustration possible—the terminally ill mother-in-law, the son’s girlfriend, and Russell, the addiction-addled friend. Thrown together into the same pan, they lead to especially difficult times for the protagonist, but a cheery visit from the Homeless Hungarian, a figment of Huff’s tested imagination, manages to inject a sliver of hope inside this yule log of almost-comical dysfunction.


VII. ‘The Boondocks: A Huey Freeman Christmas’ (Season 1, 2005)

Initially, I was tempted to have the ‘Family Guy’ episode up here, but upon revisiting both, I felt as though Huey’s take on the holidays made more sense in wrapping up a year like this. Hijacking the school play and shifting its traditional tones into ‘The Adventures of Black Jesus’—co-produced by Quincy Jones and featuring the thespian skills of Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett, Huey Freeman delivers one hell of a Christmas show, and then some.

This festive bonanza doesn’t run short of clever references to ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (1965), either, and it stays true to the show’s overarching ruthlessness, gleefully stabbing white liberal guilt in the face. It’s funny, it’s brutally honest, and it’s one of the most memorable episodes of the entire animated series.


VIII. ‘Boston Legal: The Nutcrackers’ (Season 3, 2006)

No one writes television like David E. Kelley. The man is a giant of his craft, and he has earned his place among the stars. But there is one thing that the writer of ‘Big Little Lies’ (2017-2019) and ‘The Practice’ (1997-2004) loves more than penning legal dramas, and that’s Christmas specials. Out of this cheerfully specific portfolio, my heart will forever be set on ‘The Nutcrackers’ from ‘Boston Legal’, rife with its signature witty sass.

A brilliant example of the series’ rich and zigzagging range of themes and multifaceted social issues, the Season 3 Christmas special sees Alan and Shirley involved in a case where a mother fights for custody of her daughters, both singers in a white supremacist pop band. Meanwhile, William Shatner’s unforgettable Denny Crane assists another mother as she struggles to keep custody of her anorexic daughter, and Brad and Denise work with a client who wants to sue God the almighty himself for killing her husband via a lightning strike. As expected, the entire episode packs a hefty punch and a plethora of mind-boggling moments.


IX. ‘Supernatural: A Very Supernatural Christmas’ (Season 3, 2007)

If there is one cult darling I will never get tired of revisiting, it’s Eric Kripke’s ‘Supernatural’ (2005-2020). It has been like a close friend for fifteen years and bidding the boys farewell took more tears than expected during the series finale. However, their special episodes have always been particularly fun, especially ‘A Very Supernatural Christmas’ which finds Sam and Dean investigating what appears to be some kind of Krampus monster killing innocent people.

The dark fantasy thread of the Winchesters’ investigation is lovingly weaved together with flashbacks of their own troubled childhood, spent mostly on the road and in cheap motels while their father went out hunting terrible creatures—among them the demon that killed their mother. It’s one of those rare instances where the show’s otherwise gruff and resilient heroes give us a glimpse of their younger, more fragile selves. Best served with a cup of marshmallows smothered in hot chocolate.


X. ‘Modern Family: Undeck the Halls’ (Season 1, 2009)

Redefining comedy for television, ‘Modern Family’ gathered Emmy awards and mountains of praise for its exquisitely dynamic pacing and heartfelt moments. The first Christmas with the Dunphys and the Pritchetts is sparkly and funny and absolutely brilliant despite its short format. It’s a hot mess, through and through, from a mysterious burn mark on the sofa that gets Christmas cancelled in the Dunphy household to Jay’s unsuccessful attempts to warm Gloria and Manny to his seasonal traditions and topping up with Cameron and Mitchell basically ruining the entire holiday for a mall Santa by complaining he’s ‘not jolly enough’… yes, it’s an absolutely delicious hot mess.

Each of these subplots is minutely designed for their characters with near-German precision and having Fred Willard Skype in as Phil’s dad is as wonderful as the first snow, building up to a splendid ensemble performance.


XI. ‘The Mentalist: Jolly Red Elf’ (Season 3, 2010)

There are plenty of procedural dramas and whodunit-style series to shamelessly binge on these days, but few are as well and as profoundly written as ‘The Mentalist’, one of Bruno Heller’s most successful forays in television altogether. The show follows Patrick Jane, former-psychic-turned-police-consultant who uses his exceptional skills as a mentalist to help the California Bureau of Investigation solve crimes while also looking to take down the serial killer known as Red John, who is responsible for the murder of Mr Jane’s wife and daughter.

‘Jolly Red Elf’ is not one of the best episodes, but it’s definitely a stellar Christmas special of its genre, as Jane and Lisbon’s team investigate the apparent suicide of a professional Santa while also wrestling with Agent LaRoche, who suspects Mr Jane of having been involved in the recent death of a cop killer and (unbeknownst to everyone but our chief protagonist) a Red John acolyte. The storyline carries itself gracefully over the finish line, bringing its own brand of Christmas ‘magic’ to the table.


XII. ‘Community: Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ (Season 2, 2010)

Dan Harmon’s comedic oeuvre ‘Community’ found its place in the halls of television masterpieces through its approach to a stunningly complex cast of characters—a band of misfits highlighted not only by the showrunner’s exquisite writing but also by the actors’ individual performances. Perhaps one of its most valuable components is Abed, the literal fourth wall between us and what was clearly never just a standard gang sitcom.

In ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’, the series gains a whole new dimension, as Abed finds himself viewing the world in stop-motion animation while becoming determined to rediscover the meaning of Christmas. As always, ‘Community’ pushes boundaries and throws in a powerful emotional note into this holiday special, remaining astonishingly self-aware throughout. That, my friends, is true greatness and no easy feat.


While this may be a difficult holiday for many of our readers, may great stories adorn the year to come and may we all step into the new decade with enough force and creativity to further shape the world of film and television. There is always room for more and better, with enough inspiration to go around for everyone. Let us be strong, keep calm and carry on.