Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Third Row's Post-Seasonal Coma Christmas Special

Cause like I said before, it's been one of those seasons.

I'd had more planned for this Christmas on writeups. I really did. But, life loves to throw some pretty wild curve balls- namely working retail during the holiday season sucking the cheer right out of me.

Not wanting to leave you guys empty-handed, I present you with this somewhat belated article in turn.

In the week leading up to the holidays, my girlfriend had suggested doing an article on modern Christmas specials. This idea intrigued me, partially because a lot of the ones considered to be staples...well...let's face it, there really haven't been any recent ones that seem to have the same staying power as the classics. And they certainly don't have the same tone.

I got to thinking on some of the better more recent Christmas offerings (I set the start date from around 2000, to give a decent window.) It was around this time I noticed a particular trend in some of the standouts I was looking at. Specifically, two trends:

1) I have a pretty sick sense of humor if many of these are to be an indication.
2) This past decade or so has seen a pronounced uptake in, for lack of a better term, the Anti-Christmas Special. This isn't in the sense that these episodes are against Christmas itself, so let's have none of that "war on Christmas" talk. Instead, these are episodes that seem to serve as a giant middle finger to the more heart-felt archetype of the Christmas episode. Some of them do have some elements of heart to them, but they also come with either a good dose of cynicism or some incredibly macabre humor to off-set what would otherwise be the heartfelt schmaltz that's become so part and parcel with holiday episodes of this time of year.

So, as an offering for this year, I present a selection of titles that I feel both standout as holiday episodes, as well as a good selection of this new wave of holly jolly middle fingers to the Hallmark standard. This is neither a complete list, nor a gold standard. Just some I've found to be standouts, in no set order.

Futurama: "X-Mas Story"

OK, so I'm TECHNICALLY cheating on this one. The episode aired just a few days shy of the 2000 cut-off. Humor me.
This is also a good point to say one other bizarre trend I've noted our culture seems to have an odd love for - the idea of the murderous Santa Claus. Even before the Krampus comeback, there's something about seeing everyone's favorite toygiver turn bloodthirsty vigilante that's just struck a chord with us culturally. Of the various examples of it, this episode remains arguably one of the most entertaining - recasting the jolly fat man as a robot with an exceedingly high sense of naughty and nice and the voice of John Goodman. This is also one of the few episodes on this list I'd say also flirts a bit more with letting some heart into its story, given the whole theme of who you spend Christmas with, but in true Futurama fashion, it comes with its fair share of warped bits of humor (alongside murderous Santa, the other standout here is Bender leading several homeless robots on what essentially becomes a looting spree.) It also contains arguably one of my favorite seasonal threats in the line "I'm going to shove coal so far up your stocking you'll be coughing up diamonds!" but that's more of a minor point.

Sealab 2021: "Feast of Alvis"

Okay, we'll have a LITTLE discussion of the whole 'war on Christmas' concept here, simply because it's the central tenet behind this gleefully batshit insane holiday episode of Adam Reed's batshit insane early Adult Swim hit. It's kind of weird realizing this episode is now over 10 years old, because the jokes almost feel more relevant now than when the episode first aired. Amusingly, Reed completely dodged any sort of controversy in this thanks in part to the fact the various religions featured in the episode are all run through a filter. It's not a particularly comprehensive filter (it's VERY easy to figure out which group is which just based on the conversations about them) but it was apparently enough to keep anyone from raising much Hell at the time. Even further impressive given the show's Jesus-proxy, the above mentioned Alvis, was recast as a figure from America's pioneer era with a love for three things: firearms, drinking, and vengeance. It's the zeal of Captain Murphy (voiced by the immortal Harry Goz) for Alvis and his whiskey-fueled love that causes him to alienate many of the other crew as they try to explain to him why others may not share his enthusiasm. Murphy is...well...let's just say he handles it in a fashion that anyone familiar with the series would expect. At all of 10 minutes, it's still a surprisingly hilarious shot in the arm towards the idea that all the different faiths should lock horns at this time of year for supremacy.

The Venture Bros: "A Very Venture Christmas"

One of the more open salvos towards the classic Christmas episode, this is another case of concentrated insanity. The episode starts with a cold open of Venture patriarch and failure extraordinaire Rusty Venture (James Urbaniak) in a dream that plays out like a giant list of Christmas special references from Charles Dickens to Charlie Brown. A dream he wakes up from commenting "What a nightmare. I dreamed I turned into a complete ****." That intro on its own sets the tone for the next 10 minutes, in which Hank and Dean's desperate attempts to achieve the more traditional Christmas backfire stupendously, leading them to summon up the Krampus from Christmas lore (introducing many to it a good 10 years before the more recent comeback.) The episode itself ends in a delightfully sick book-end to its opener, but that's all I'll say to keep the surprise. Again, it's only 10 minutes, but it feels a suitable length for the story they want to tell here.

American Dad: -"The Best Christmas Story Never Told" -"The Most Adequate Christmas Ever" -"Rapture's Delight"
-"For Whom the Sleigh Bell Tolls" -"Season's Beatings" -"Minstrel Krampus"
Okay, I'm just gonna leave this as all of them, because over the course of the series, Christmas episodes have been one of their constant successes. This is partially thanks to the fact the show's writers have seen these as great opportunities for extra flexing of their creativity. Over the years, the Christmas episodes have covered everything from a time travel storyline with the stakes being Soviet takeover (it's the kind of thing that has to be seen in its full episode to really appreciate it), to a bloody gun battle with Santa Claus, to their most famous Christmas episode, where a yuletide case of the Rapture plunges the festivities into a post-Apocalyptic Hell with one of the single most unique depictions of the Antichrist ever put to film. The sheer variety is arguably one of this show's strongest points where its Christmas episodes are concerned. The fact they are singularly strong episodes on their own is a feat in itself, but the fact they each show a surprising variety makes them even better. This seems a surprisingly sparse entry for a tradition the show has now run for six seasons, but that's because if I gave them all a direct focus, it would be an article in and of itself. They have made it a goal to see that no holiday cliche is left unscathed, and so far have done a very thorough job in keeping to it, even with the most recent being delayed a year (though WELL worth the wait.)

The Boondocks: "A Huey Freeman Christmas"

Leave it to The Boondocks to be one of the only Christmas specials to really touch on the origins of much of the holiday. I'm not just talking about the scene where Huey explains Saturnalia either, though I give them points for addressing that as well. When given the task of presenting his version of the Christmas story, Huey, true to his nature, sets to work cutting through much of the traditional seasonal whitewash of Jesus (Editor's note: But I thought Megyn Kelly said……) Well, there are some elements that are fictionalized (the ninjas come to mind) but the fact is, the parts we see the particular focus paid to here are the big factor the show is getting at. Yes, there's some humor played with the fact Huey takes a school production and turns it into a high-budget epic, but at its core, his goal is a fairly noble one - stripping away much of the trappings the holiday has been effected by. Also, in a rare quasi-miracle, this episode marks quite possibly one of the only times we see Uncle Ruckus doing something fairly decent ( decent as Ruckus goes, anyway.)

Moral Orel: "The Best Christmas Ever"

I'll say this much right now - I've actually considered doing an entire writeup about this show before. It's something that may happen at some point, to be perfectly honest. When comedy writer Dino Stamotopolous first debuted his claymation series, about a precocious young boy in a town that was very much a caricature of hyper-moral Christianity, no one was quite sure what to expect-Especially since this episode was everyone's first taste of a series that, as it went on, would become one of the most uncomfortably dark stories put to animation in recent memory. This episode (actually the final episode of the first season, but aired in advance because Christmas) was no exception - balancing Orel's desire for the titular Best Christmas Ever with a rift growing between his parents, fueled by questions of the parentage of his younger brother. The final shot of the episode - in which Orel has been informed that his parents are getting divorced, but he still looks to the skies, hoping for that best Christmas proclaiming "I have faith in you" is a surprisingly well set-up, and incredibly depressing shot to end the episode on. But then again, that feeling sums up a LOT of the series. On its own, this really is one of the single most definitive Anti-Christmas specials out there. The same could also be said for the show's final episode, though that at least ended on enough of an upswing to be considered bittersweet rather than just completely depressing.

Community: -"Comparative Religion" -"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" -"Regional Holiday Music"
Like American Dad, this has been a series where each new season has a standout in terms of seasonal episodes. To be honest, I almost made this writeup on just the second season episode, Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas, but the first and third season Christmas specials are also strong standouts. The surprising part of this is how, of the examples listed here, alongside Futurama, these are the others that have managed to maintain a heart along with the cynical elements they bring to the table. Between the first season's addressing of different views of the holiday (a bit less 'guns blazing' than Feast of Alvis, but still fairly solid), to the second season's rather direct parody and later inversion of the old stop-motion Christmas specials, to the third's dual middle fingers at Glee, the entire notion of the over-the-top cheerful holiday special, and the different styles of Christmas music, the show has found no shortage of material to rib on in the season. Even tonally, they've shown some good variety, ranging from the third's considerably more joking tone, to the second season's actually surprisingly dark (if still touching) storyline (which, not surprisingly, was also written by MO creator Stamotopolous.) At its best, Community has always had a knack for balancing the humor with just enough heart to keep up the investment, and their holiday episodes have remained some of the better examples over the show's run of this (as well as one of the consistent marks for when a season gets past its rocky starting episodes.) After the much-contested fourth season, it will be curious to see if the fifth can regain the old steam or not.

Again, this is not a complete or comprehensive list. These were just some of the standout examples I had come to mind when looking at the image of the more modern Christmas episode.
Whether any of them will stand the test of time as well...who can say? For my part though, I still enjoy firing up some of these around this time of year.

With that, I raise a glass of strong egg nog and say unto you all:
Alvis bless us, everyone.
...except for the Krebs.

Also, since I forgot to mention in the last post, the deadline for suggestions/votes on this year's pain movie will be January 7th. Gives a good window to work with.

Till next time!

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