While A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer bring the classic cheer, sometimes you want a holiday television that's a little less mainstream. From the raunchy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia to the heartbreak of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the thrills of Doctor Who, Jace Lacob rounds up the very best nontraditional Christmas episodes to watch this holiday season.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “A Very Sunny Christmas” (2009)
Last year’s gleefully raunchy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia direct-to-DVD special pushed the envelope of taste when it comes to Christmas specials. Ostensibly about the gang at Paddy’s Pub attempting to enact revenge on Frank (Danny DeVito) for giving himself the gifts that his kids Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) want, it’s really about each of them coming to terms with some highly unpleasant truths about their families’ Christmas traditions. Among the highlights: a sweaty naked Frank is “birthed” through a leather couch, a Claymation segment turns into a bloody massacre, and flashbacks involving Young Charlie (Charlie Day) and Young Mac (Rob McElhenney). Oh and elf genitalia, of course.
Community: “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (2010)
The recent Christmas episode of NBC’s comedy Community seemingly fulfills the Christmas TV classic equation. Stop-motion animation? Check. Quest to discover the true spirit of Christmas? Check. Memorable songs that are impossible to get out of your head? Check. Wizards and caves of frozen memories? Um, check? The special uses the tradition of stop-motion animation in a new context—it represents the last vestiges of childhood and tradition that Abed (Danny Pudi) is clinging to after learning that his estranged mother, who is just remarried with a new family, won’t be coming home to fulfill their yearly tradition of watching Rudolph together. What follows is a heartfelt and trippy voyage to the North Pole as Abed and his Greendale peers attempt to solve his psychological breakdown and learn about togetherness during the holidays, religious denominations aside. All this plus a scathing use of Lost as a metaphor for unfulfilled payoffs make “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” a modern classic in the making.
The Vicar of Dibley: “The Christmas Lunch Incident” (1996)
In the beloved BBC comedy The Vicar of Dibley’s first Christmas special, plucky female vicar Geraldine Granger (Dawn French) reluctantly accepts invitations to not one, but three Christmas lunches in an effort to placate her eccentric congregation and not hurt any of their feelings. After feasting on “meat and 16 veg” and balls of stuffing, Geraldine discovers that putting others above herself isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be… but that being alone on Christmas Day isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be either. Featuring what might be the best comedic use of Christmas Brussels sprouts, this outrageous episode’s plot escalates as Geraldine eats her way through the idyllic village of Dibley one awkward meal at a time. After all, what says Christmas more than obligations, gastrointestinal distress, and insane dining companions?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Amends” (1998)
Most Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans fondly remember this Christmas-themed episode as the point when both slayer Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and vampire Angel (David Boreanaz) move past their feelings of anger and betrayal and reignite their relationship after the latter’s resurrection. While the majority of the episode has Angel haunted by “ghosts” of victims past, it’s the final scene between Buffy and Angel that makes this the perfect nontraditional Christmas episode—it surprisingly begins to snow in Sunnydale, California, while the former couple grapples with their emotions. With the sun cloaked by the snowstorm, the two take their first walk together in daylight and Angel gets his second chance, making this a true Christmas miracle.
Seinfeld: “The Strike” (1997)
While this Seinfeld episode may have revolved around Michael Richards’ Kramer going back to New York’s famed H&H Bagels after a 12-year strike, what this episode is really remembered for is the introduction of the holiday Festivus. As explained by its creator Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller), the secular holiday consists of such activities as the Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength and while there is no tree, there is an aluminum pole. (“I find tinsel distracting,” says Frank.) The pared-down and head-scratching traditions of Festivus offer an alternative to the religious and commercial aspects of Christmas, even if George (Jason Alexander) used it as a means of getting out of giving his co-workers actual gifts (instead, he offers donations to The Human Fund, a made-up organization). What follows is hysterical, painful, weird, and strangely touching—a true Festivus for the rest of us.
Olive the Other Reindeer (1999)
You might be tempted to think that Olive the Other Reindeer is a rather traditional animated Christmas special, but this Drew Barrymore-led special is quirky and unique holiday fun. The story centers around a dog named Olive who thinks that she can save the holiday when she mishears a radio program about Blitzen being injured and a reference to “all of the other reindeer” (and mishears “all of” as her name). Featuring the voices of Barrymore, Jay Mohr, Joe Pantoliano, Peter MacNicol, Dan Castellaneta (as a villainous mailman, no less), Edward Asner, Billy West, and Tim Meadows and music by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, this is not your after-school Christmas special. Olive is a wacky and wonderful romp to the North Pole, filled with edgy animation, oddball characters like Joey Pants’ Martini, a con man penguin, a pet flea named Fido, and yes, Christmas cheer.
Doctor Who: “The Christmas Invasion” (2005)
There are very few Christmas specials that involve murderous Christmas trees, Santa-faced aliens, sword fights, and severed limbs. But this 2005 Doctor Who Christmas special—featuring the first full-episode appearance of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor—manages to cram all of this and more into an action-packed hour. Set just after the Doctor’s regeneration (in which Tennant took over the role from Christopher Eccleston), the special revolves around the invasion of Earth by the alien Sycorax armada as the Doctor’s body heals at his companion Rose Tyler’s (Billie Piper) home. With the Doctor out of commission, it’s up to Prime Minister Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton), Rose, and Mickey (Noel Clarke) to save the world. After what appears to be London snow turns out to be the ashy remains of the vanquished fleet, destroyed by the mysterious “Torchwood,” the Doctor engages in mortal combat on a floating spaceship high above London and loses his hand to a sword stroke. What more could you want from a Christmas special?
The Simpsons: “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” (1997)
While The Simpsons have aired quite a few Christmas-themed episodes in the 20-plus years they’ve been in existence, the very best of the bunch might just be this bleak 1997 gem, in which the family’s Christmas is nearly destroyed. The culprit? Bart Simpson, who—after accidentally burning down their Christmas tree and all of the family presents—hides the evidence in the snow and blames a burglar. Springfield bands together to give the family a proper holiday, raising $15,000, which Homer uses to buy a new car, which he then crashes into a frozen lake. The town then turns on them when the truth comes out during a TV interview. Residents storm the house, vengefully taking everything the family owns—except for a lone washcloth, which the family of five subsequently fight over. A scathing indictment of crass commercialism, this is The Simpsons at their very best... or worst, depending on how you look at it.
The O.C.: “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” (2003)
This episode from the first season of The O.C. is perfect for those looking for a nondenominational celebration this holiday season. Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) celebrated with his adoptive family for the first time and viewers were introduced to the term Chrismukkah—a blended holiday of both Christmas and Hanukkah celebrated by Jewish Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) and his non-Jewish wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan). The story goes something like this: Marissa (Mischa Barton) shoplifts, Seth (Adam Brody) is torn between Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Anna (Samaire Armstrong), Marissa drinks, Summer dresses up like Wonder Woman, and crazy Oliver (Taylor Handley) makes his first appearance. Oh... and then Marissa drinks some more. But throughout it all, Ryan learns the true meaning of the holidays and spends it with family. Chrismukkah miracles abound!
Extras: “The Extra Special Series Finale” (2007)
For those of you looking for a Christmas episode that’s both hilarious and heart-achingly depressing, look no further than Extras’ Christmas special, which also served as its series finale. Ricky Gervais’ Andy discovers success in the wake of his awful sitcom When the Whistle Blows, becoming the obnoxious celebrity he once despised. Andy quits the sitcom and attempts to move on to bigger and better things, firing his useless agent Darren (co-creator Stephen Merchant) and growing increasingly unaware that his best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) is suffering more than usual. While Andy goes on Celebrity Big Brother, Maggie is reduced to working as a cleaner after quitting a Clive Owen movie because she refused to be hit in the face with manure. As Maggie’s life turns to one of drudgery, Andy realizes the error of his ways and issues a scathing indictment of celebrity and fame. If that scene doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, your heart is two sizes too small. This final episode of Extras is the perfect Christmastime escape for those who prefer the bittersweet to the saccharine.
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.