It’s that most wonderful time of the year when we all sit down to watch the television Christmas specials we know and love. Our Headstuff writers discuss their favourite classic specials along with some curveballs to add a twist to the festive cheer.
Community – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (2010)
Community was never your average sitcom. From clip show episodes based on events the viewer had never seen before to paintball wars, Community could never be accused of being run-of-the-mill. Out of all the insane episode premises through the years none of them ever topped the season two Christmas special. Abed (Danny Pudi on terrific form) sets out to find the true meaning of Christmas after he wakes up to find his entire world is now in stop motion. Cue twenty-one minutes of everything television Christmas specials need; adorable animation, cheerful music and a message that the viewer will keep with them for the rest of the year.
Abed’s friends support him through his time of need and refuse to turn on him when he’s lost and seeking answers, even if those answers involve gumdrops and the cave of frozen memories. As Troy states towards the end of the episode, Christmas is a time of year where we support each other’s insanity. Without our friends, Christmas isn’t worth having. Liam De Brun
Father Ted – “A Christmassy Ted” (1996)
Has there ever been a villain more terrifying than Father Todd Unctious? His intentions and reasons are unknowable even to him. After all he stole a fellow priest’s clothes because “It was just kind of going that way”. But before he’s even introduced there’s the Vietnam-style jaunt through the biggest lingerie section in Ireland, I understand (I read it in a magazine somewhere).
On a routine shopping trip, a large gang of priests find themselves lost amongst tons of women’s underwear. Ever the martyr Father Ted Crilly takes it upon himself to lead this gathering of supposedly saintly men to safety. Utilising every tool at his disposal including the dull, boring voice of Father Fitzgerald, Ted finds himself honoured by the Catholic Church with the Golden Cleric aka the “Best Priest Award”.
And now we move on to liars. Father Todd Unctious’ arrival is anticipated by no one and his declarations of “Tell me Ted, do you have still have that big hairy arse?” are unwelcome. Of course Father Todd Unctious is not his actual name, nor is it Father Hiroshima Kelly. He is a thief intent on stealing the Golden Cleric by taking advantage of priestly charity and hospitality. But like all characters in Father Ted the fake Father Unctious is undone by the fatal sins of Pride and Envy. Christmas is saved and Mrs Doyle can again enjoy the misery of tea making. Peace on Earth and good will to all men is restored by a gambling addict priest. Andrew Carroll
Futurama – “Xmas Story” (1999)
“Your mistletoe is no match for my T.O.W. missile!” is hands down maybe the best line Futurama’s writers ever came up with. Evil Santa is nothing new but Futurama put its own futuristic spin on the jolly fat man in a blood red suit. After a disastrous vacation to a ski resort the crew of Planet Express return home to New New York to celebrate Xmas. Fry, feeling lonely, manages to upset Leela and in an effort to make things right goes out on Xmas Eve, the most dangerous night of the year.
Despite its murderous robotic villain (voiced by John Goodman!) the episode Xmas Story has quite a resonant emotional core to it. Loneliness at Christmas is probably one of the worst feelings in the world and that feeling is compounded by the fact that everyone Fry ever knew is dead and that Leela, at this point in the show, believes that she’s an orphan. The episode is also really fucking funny. Whether it’s Bender pretending to be homeless for free booze, Evil Santa’s arsenal of Christmas themed weaponry or the Professor’s random exposure of his wrinkled, pallid body Xmas Story has something for every Xmas enthusiast. Andrew Carroll
Mr. Robot – Season 4 (2019)
Currently in the middle of its run, Mr. Robot’s final fourth series may be its most action-packed, engaging and powerful season yet – detailing the tragic origins of both all-powerful baddie Whiterose (B.D. Wong) and the titular figure (Christian Slater), a manifestation of Rami Malek’s hacker Elliot’s mind. It’s also wrapped up various major characters’ arcs (often in blood), seen the return of some old favourites and experimented with a few jaw-dropping exercises in style – including a lengthy episode long heist staged without the use of dialogue. All the more impressive is the fact the entire season has taken place over the Christmas holidays – the seasonal cheer adding both an off-kilter comedy and added menace to the show’s trademark dark, jittery and icy atmosphere.
Kicking off with Elliot blackmailing an ultra-sleazy coked up lawyer (Jake Busey) as he’s enjoying his office’s Christmas party, season four of Mr. Robot has revelled in juxtaposing the warmth of seasonal cheer with the seedy secret society Elliot has embroiled himself in. Disturbing dialogue and moments of chilling violence are scored to festive jingles. There’s been a drunken Santa (Jon Glaser), late night treks in snowy forests, a family kidnapped at gun point as they sit down for their Xmas lunch and the return of Elliot’s old foe and Dominican gangster Vera (Eliot Villar) introduced with a glimpse into his new racket – dealing drugs by concealing them in plump Christmas turkeys. Although in terms of seasonal gloom, it’s another scene of the latter’s that takes the Christmas cake in the best way possible – his bone chilling personal and intimidating monologue about how a kid’s Xmas present was turned into a weapon. Stephen Porzio
The Office – Christmas Specials Part 1 & 2 (2003)
Before Ricky Gervais was eaten whole by his own ego, back in the days when he was presumably reigned in by his comedy partner Stephen Merchant, the two of them created the original television mockumentary, The Office. I suspect you all already know this, but considered in this light the existence of The Office Christmas specials do start to feel like something of a Christmas miracle.
And if the two-part extravaganza isn’t exactly about miracles itself, it is about the smaller occasional successes that make the rest of the year worth living. Returning to Slough three years after the end of the series run, all the old employees have returned to Wernham Hogg for the office Christmas party. If the series tended towards pessimism and gloom, the television Christmas specials end on a more positive light, with David Brent distinguishing himself as a better person than the bullies around him (“Chris, why don’t you f*ck off?) and a heart-stopping conclusion to the Tim and Dawn saga, replete with Yazoo soundtrack that will make you cry every time.
The Office Christmas specials are not only top notch Christmas fare but also remain one of the best conclusions to any television series. Now, all we need to do is forget how Gervais ingeniously negotiated his own loophole to bring David Brent back and all will be good forever. Sarah Cullen
Peanuts – “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)
This half-hour special follows good ol’ Charlie Brown as he tries to find the true meaning of Christmas among a group of his “helpful” peers. Taking an unusual approach to the Christmas season, rarely explored in animation before this, it studies the depression which often accompanies the holidays and explores, (in a very anti-consumerist way) the reasons behind it.
Charlie is contrasted with the other children who have very different methods for enhancing the Christmas spirit, such as Snoopy who is decorating his kennel for the neighbourhood contest. This all leads to comedic, yet thought-provoking situations, a staple that has run throughout Schulz’s Peanuts series from the very beginning. The story shows us a religious element of the holidays and looks at traditionalism versus modernism within the season.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is played on television and radio every year, and it is clear why. Although not the best animation and certainly dated by today’s standards, there is a magical sweetness that supersedes all of that, taking us back to the roots of the characters and Invoking the newspaper strips that made it so famous. Sure, plenty more would come from Charlie Brown in the coming years, but none would feel quite as magical as this one. Joseph Learoyd
The Royle Family – “The Queen of Sheba” (2006)
The Royle Family television Christmas specials were always a tradition in my house but it is the first two, and a non-Christmas special that still hold a special place in my heart. The first Christmas special from Caroline Aherne & Craig Cash (aka Denise and Dave) arrived just as season two came to a close. Denise is pregnant with her first child and Barbara’s turkey isn’t getting the best reception. The second festive special comes after season 3 and is just as heart-warming and hilarious as the first. It’s baby David’s first Christmas and Emma’s well-off parents are around to boast, and piss off Jim.
Truthfully it’s the third special that hits me the hardest over the Christmas season. “The Queen of Sheba” was the first episode released since that Christmas Special at the end of Season 3, six years prior.
It focuses on the last days of Nana, now bed-ridden in the Royles’ dining room. Although released in October and not having anything to do with Christmas this is the best place to end your Royle Family mini-binge. It’s full of heart, full of laughs, and absolutely heart-wrenching. My Gran, who lived with us for much of her final years, passed away a few years ago. Her birthday is in December and this episode tears me apart each year. Now, I understand that’s a very personal connection I have to this special but it is essentially all about the family we have around us, how crazy they make us and the undying love we have for each other. Sure isn’t that what Christmas is all about. Paddy O’Leary
The Simpsons – “Marge Be Not Proud” (1995)
“Christmas is the time of year when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ.”
The Simpsons‘ finest hours during its golden years came when the iconic show fused laughs with heartbreak. The season seven television Christmas special is the perfect example of why it’s the finest show to ever grace our screens. Marge Be Not Proud has Bonestorm’s ad featuring Santa shooting the game into a TV through a shotgun, the camp Granada answering machine message, and the infamous Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge.
Bart’s ordeal at betraying Marge’s trust after she finds out he shoplifted is perhaps the show’s most honest story. A child yearns for nothing more than his parents love; when we feel we lost it forever we don’t know where to turn to next. For Bart he decides that the only way to show his love is to get her the Christmas present she always wanted; a perfect Christmas photo. The moment when Marge embraces Bart with a tender hug never fails to leave lumps in throats. After all, Christmas is all about family. Liam De Brun
The Vicar of Dibley – “The Christmas Lunch Incident” (1996)
The Vicar of Dibley may not always be the funniest comedy around but it might just have the most heart, as evinced by Reverend Geraldine Granger’s decision to attend four different Christmas lunches in one day rather than hurt the feelings of any of her parishioners. That’s not to say there aren’t chuckles galore to be had here of course, such as Alice Trotter’s mother producing a course comprised entirely of balls of stuffing.
This Richard Curtis Christmas special is the perfect kind of after-dinner comfort (or perhaps even cathartic) watch when you yourself are feeling you may have overindulged. Having said that, there are some scenes that might set your stomach on edge, particularly when Owen Newitt, the most eccentric member of the village council, invites Geraldine over to his farm for helpings of tripe. So don’t forget to whip out both the Terry’s Chocolate Orange and the puke bucket: two key requirements for any classic television Christmas special viewing. Sarah Cullen