Johnny shares the very best of TV holiday episodes

Now that it’s the beginning of December, the holiday season that starts with Halloween and culminates in the Hallmark-sanctioned lovefest of February 14, is currently in full swing. While some people bemoan this annual occurrence for its forced cheer and seemingly incessant strain on one’s bank account, television fans recognize this period as the time of year when showrunners trot out their “very special holiday episodes.” Thus, entertainment writers have received continual fodder for their discussions of the best and worst holiday episodes of all time. In this column, I’d like to continue this trend (after all, the holidays aren’t exactly a time when people buck tradition) and nominate four wonderful shows for their contributions to the constantly increasing pantheon of holiday episodes.

Courtesy of allearsblog.blogspot.com.

“The Simpsons” — “Treehouse of Horror V”
(Oct. 30, 1994)

Admittedly, this episode is Halloween-themed, a topic that I already discussed this year, but its witty skewering of horror conventions places it firmly within the realm of comedy. In the first (and funniest) of the episode’s three segments, the Simpson family members serve as stand-ins for the family of hotel caretakers in “The Shining.” In short, Homer goes all Jack Nicholson and terrorizes Marge and the kids with a comically endless supply of axes. The segment manages to work so well by juxtaposing moments of horrifying violence lifted straight from the movie with the characters’ deadpan reactions. When a cascade of blood comes rushing out of the lobby’s elevator, Mr. Burns nonchalantly comments that this is usually supposed to happen on the second floor. In another scene, Marge drags a post-rampage Homer into the pantry, declaring, “You stay here until you’re no longer insane … ooh, chili would be good tonight.” As a result, the episode functions as a perfect example of the show’s biting awareness of pop culture phenomena and its own satiric place within this continuum.

“Dexter” – “Hungry Man”
(Nov. 22, 2009)

While television fans generally nominate a dramatic show’s early seasons as its strongest, a time when the novelty of a great idea has not yet worn off, I consider the fourth season of “Dexter” to be my personal favorite. Much credit goes to the stellar acting combination of Michael C. Hall as the title character, a serial killer who only murders other killers, and John Lithgow as the Trinity Killer, Dexter’s season-long antagonist. For several episodes, Dexter had forestalled taking out Trinity because he wanted to learn how such a remorseless murderer could satisfy his dark urges while maintaining the facade of a normal family man. In the Thanksgiving episode, however, viewers find out that there is nothing normal about Trinity’s home life. “Hungry Man” expertly ratchets up the tension throughout the episode as Dexter finds out that Trinity has been secretly abusing his son, browbeating his wife and forcibly confining his daughter to her room. These revelations eventually climax in the most uncomfortable domestic confrontation since George and Martha invited an unsuspecting couple over for some late-night drinks. Before this moment, both Dexter and the viewers had seen Trinity as a bizarre kind of father figure. By the episode’s end, however, everyone can clearly recognize him as the monster that he is, leaving us simultaneously awed at the elaborate nature of his deception and terrified at the thought of ever upsetting John Lithgow.

“Seinfeld” – “The Strike”
(Dec. 18, 1997)

As a show that focuses on a quartet of hilariously self-centered characters, it was only a matter of time before “Seinfeld” upended the tradition of warm-and-fuzzy holiday episodes by inventing its very own holiday. And so Festivus, “a festival for the rest of us” according to founder Frank Costanza, was born. Ostensibly created as a reaction to the rampant consumerism that dominates the month of December (trust me, it’s nowhere near as noble as it sounds), Festivus represents a holiday celebration stripped of any traces of significance or redemptive meaning. Its only decoration is a single aluminum pole, and its climactic event involves Frank challenging his son George to defeat him in a wrestling match known as “The Feats of Strength.” It’s fitting then that such a nonsensical event serves to unite the main characters who spend each episode dissecting the minutiae of superficial social interactions. Even in their own holiday episode, however, these characters don’t remain immune from the comeuppance that normally accompanies their petty behavior. Jerry’s girlfriend leaves him, Kramer gets fired, Elaine loses her punch card for a free captain’s hat at a submarine sandwich shop, and George’s boss uncovers his fake charity bearing the eerily plausible name of “The Human Fund.” I guess the writers must find some meaning in the holiday season after all.

“Modern Family” – “My Funky Valentine”
(Feb. 10, 2010)

Although “Modern Family” typically balances its storylines among the three families, “My Funky Valentine” clearly belongs to Claire and Phil, who decide to spice up their usual Valentine’s Day plans with a bit of role-playing. While Claire literally slips out of her own clothes and into the trenchcoat of the seductive Juliana, Phil becomes Clive Bixby, designer of high-end electro-acoustic transducers (“It’s a fancy way of saying I get things to make noise”) and decked out in an appropriately awkward turtleneck. I will never cease to be entertained by their faux-sexy barside banter, but the episode’s crowning moment comes when the otherwise naked Claire gets her trenchcoat stuck in the hotel’s escalator. Throughout this scene, Claire’s trademark composure gradually collapses as she endures a seemingly endless series of embarrassing help offers from neighbors, her children’s principal, and finally, her father. Not only does this episode manage to reach the apex of uncomfortable humor, but it conveys a theme that also appears in the three previous episodes: even the most elaborate plans cannot escape the unpredictable maelstrom of the holiday season.

Johnny is a senior. He can be reached at jtaesch1@swarthmore.edu.

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