The clink of ice in a rocks glass during an alcoholic’s relapse, the sad solo of a hurricane refugee, the gentle pfft of a Munchausen’s patient passing out in the snow, a child’s knife plunging into the torso of a Scottish king: These are the sounds of Christmas.
Holiday episodes are a TV genre in and of themselves, especially the ones that conjure the quiet, somber reflection-and-acceptance-kind of Christmas, like carols in minor keys.
My Santa Claus moment comes every year when family members come one-by-one with their requests for the West Wing episode to watch Christmas Eve: “I want the one with Leo,” “Let’s do the one with Adam Arkin,” “Which is the one with the Whiffenpoofs?” It’s a heartwarming family tradition, to binge on spaghetti carbonara and then share in the world-weary poignance of a Sorkin Christmas ep.
The family gathering selection has to be the very best because there’s only one slot. But that means I don’t always get around to the also-rans because I keep wanting to make an event out of everything, and they’re not all worthy of their own pedestals. Instead, this weekend I’ve treated my favorite Christmas episodes like an album of holiday music—a steady stream of worldly Christmas contentment to set the perfect mood. Here’s my playlist thus far:
The West Wing, “O Holy Night”
It’s not as focused as the other two WW faves, but it’s nice and moodily lit, and I spend the first 40 minutes waiting for the final montage, which is serenaded by the slow a capella of the Yale Whiffenpoofs’ “O Holy Night,” a hymn that does that fantastic major-to-minor thing anyway. But after each slow slow slow fade in and out, it’s the moment where the fade out to black coincides with complete silence, as the chorus breaths in and, as it slowly fades up on a long shot of Bartlet, his back to the camera, watching snow fall through the windows of the Oval Office, the chorus belts back in with the minor Fall on your knees. Aaaauugh. I can’t even tell you. It’s just incredible. It gives me the warm fuzzies. (For that moment alone I’ve insisted on this ep for Christmas Eves past, but I decided to watch it early this year and take it out of contention, since the fam tends to prefer the earlier options—including the one with Leo’s relapse, referenced above.)
This is the one where it’s discovered that Miranda from Sex and the City (poor actress, I won’t even bother to look up her name) collapses in front of House at the OTB. First of all, this ep taught me a new meaning for OTB (off-track betting) where before I’d always associated it with the in-office shorthand for our sunshiny December visitor’s annual (On the Beach). Misanthropic Dr. House on Christmas pretty much embodies these gloomier holiday episodes anyway, but lonely Munchausen’s Miranda adds to it, too—especially the scene when House injects her with something that, they both know, will cause her to collapse but will also draw attention to her real problem. She hits the snow outside the hospital as House walks off in the other direction.
Slings and Arrows, “Fallow Time”
This is neither as Christmassy nor as poignant as most of the others, but it does set Christmas as a backdrop to poor, crazy Geoffrey Tennant stressing about how to stage MacBeth—and hallucinating during a children’s production that the kids really are stabbing the bejeezus out of Banquo, blood flowing and everything. Bitchy, defeated Ellen trying—and failing, repeatedly—to put up a Christmas tree and force herself into a holiday mood is a nice touch. Plus I love the idea of an elementary school staging the Scottish play over Christmas. Yay Canada.
Scrubs, “My Own Personal Jesus”
A coma patient awakens, and the main characters debate Christmas miracles versus practical facts—always bringing it back, of course, to the original Christmas Miracle in the Manger. It’s sort of the Miracle on 34th Street thing, where the audience is taken all the way from acknowledging the practical, annoying, everyday-real-world stuff to wanting to believe in the miracle stuff. They really go right after the origins of Christmas, especially with the pregnant teenager who was kicked out of the hospital to give birth outside, but they get just close enough to pure, childish earnestness and then save themselves with good comedy. The closest thing to Charlie Brown’s Christmas, which might just be the standard-bearer in this genre. Also: “Did you just compare my lord and savior to a tiny top hat?” Hee.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, “The Christmas Show”
More Sorkin, although much more flawed than his WW writing, in this case (as in many others) buoyed by Tommy Schlamme’s direction. The wheels were already falling off the show at this point, but the coconuts-as-snow shtick is fun, and over all the ep’s got the mix of moodiness and humor that makes it reminiscent of WW’s “O Holy Night”—and that song happens again to be the soundtrack for a majorly redeeming montage toward the end, when a brass band of Katrina refugees plays the carol while backed by black-and-white photos of New Orleans. Trombone Shorty fucking nails the trumpet melody, y’all. It’s very moving. And an imperfect set of Christmas circumstances—refugees, drug relapses, single mothers, coconut snow—brought together by people trying their best is exactly what I’m talking about.