Christmas TV specials can be awful: here are three of the best

We've all seen saccharine Christmas specials – so which ones actually capture the chaos (and, yes, joy) of the big day?

Christmas is here! Eggnog is for sale, every store you enter carries the lingering threat of playing a Michael Bublé song, and every public building is decorated with holly and fake snow that is completely at odds with the Australian summer heat. And of course, every TV series must acknowledge the holiday.

I confess that I really do like the Christmas season, but even I find the vibe can be nauseating, especially in TV Christmas Specials. If a Christmas Special is done wrong, it feels like a puppet show written by an AI that was given the prompt ‘it is mandatory to like your family’. However, some do get it right, so here are three Christmas Specials that I think do the season a service by depicting the holiday in all its stressful, chaotic glory.

Doctor Who

Season 4’s “Voyage Of The Damned” is what I would describe as having the perfect balance of Christmas vibes and a fun Doctor Who adventure. Not too Christmassy, but clearly not a normal episode of Doctor Who. The Doctor (David Tennant) crashes into the Titanic, an interstellar cruise ship orbiting Earth on Christmas Day. Everything is extremely ominous, from the ship being named after Earth’s most famous shipwreck, to the malfunctioning service robots, to the captain being a bit too chill about safety regulations.

The episode is about the Doctor saving the Earth from doom, yes, but there is something extremely grounded about the plot and its characters. The cruise ship’s insufferable wealthy guests make life a nightmare for the crew, and that’s before we learn that the cruise itself is an insurance scam by a delightfully scenery-chewing villain who would rather destroy a whole planet than admit his business failed.

Read: Doctor Who, Disney+: does more money mean more problems?

Of course, it has a cheesy and sentimental ending, but it’s made possible by a long-suffering waitress pushing her horrible boss into a furnace. Also, Kylie Minogue is there.


Community has some terrific Christmas episodes, like the stop-motion adventure ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ or the Glee parody ‘Regional Holiday Music’, but I decided to give the spot on this list to Season 1’s ‘Comparative Religion’. It is the last day of classes before the winter break, and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) tries to cope with the stress of her first post-divorce Christmas by hosting a party for her new friends. Meanwhile Jeff (Joel McHale) defends Abed (Danny Pudi) from the school bully, Mike (guest star Anthony Michael Hall), and their conflict escalates until they agree to have a fight that afternoon.

Shirley tries to have the kind of Christmas she’s used to, doing her best to appear welcoming to her non-Christian friends. Her facade is already hanging on by a thread, having tried to disguise Annie’s (Alison Brie) menorah as a Christmas tree decoration. When she finds out about Jeff’s fight, she bans him from the party, but the rest of the group leave in solidarity. ‘If you really want us to be your second family,’ Brita (Gillian Jacobs) explains, ‘then you’ve gotta start treating us like one. Even if that means supporting us when we do things that you don’t agree with.’

The climax of the episode has Shirley show up to support Jeff, even joining in on a surprisingly heartwarming brawl in a Winter Wonderland display. She learns that bringing everyone together on Christmas doesn’t mean enforcing a standard of behaviour, she has to be a person who her friends want to meet that standard for.

The Simpsons

In the Season 7 episode “Marge Be Not Proud”, all Bart wants for Christmas is the latest videogame, Bonestorm, but raising three kids on one income doesn’t leave room in the budget for expensive gifts. When Bart gets caught shoplifting a copy, Marge is heartbroken and forced to confront her fear that her son is pulling away from her.

This episode really dives into the Marge/Bart dynamic. Marge loves her kids and makes a lot of excuses for Bart’s delinquency, but in this episode Marge starts to wonder if her special little guy really is who she thought he was. At the same time, Bart learns how much he takes for granted, how much he loves his family and how much Marge does to hold them all together. In the end, Bart repairs the rift between himself and Marge, and proves that under his chaotic and impulsive behaviour he’s a good kid with a kind heart.

Despite what Christmas cards and shop window displays might imply, Christmas is a stressful time of year. When so much advertising emphasises spending a perfect day with family, it can sting for people who have to spend Christmas apart from their families, or who have been rejected by them.

Even when you love and can see your family, Christmas is a stressful time of year. There are presents to buy, there’s a Christmas lunch to make, there’s wondering what family drama is going to resurface before dessert.

‘Christmas is stressful’ is hardly a secret hidden truth. In fact, the best Christmas stories lean into the chaos. Christmas cheer doesn’t come out of nowhere, it takes a lot of work from a lot of people. Christmas spirit is something that takes effort, whether you’re saving the passengers of a doomed ship, or setting aside your discomfort to help your friend fight the school bully.

PhD candidate in cinema and screen studies based in Naarm. My current research area is revenge and justice in teen film, and I like to write about genre films, feminism and queer theory. I co-host a podcast called Pill Pop, an audio roadtrip for the chronically ill.