Look at Sitcom Cliches : Christmas
I love Christmas episodes of sitcoms, they are the best! They always feel like are a little more special than a usual episode, which is fitting since Christmas is a special time of year. However, these shows tend to have the same themes over and over again. I wanted to take a look at some of these cliches that seem to pop up in sitcoms over and over again.
Christmas Sucks-It seems odd to start with this one, but lots of episodes involve the aggravations of Christmas. Writer/Producer Diane English was great for writing these; she did an episode of her not-so well known series “My Sister Sam” where the characters are whining about the holidays. Then a few years later wrote an episode of her more popular series “Murphy Brown” where the characters are complaining about the aggravation of buying presents for others. To top it off, she wrote an episode of her short lived series “Love and War” which again made note of the bad things about the holidays. In this series a Jewish man was dating a woman who adored Christmas so the episode involved how they could successfully celebrate both. Of course every cliche about the bad things associated with Christmas is thrown in; from the story of Santa to the national crisis that is Christmas tree fires. Other shows have focused on the negative including King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond which has explored every dysfunctional family Christmas angle possible, Becker, and Seinfeld.
Snowed In-It amazes me the bad luck that sitcom characters have with the weather. Why do bad snow storms always hit on Christmas Eve? It does snow other times of the year. And why does no one in sitcoms believe in checking the weather forecast? They’re always stunned it’s snowing! Perfect Strangers, Golden Girls, Night Court, Roseanne, Home Improvement, and Newhart (just to name a few) have done shows where the characters couldn’t get to where they needed to be because of badly timed snow storm. Sometimes this is lumped in with a ski trip disaster, which happened on Kate & Allie and Charles in Charge.
Last Minute Shopping-Oh yeah, this happens a lot too. A Different World, Cheers, Family Matters, and King of Queens have all had episodes where a character is scrambling to buy a gift, usually on Christmas Eve with only minutes to spare. Usually it’s because they didn’t buy something or they did but the gift was damaged. Sometimes the problem is they can’t find an elusive e toy, like a Murphy Brown episode did (I already mentioned the other Murphy Brown episode about last minute gift buying, which actually won an Emmy award for writing in a sitcom). Full House had Jesse and Michelle get locked in a toy store trying to exchange a gift on Christmas Eve, and Frasier also had to do some scrambling when the wrong gifts were mailed to him and he has nothing for his son.
Singing Christmas Carols-This is kind of two cliches in one. There are lots of shows which have the cast singing carols, especially at the end. The show “Benson” may be the largest offender. The cast gathers and sings around the piano for FIVE MINUTES at the end of one Christmas episode. The thing that makes this an even worst cliche is when they break the 4th wall, and sing to the audience all posed in a very formal group. Yeah, because that really happens. This seemed especially bad in the 80’s for some reason. I could list the examples, but if you’ve seen any Christmas episodes (especially the old TGIF shows) you have seen this happen in one form or another.
Over-decorating-Decorating for Christmas can be fun, over-decorating tends to be a regular plot device. Home Improvement had a running gag almost every year regarding Tim and the lighting contest. He always lost, but never let that discourage him from decorating crazier and crazier every year. 8 Simple Rules Christmas episode also involved a lighting contest. Fresh Prince’s first season has a Christmas episode where Will seriously overdecorated the house in a tacky way which was very over the top for a snooty Bel Air neighborhood. Frasier had a classic show where his father seriously overdecorated his apartment, much to Frasier’s chagrin. This joke pops up in Murphy Brown, Sabrina, and the classic example has to be the Roseanne episode “A White Trash Christmas”, where Roseanne decides to go for the national record in tackiness. The really awful decorations and brilliantly white lights make this episode a classic.
It’s a Wonderful Life-Frank Capra’s amazing film is a great. Not my absolute favorite but it is on my must see list every year. Unfortunately, it may be the most copied story ever (aside from A Christmas Carol but I talked about that on another article). Want to hear the list? Facts of Life, That 70’s Show, Life with Bonnie, Charles in Charge, Married with Children, Laverne & Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and Benson (whew!). Family Matters did an episode where Laura learns what it would be like if she and Steve switched places. How popular is this cliche? It doesn’t need to be a Christmas episode to see it. Fresh Prince, Alf, and Night Court had non-Christmas related versions of this. As did Star Trek-TNG believe it or not. Some shows literally make fun of the film, because it used to be on so much it was an easy punch line. Cheers had the most notable example in a scene where everyone is mocking the film, until they are moved to tears but the overly-sentimental ending. It is a cute scene. It has also joke on other shows as well including Roseanne. I know the subject is sitcoms but I have to note that cartoons have also done this including Tiny Tunes, and yes, The Muppets. Movies such as Mr. Destiny and Family Guy have done this story over too. Finally, the lamest attempt at this kind of episode had to be Beverly Hills, 90210. If you saw that episode, you know what I’m talking about.
Gift of the Magi-This O Henry classic is not nearly as ripped off as Wonderful Life or Christmas Carol, but variations have appeared where two people buy gifts for each other, but the gifts each complement something another person has… and they each had to sell their respective complements to pay for their gifts. Who’s The Boss? had a great episode about Angela wanting to buy Tony his baseball card, the card dealer contacts Tony who sells his baseball card to buy Angela a present. Angela gets the present from Tony, who also gets his card back. Perfect Strangers, Just The Ten of Us, Alice, The Single Guy all had similar episodes.
The Clip Show-What do Welcome Back, Kotter, Family Ties, Friends, and Diff’rent Strokes have in common? There idea of a Christmas episode is the cast sitting around while clips are shown from the past year. Yawn! To be fair, these series only did this one time and had other, better Christmas episodes. This goes all the way back to I Love Lucy, believe it or not, in an episode which also gave birth to another cliche we’ll discuss in a second. I just don’t understand how you can call it a Christmas show when most of it is clips which have nothing to do with the holiday. It’s really just a cheap way to get an episode out before the holiday break. I can’t tell you how much I hate the Kotter episode.
The “real” Santa-You know this one. Someone dressed as Santa appears, and then something happens to reveal him to be the “real” Santa. Often what they do is have a cast member in a Santa suit, and then once the Santa leaves the cast member walks right back in as usual. I guess this might trick kids but I think an adult has enough knowledge of about how TV works to realize there was an edit there somewhere. I remember Gilligan’s Island even doing this, with the skipper. I have seen this on Home Improvement, Who’s The Boss?, and many others over the years. This is how that I Love Lucy Christmas special ended, it goes back that far. The other trick is to have Santa magically appear along with some miraculous solution like they did in the Full House episode where they are stranded in an airport (due to a snow storm, imagine!). Santa walks in, and we know it can’t be Joey because he’s right there, and we know it isn’t someone wearing Joey’s suit because the bag is full. Then Santa makes the missing presents appear, before vanishing. Could it be? Nah. And just ignore the fact that the older guy who was in the episode was nowhere to be found in this scene. Another trick is to have someone claim he is Santa through the episode, of course no one believes him until the end when a character gets a secret gift that he only asked for Santa for. This kind of gag happens in The Nanny, Family Matters, and several others. Even Cheers couldn’t resist this one.
Is it Christmas or not?-Not sure if this is really a cliche, but I’m going to mention it anyway. Some series set an episode at Christmas time but the story has zero to do with the holiday. Full House had an episode about Joey hosting a dating game show, and even though the teaser for the episode promised a Christmassy show it didn’t happen. Home Improvement had amazing Christmas episodes every year, except one. The episode dealt with Tim having to deal with his parent’s house being sold. Not only was this barely a Christmas show, it was just an all around bad episode. The Seinfeld episode “The Andrea Doria” is set at Christmas, you can tell by the decorations in the coffee shop, but there is hardly any reference to that in the episode.
Very Special Episodes-Sometimes sitcoms will use Christmas as an excuse to do a heavy-handed “lesson” episode. Saved By The Bell has an episode about the plight of the homeless. The issue was dealt with in the typical Saved By The Bell style (which is, as unrealistically as possible). Growing Pains took a similar path, but handled things a little more realistically (a little) with an episode where the youngest son Ben befriends a homeless kid and brings her home. She almost steals the Seaver’s blind, before having a change of heart. The final scene is her calling home to her parents who must have been out of their minds with worry. Sometimes these episodes use a Christmas episode to reform a character who is a jerk, which of course only lasts that episode. He’s right back to normal in the next one. Golden Girls did an episode in a soup kitchen, and Facts of Life had a prison related episode.
Magical Endings-What would a Christmas episode be if the story wasn’t magically resolved? Benson (yes, I am picking on this show again) made no attempt to hide the magical ending, where a book happens to fall, to the right page, right in front of Benson. Family Matters first Christmas episode had Little Richie getting the toy he always wanted even though no one bough it. Punky Brewster had a great two-part episode around Punky wanting to find her mom. At the end, her mom doesn’t appear but Punky does somehow have a gift from her under the tree. The gift isn’t random either; it’s a very special music box. And then there’s that Family Ties episode I loved, without giving an entire plot synopsis let’s just say everything works out in the end thanks to a “mysterious man in a red suit”. Night Court had a similar ending to en episode involving the owner of a toy company. It seems toys got misplaced and some orphans got them, but the guy wants the toys back. Harry’s father appears and gives the toy owner a gift from his friend Nick. When he opens it he finds he has mysteriously gotten the exact toy he had asked Santa for years earlier. This of course makes him change his mind about not giving toys away to the orphans, and the staff wonders if Nick was really “Santa Claus”. These episodes always end with a wink to the audience, and only at Christmas could you get away with this kind of thing. These episodes are actually among the best Christmas episodes of all.
I think those are the main ones, did I miss any? Of course this doesn’t even begin to list every Christmas episode, there are dozens of them. I think Home Improvement would win my award for best episodes season after season (except that one I mentioned). Even though I have been having some fun with these shows the simple truth is I love them all. I am the type of person who will watch a Christmas episode of a series I’ve never seen a regular episode of. For me, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without these sugary, yuletide episodes every single year.
Which are my favorite? That is a subject for another time.