“Moonlighting” – It’s a Wonderful Job (1986)
A sitcom making an homage to “It’s a Wonderful Life” — or classic Christmas tales in general — is nothing special, let alone messed up. But “Moonlighting” earned its spot on this list when it decided to focus not on the importance of friends and family during the holiday season, but of business itself. Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) decides her life would have been better had she never opened the detective agency with David (Bruce Willis), but her guardian angel appears (!) to tell her otherwise. Not only is Maddie’s life worse and David’s better (he’s married to a supermodel), but non-detective Maddie is suicidal. Apparently it’s not enough to show your lead actor sad or on the ropes financially — she needs to be on the verge of taking her own life. Merry Christmas everyone!
“Batman: The Animated Series” – Christmas with the Joker (1992)
Though there are plenty of oddities to this episode in relation to traditional Christmas episodes — kidnapping, murder, prison riots — it’s all fairly tame when compared to the rest of “Batman: The Animated Series.” The Joker has busted out of Arkham Asylum (riding a Christmas tree rocket) and kidnapped Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Bullock and Summer Gleeson. It’s up to Batman and Robin to save them, but first they have to find the villain (voiced by Mark Hamill — yes, “Star Wars” Mark Hamill, in his most impressive performance ever). It’s the “why” that matters in making this episode messed up: Robin only wants to end the night peacefully so he and Batman can watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” together. Sure, they want to save their buddies, but really, it’s all about Jimmy Stewart, a roaring fire and an angel getting her wings. Odd — for “Batman” — indeed.
“The X-Files” – Christmas Carol & Emily (1997); How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (1998)
“Six Feet Under” – Pilot (2001)
Nothing says Christmas like sex in an airport, getting high on crystal meth and oh, yeah, your father dying. The kick-off to HBO’s long-running drama immediately showcased what would become the show’s signature blend of morbid comedy and melodrama, while also jump-starting the premise of brothers working together to keep the family mortuary business alive. Cheering holiday fare, enhanced all the more by acknowledging the particular quirks of celebrating in Los Angeles. (When there’s no chance ever of a white Christmas, Christmas has an odd taste to it.)
“Justice League” – Comfort and Joy (2003)
Truth: There’s actually a lot of adorable stuff in this episode, thanks largely to a storyline where Superman takes Martian Manhunter, a newcomer to celebrating the holidays, home to Smallville for a traditional Kent family Christmas. Also, the Flash is shopping for the perfect present for a group of orphans! What’s less Christmas-y than that? The answer is Hawkgirl showing Green Lantern how she likes to let off steam, specifically with drunken barfights on an alien planet. It’s unconventional, at the very least, but showcases what made “Justice League” such a standout superhero series — despite its largely alien cast of characters, it had a way of bringing out something special and human in them.
“Grey’s Anatomy” – Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer (2005)
ABC’s long-running nighttime soap has never been afraid of “going there” in the service of medicine (and melodramatic thrills). From the post-Super Bowl bomb episode to Denny’s ghost visiting Izzie, “Grey’s Anatomy” has had its fair share of weird moments. Though its Season 2 Christmas episode wasn’t a topper, its title alone makes it one of the stranger entries on this list, and its the title combined with the rather delicate — and well-discussed — subject matter that earns “Grey’s” a spot on this list, as the episode deals with many different faiths and how each individual relates to the holiday spirit. It’s a rather touching 43-minutes, even if the title relates to one of our crudest Christmas songs.
“The O.C.” – Chrismukk-huh? (2006)
By the time the fourth season of “The O.C.” rolled around, most people had tuned out. [Spoilers follow.] Marissa was dead (thank God), Ryan was cage fighting (again, thank God), Johnny was also dead (wait a second…) and Chris Pratt was guest starring…why had so many people stopped watching? Season 4 sounds — and is — so good! One highlight no one is bound to forget is the fourth and last Chrismukkah episode (a word popularized by Seth Cohen to take advantage of his Christian and Jewish roots during the holiday season). Only this time, Chrismukkah had one big twist: After a nasty fall while setting up Christmas lights, Ryan (Ben McKenzie) and his new pseudo-girlfriend Taylor (Autumn Reeser) were knocked unconscious and forced to navigate a dream world for the true meaning of Christmas (well, actually, it was so Ryan could move on from his ex). Plenty of odd twists and turns ensued, even for the admittedly soapy show, but the true kicker how “Chrismukk-huh?” felt more like an absurdist comedy than a teen melodrama.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” – A Very Sunny Christmas (2009)
No one is better at conveying the true meaning of Christmas through a complete and utter misunderstanding of it than the “Always Sunny” gang. In the hour-long DVD release (turned holiday special the following year), Dennis, Dee, Mac, Charlie and Frank all go on various misadventures related to the holiday only to discover, well, nothing whatsoever. Dennis and Dee try to con Frank into giving them better presents, but that’s only after suffering through years of their father buying the gifts they dreamed of only to keep them for himself. Mac discovers his family’s Christmas tradition is robbing their neighbors blind, and Charlie gets in a fight with the mall Santa after accusing him of “banging” his mother. Though an effort is made later to save the holiday, it all ends horribly for the co-owners of Paddy’s Pub, thus keeping with the status quo. Ah, “Sunny.” No one ever makes a Christmas special special quite like you do.
“Community” – Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (2010)
Of all the episodes on this list, “Community’s” ode to claymation holiday classics might be the one that’s most honest to a real fact about this time of year — the pressure to have a perfect Christmas with your family often runs totally counter to the fact that families often aren’t perfect, and neither is Christmas. Abed’s (Danny Pudi) mental breakdown might take on an adorable veneer in this episode, but that only makes the realization all the more heartbreaking.
“Trophy Wife” – T’was the Night Before Christmas… Or T’was It? (2013)
On the one hand, this hastily blended family really starts to come together in the only Christmas episode we’ll ever get from ABC’s tragically canceled series. On the other hand, what brings Kate (Malin Akerman) closer to her husband’s ex-wives and their children is an insane bender that leaves the women scrambling to figure out what the hell happened the night before. Beware any punch that comes from Scandinavia, is the important holiday lesson learned.
“Mad Men” – Christmas Waltz (2012)
Two words sum up the insanity that was the 2012 “Mad Men” Christmas episode: Hare Krishna. Starting on Pearl Harbor Day, we meet the new and unimproved Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) after he’s taken up a new religion in order to be with a woman his friend, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), is about to sleep with in his office. If that’s not a messed up enough holiday episode for you, consider “Christmas Waltz” is also when Lane (Jared Harris) is pushed to his breaking point. [Spoilers follow.] Owing too much in back taxes to Britain and not receiving his expected bonus from the firm, Lane forges Don’s signature on a check. The act would lead to his firing, which would lead to his attempted suicide (in a Jaguar his unknowing wife buys for him as a gift) as well as his eventual suicide (hanging himself from the door to his office). “Mad Men” always enjoyed taking things to a dark place, so it should come as no surprise they’re the black-hearted Grinch of TV Christmas episodes.