13. “The Leftovers,” Season 1, Episode 4 – “B.J. and The A.C.”
Acknowledgement and acceptance are an essential aspect of the holiday spirit. People need to respect different faiths, beliefs, traditions, and more if the holidays are going to be as universally joyous as intended. But, as contradictory as it may seem, that also means accepting the fact that holidays aren’t so joyous for everyone. They can be dark, hard times, and it doesn’t matter whether that feeling is sparked by seasonal affective disorder, troubling childhood memories, or a reminder that death is a cold place we’ll all enter alone.
Oof. That’s a lot to get your mind around between Christmas carols, and “The Leftovers” Season 1 is a lot to get your mind around no matter when you watch. Still, its Christmas-set episode digs into a core concept of the series: “There is no family,” Patti Levin (Emmy winner Anne Dowd) says — well, writes — in support of the Guilty Remnant’s cause. Kevin (Justin Theroux) feels that more than he’d like this Christmas, as Laurie (Amy Brenneman) shows up to deliver a particularly unsettling request.
Throw in a missing baby Jesus from the Mapleton Christmas manger, Tom’s (Chris Zylka) lingering doubts about the holiness of Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), and a heartbreaking gift from Jill (Margaret Qualley), and “B.J. and the A.C.” features a number of moving Christmas moments. It’s not for the faint of heart, but neither is “The Leftovers” — and neither is Christmas, for some people.
12. “30 Rock,” Season 3, Episode 6 – “Christmas Special”
“30 Rock” always had a real talent for blending the show’s serious dysfunction with genuine emotion, and “Christmas Special’s” major twist — Jack (Alec Baldwin) discovering just how his mother (Elaine Stritch) took care of their family during the holidays — is the perfect embodiment of that. Liz (Tina Fey) also completely blows her attempt to play Santa for disadvantaged children, but really this episode is all about “Mrs. Claus” and her son singing together, a song featuring lyrics that have “been said many times, many ways,” but still have an impact: Merry Christmas.
11. “The Office,” Season 2, Episode 10 – “Christmas Party”
There’s no better way to show how the people in a workplace care about each other than throwing them into a gift exchange. When a holiday Secret Santa goes awry, “Christmas Party” becomes a show at a crossroads: This episode has some of the biting comedic viciousness that made Michael equally hateable and lovable in the show’s early run, but it also has a ripple of the sweetness that would endear the Jim/Pam romance to legions of fans. “The Office” could pivot from a straightforward, classic Creed joke to a cringeworthy tale of corporate misdeeds in a flash. And with a video iPod playing a vital role in the episode’s plot, this is also a pretty decent time capsule for 2005 to boot.
10. “Bob’s Burgers,” Season 3, Episode 9 – “God Rest Ye Merry Gentle-Mannequins”
Most “Bob’s Burgers” holiday episodes deserve praise, and choosing from the show’s Christmas episodes was no easy task. While “The Last Gingerbread House on the Left” has Mr. Fischoeder’s sublime gingerbread house-building contest, its B storyline is somewhat forgettable. What makes “Gentle-Mannequins” so special is how it not only holds up over time but grows in poignancy and weirdness in retrospect.
In the episode, homeless guy Chet (Zach Galifianakis) insists that he was once a store mannequin but that after losing the love of his life, another store mannequin with two left hands named Nadine, the pain transformed him into a human. It’s just such a tragic and utterly ridiculous story that makes Tina deem it “the greatest love story ever told.” Through an elaborate series of events in which it’s revealed that Chet has a genius for creating holiday-themed window displays that bring patrons to Bob’s Burgers, the Belchers eventually take it upon themselves to track down Nadine. The episode is very much like one of the Bob’s famous burgers: built of strange and incongruous ingredients, given a punny name, boasting a medium-rare center, but ultimately strangely satisfying.
9. “Parks and Recreation,” Season 4, Episode 10 – “Citizen Knope”
Leave it to a Christmas episode to bring out the Leslie-led sense of dedication to others that made this show such a joy for the entire time it was on. In the middle of a work suspension, Leslie cobbles together a citizen action committee to work around not being able to come into the office. It’s a perfect distillation of everyone’s personality (all the way down to Jerry not having anything prepared when the time puts together a pledge to pick up her 1% polling campaign). Toss in Dennis Feinstein, the first glimpse of the accounting firm that would eventually be the landing place of Cones of Dunshire, and multiple candy-related Andy mishaps and you have a quintessential “Parks and Rec” tale that’s perfect for the holiday spirit.
8. “BoJack Horseman” – “Christmas Special: Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”
So, due to the fact that it’s hosted separately from the actual Netflix series, you might not even be aware of the fact that there’s a “BoJack Horseman” Christmas Special! (Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg understands this.) But there is, and it’s a fun stand-alone episode (ostensibly set between Seasons 1 and 2) that also allows the show to fully dive into the multi-camera sitcom genre it had only previously riffed on. Getting a real look at what “Horsin’ Around” was like as a show, coupled with interstitials showcasing “BoJack’s” signature darkness, makes for a surreal delight that has only gotten sadder and darker with time.