When The Happiest Season debuted on Hulu in November, having been shuffled to the streaming service after the COVID-19 pandemic closed cinemas around the world, the significance of its release was somewhat muted. It was originally touted as the first major studio lesbian romantic comedy, following in the footsteps of 2017’s Love, Simon in breaking new ground for queer representation within genres exclusively imagined as heterosexual in a theatrical context. And while that fact essentially remains true, the set at Christmas film’s move to Hulu obscured that distinction, meaning The Happiest Season launched at a time when Netflix and an increasingly large number of cable channels are releasing a slew of holiday rom-coms. This places the movie it into a different conversation about how the snowy cottage industry of “Cable Christmas Movies” is navigating similar questions of inclusion, with three channels (Hallmark, Lifetime, and Paramount Network) also using queerness as a point of articulation this holiday season.
Directed by Clea DuVall, The Happiest Season has structural advantages compared to your average Hallmark or Lifetime Christmas movie: it has a veritable movie star in Kristen Stewart, supporting players like Aubrey Plaza and Alison Brie, and the budget to hire a stacked supporting cast and ensure it doesn’t aesthetically look like it was produced at the rapid pace of a daytime soap opera. It’s not really a fair fight in terms of filmmaking or the depth of the ensemble, but The Happiest Season was nonetheless faced with the same narrative question as the year’s other attempts to “Queer the Christmas Movie” on cable: how do you reconcile the continued struggle LGBTQ individuals face in finding love (and living life) with the genre’s sweeping, romantic happy endings?
Friday Night Light has never really been interested in the challenge of coming home. The vast majority of its story arcs are about the idea of moving beyond Dillon, Texas, of taking that next step towards the rest of your life. Despite the fact that the series opened with Jason Street and Tim Riggins sitting over a fire swearing that they were ‘Texas Forever,’ the show has to some degree indicated that one must leave before they truly find themselves.
Tim Riggins would be the one exception, really. While Jason Street has returned to Dillon, it was only as a successful sports agent who could comfortably connect with his former hometown from a privileged position. By comparison, Tim Riggins has twice returned to Dillon with no sense of direction, and considering that the last time resulted in an illegal chop shop resulting in an extended jail sentence there is plenty of evidence to indicate that it’s not easy to try to reintegrate into society.
“Texas Whatever” brings the notion of coming home to the forefront more than perhaps ever before, pulling together two people who are having to deal with the question of what being from Dillon, Texas, means to the rest of their lives. And while the conclusion of the series is obviously concerned with the idea of saying goodbye to Dillon, understanding what it means to “go home again” seems just as important to closing off this particular chapter in the life of a small Texas town.
As if Community weren’t meta enough, my immediate response to “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” was a desire to sit Dan Harmon down in a study room and journey into his mind in search of the meaning of Community.
I say this not because the episode undermined or threatened pre-existing notions of the series, but after the episode I wasn’t sure if what I’d seen was the very embodiment of the series’ general approach to comedy or something completely unique. Because it looked decidedly unique, I first leaned towards the latter category, but then it was put into context with the sense of generic parody that Daniel T. Walters wrote about this week, and even Abed’s general trend of seeing the world through pop culture that friend of the blog Cory Barker wrote about on his publicly-available term paper.
The episode was lovingly crafted, comically inspired, and willing to delve into some darker emotional territory, but I ended up feeling that this ended up in a liminal space between what Community wants to be and what I often fear it will become. It was sort of like I was Ebenezer Scrooge, and the episode manifested as ghosts of Community Past, Present and Future all at once.
And I don’t know whether to be extremely excited or mildly concerned.
Generally speaking, the most difficult question for Glee to answer is “Why?” So many of its stories seem to have no connection with ongoing events that if you keep asking why precisely it’s happening, and so you sort of have to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
But “A Very Glee Christmas” offers an answer to this question at every turn: every time I imagine someone questioning the various hurried and forced story developments in the episode, the show screams back “BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS.”
It’s a pretty good excuse, honestly: while sometimes the show risks losing its heart amidst the broadness of Sue’s cartoon villainy, and it sometimes struggles with how theme episodes deal with ongoing storylines, Christmas gives them something cheerful and magical to bring it all together. We expect Christmas to overwhelm all other emotions, as holidays are all about coming together regardless of our differences and celebrating peace on Earth.
And for a show that is always most comfortable, in my eyes, when it merges its sense of celebration with a sense of sadness, “A Very Glee Christmas” at times hits the sweet spot: it uses the broad comedy to fuel the sadness, but follows through on the consequences with an investigation of the limitations of Christmas rather than simply a celebration of the holiday. The result is an episode which seemed charmingly celebratory and yet still felt like it could indulge in “Sue the Grinch” when it so desired.
And it’s pretty emotionally honest until it ends up with nowhere to go but sap, positing Christmas as collective rather than connective and losing its momentum and its charm in the process.
When Don Draper sits down to take part in a demonstration of a new form of customer research, he finds a questionnaire which asks him to describe his relationship with his father – the question, according to the Doctor heading the study, is designed to create a sense of intimacy which will then influence a more honest or meaningful answer to the following question about who makes household decisions. Of course, the test is not designed for someone like Don Draper, who has trained himself to shut down at the mere mention of his past – he walks out on the test because he cannot fathom that someone would want to return to their past in that fashion.
“Christmas Comes But Once a Year” is about what happens when people who are still running away from their past run smack dab into the present, people who are either so focused on not repeating past mistakes that other parts of their lives suffer or people who have lived so much of their lives covering up their past that they have no idea how to live in a present which no longer has the same rules. All of them are hoping that what they feel now won’t last forever: they remember happier Christmases, Christmases before their lives were thrown into a state of upheaval, and they hope that those Christmases will come again.
However, Don Draper also seems to think that it will happen without having to actually do anything.
How do you solve a problem like Katrina? If Treme started out by looking at how people survived the storm and how they are struggling to bounce back personally and professionally from its immediate impact, “At the Foot of Canal Street” moves onto how it is that the myriad of problems caused by the storm are being fixed. As the nation talks about canceling Carnival or not rebuilding the city, and as the city’s public works contractor is revealed to be incompetent, characters are forced to wonder whether they should take things into their own hands and try to enact some change on their own.
There’s some broad strokes in this particular part of the episode, characters proposing political campaigns and recording profanity-laced YouTube videos, but it subtly ripples through the rest of the show’s characters and storylines. Everyone has that point where they wonder if they should take their fate into their own hands, or where they struggle to do the right thing because they know it’s bigger than they realize, and Treme is just as interested in those responses as it is the direct engagement with bureaucracy and national media. “At the Foot of Canal Street” doesn’t entirely fix some of the show’s early red flags, but George Pelecanos nicely integrates even the show’s most problematic character into a narrative that feels as genuine as the rest of the series.
When running through the Big Bang Theory’s first and second seasons, there is no question that Christine Baranski’s appearance as Leonard’s mother was a highlight for me. I like Baranski in general, and I thought that the idea that Leonard grew up with this level of psycho-analysis was a nice bit of back story for his character, and seeing her interact with Leonard, Penny and perhaps more importantly Sheldon (who she clearly connects with more than her own son) was a lot of fun.
However, these kinds of characters don’t always work when you bring them back again. With the novelty factor gone, the jokes can become stale even if the actress is as good as Baranski (or as good as Elaine Stritch, whose Colleen Donaghy has seen diminishing returns on 30 Rock with every appearance). And parts of “The Maternal Congruence” act as if Beverly Hofstadter’s return is funny because it unearths the same jokes, like Penny’s father issues or Raj and Howard’s latent homosexual feelings, which is the sort of repetition that does the show no favours.
The episode seems smart, however, in how it plays up the ramifications of Sheldon and Beverly’s relationship, allowing it to evolve beyond a single observation (that Sheldon is more like Leonard’s Mother than Leonard) to its psychological impact, allowing Leonard to actually get angry rather than just annoyed with the way his mother treats him. But as opposed to stretching its characters to allow the ramifications of their relationship to really come to the surface, the episode goes down an entirely different path, getting everyone drunk and making fools of themselves to provide a raucous conclusion.
Like many good guest stars, Baranski elevates the material, but forgive me if I can’t help but have a case of Big Bang Theory Weltschmerz: I look at the ideal episode in my head, and then at what we’re actually given, and I can’t help but be a bit saddened (especially considering how the show ended its Christmas episode last year).
When someone thinks of what a good Christmas episode should be, “Chuck vs. Santa Claus” will meet many of these criteria. It has plenty of jokes within the holiday spirit, characters dressed up in seasonal garb, generous samplings of Christmas-themed music, and the absolutely genius decision to have Reginald VelJohnson reprise his role as “Big Al” from Die Hard to go with the episode’s Christmas-themed hostage situation. In these moments this episode felt like what we all expected: one of the most funny and enjoyable shows on television delivering a note of holiday cheer.
But what we got was less an example of a good Christmas episode than it was a demonstration of Chuck’s ability to balance the emotional with the hilarious, the dramatic with the comic, and the danger with the laughter. When things seemed to be wrapping up too neatly at the halfway point of the episode, it became clear this was about something more: it was about learning how far people were willing to go to protect those they loved, and continued a long streak of fantastic dramatic work from both Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski.
It’s another fantastic episode, if not quite the one we expected, from a show that put together quite a great opening to the season.
If there is a recipe for a good Christmas episode, it’s primarily comprised of two things: heart and musical numbers. This is all I really ask for: a Christmas episode, even for a comedy, where Christmas is just a punchline and where nobody breaks out into song is just not the kind of lively affair that I want to see at this time of year. Thankfully for 30 Rock, they got the basics right: “Christmas Special” had plenty of heart, and featured a nice end-of-episode musical number that warmed the cockles of my overtired and somewhat chilly heart.
As far as episodes of 30 Rock go, it was par for the course: Jack is in full of neuroses move over his Mother’s arrival in town (and, worst of all, confined to bedrest with a bell at her side), Liz tries to do something good but lets her own neuroses lead her to doubt the spirit of Christmas and ruin it for two young children, and Tracy and Jenna are used as the entertaining sideshows we appreciate them as. Working in a nice number of secondary characters and some fun lines scattered throughout, a slow-starting episode finds its groove in a heartwarming ending to certainly end up as NBC’s most festive (and satisfying) comedy in the hour.
I’m, admittedly, a sucker for a good Christmas special; this time of year is always quite enjoyable for precisely these types of events, things that wouldn’t be seen during a different time of year. Collecting together numerous recording artists and television personalities in a New York soundstage to create a Christmas special with humorously-themed songs isn’t something that happens every day, and that’s one of many things that I enjoy about this season.
What “A Colbert Christmas” does best is revel in its unique place within the pop cultural spectrum, one based on the duality of its star. Stephen Colbert (the character) is a conservative pundit who fights against the war on Christmas, while Stephen Colbert (the performer) is a hit amongst young liberals. What you get, then, is an entertaining cross-section: Toby Keith stops by the rebel against those who are trying to fight against this most sacred of holidays, while indie darling Feist is just as comfortable as an angelic switchboard operator.
When the special is at its most comfortable, it’s wonderfully entertaining; it never lets Colbert’s character go too far, and its use of its guest stars never drops below “mildly disinterested and awkward to be acting in front of a green screen.” Where it does go a little off the rails, with an overly obnoxious laugh track, feels like an honest enough error in judgment; I just wish they would have trusted us to insert our own laugh track, because I think they would have come out just fine.