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A still from ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’, a ‘Community’ episode.
A still from ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’, a ‘Community’ episode.

Christmas special: Have yourself a telly little Christmas

  • Two excellent, and vastly different, Christmas episodes from ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Community’
  • One unfolds in the White House, the other in a stop-motion winter wonderland, but they’re linked by their yuletide theme

The president of America asks his young aide whether his daughter would like a handsomely bound translation of a Latin poem for Christmas. “I think she would like that better than a new stereo, sir," he deadpans. The president, bless his soul, doesn’t take the hint. Meanwhile, in a stop-motion winter wonderland, a young man and a grumpy teddy bear are passing Carol Canyon, where Christmas songs play. “Will it cost a lot to walk through here?" asks the bear, concerned about licensing fees ballooning the budget of the show he’s in. “No," assures the young man who has drawn up this animated world, “public domain."

On Christmas, American television serves comfort food.

Hatchets are buried and peace pipes smoked as characters come together around the idea of festive cheer—an excuse for schmaltz, even in shows that wouldn’t otherwise make room for mawkish sentimentality. Asked to write a Christmas column, I decided to revisit two of my favourite special episodes. As with all seriously solid episodes, you can watch these without knowledge of the shows they are in—but what shows these two are. These shows wouldn’t normally be mentioned in the same breath, yet thanks to the overriding Yuletide theme, they work perfectly back-to-back.

First we have In Excelsis Deo from The West Wing. Written by Aaron Sorkin at a time when he was teaching television just how bright dialogue can be, this is the 10th episode of a fabulous first season, streaming in India on Amazon Prime Video. It isn’t what you would expect from a Christmas episode per se, and yet—a girl wants skis as a present, a president hangs out with children and buys rare books, and one of the many White House crises mentioned in this episode includes “Santa hats clashing with the Dickensian costumes".

The show’s trademark walking-and-talking is in full swing as deputy communications director Sam Seaborn bickers with his immediate boss, Toby Ziegler, about when the new millennium actually begins, and press secretary C.J. Cregg learns that her new Secret Service code name is “flamingo". Allison Janney is in terrific form as CJ, fighting for the White House to revisit hate crime legislation, and trying to make Christmas plans with all the men she works with—before deciding to go on a date instead.

Toby is played by Richard Schiff, who won an Emmy for this season — this episode won Sorkin and Rick Cleveland the award for Outstanding Writing In A Drama Series—and he holds this episode together. The usually omniscient Ziegler is having an odd day: A war veteran has died homeless, on the street, and Ziegler can’t turn away. Instead, he walks around in a giant overcoat, having to reluctantly tell people that he is, in fact, rather powerful. In Excelsis Deo was originally telecast in 1999, twenty Decembers ago, a time when it seemed plausible that the stoning of one student would open up a heated political debate on changing legislation. How naive it all seems now. How very... Christmas.

*****

Created by Dan Harmon, Community came to us in 2009 looking deceptively basic: a crew of misfits stumbling through a disorganized community college. It was in its second season that Harmon and his characters—now playing off each other too well to let archetypes get in the way—truly let it rip, going wilder with each episode, leaping through genres and going meta in a way no live-action show had gone before. With this outrageous show consistently raising the bar, a special Christmas episode simply had to be something else.

Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, the 11th episode of season 2 (streaming in India on Sony Liv) is entirely in stop-motion—an episode where a Christmas pterodactyl swoops in to carry unwanted characters away—and yet it miraculously stays consistent with the show’s reality. Played by Danny Pudi, Abed Nadir is a dedicated film and television geek, and he has woken up on a December morning seeing the world in stop-motion. After Abed fondles an Asian student thinking he’s a snowman, his concerned friends bring in a psych professor (voiced by John Oliver, no less) who suggests they all play along with Abed’s delusions so that his mental conflict can be resolved and everything can return to normal.

“Asterisk," adds Jeff Winger, certain that Abed has never known normality. Fair enough, since the snowy world inside Abed’s head is a disturbing place, where characters are tested “Wonka style" and eliminated as other characters sing about them. The Jeff song starts thus: “Bitter shallow hipster, sweater matches socks..." It is, in a way, a send-up of every Christmas special there is, while being a true-blue sentimental Christmas episode in itself. My top gag from the show involves a DVD of the first season of the show Lost. Is that what the whole episode has been about? “No," informs the all-indexing Abed, “It’s a metaphor. It represents lack of payoff."

Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas pays off spectacularly. Harmon did nutty things later in Community and does arguably stranger stuff with his ongoing series, Rick And Morty, but this season is where the paper-plane of Community first soared, and this episode may well be its bravest. It’s magical to have a story that can simultaneously be entirely, knowingly ironic and yet committedly, achingly sincere.

*****

Christmas is a time of cheer—only because we say it is. It’s a time when we want things to be merry and shiny and gift-wrapped and surprising, and, like Abed, we shove the everyday aside in order to make that happen. And like the West Wing episode shows us, an inscription can mean more than a present. Season’s greetings to you, my fellow viewers. Watch on. When an episode of television is wrapped just right, it brings alive thoughts that count.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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