It’s a time to spend with loved ones, but that’s no reason to give up your binge-watching habit.
Christmas is a time to spend with friends and family, but that’s no reason to give up your binge-watching habit. Luckily, there are plenty of episodes from great TV shows that you can stream right now, which are sure to fill you with holiday cheer. So go curl up alone with a bottle of Baileys, or sit with your loved ones by a roaring fire, and get ready for some Christmas spirit, courtesy of our our lord and savior: television.
1) Doctor Who — “The Christmas Invasion” (Netflix, Hulu)
Christmas specials are a staple of British TV, and Doctor Who is no exception. But “The Christmas Invasion” is one of the stranger holiday specials in recent memory. That’s because it puts the focus squarely on the Doctor’s companion, Rose (Billie Piper), while the Doctor himself is busy regenerating. As Rose does the best she can to stop an alien invasion with the help of her family and friends, the special gives her a chance to be the show’s main hero, rather than just playing second fiddle—a dynamic which Doctor Who explores all too rarely. Of course, when the new Doctor does jump into action, David Tennant proved almost immediately that he would be as compelling and as unique a Time Lord as the show ever had. —Chris Osterndorf
2) Gilmore Girls — “The Bracebridge Dinner” (Netflix)
Although “Forgiveness and Stuff” is a particular favorite among fans (and features a walk-on role from a young Jane Lynch), “The Bracebridge Dinner” is the Gilmore clan’s finest feast. Not only does the episode treat you to a Björk-inspired snowman (or woman, rather), this underrated season 2 entry features some classic Gilmore banter—including their riffs on The Godfather Part III and ugly baby Christmas cards. After receiving a card featuring a couple’s unfortunate-looking offspring, Lorelai asks, “Do they not understand we are unapologetic mockers?” Rory quickly retorts, “There’s an unexplained innocence in the world.” These little moments are why we keep going back to Gilmore Girls, well over a decade later. —Nico Lang
3) The Sopranos — “To Save Us All From Satan’s Power” (HBO GO, HBO Now, Amazon Prime)
The Sopranos is a dark show, and even when it gets Christmas-y, that doesn’t change. But unlike some of the more serious shows in this most recent Golden Age of Television, The Sopranos is also consistently funny and relentlessly clever, all of which is fully on display in “To Save Us All From Satan’s Power.” The episode finds patriarch Tony Soprano reminiscing about the life and death of former friend and business affiliate Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero—who perished at his hands—around the holidays. It’s a strangely poignant reminder of how Christmas makes everyone nostalgic, for better or worse. The episode also ends with a perfect, pitch black joke, when Tony gets a gift that calls back to Big Pussy’s untimely end. —CO
4) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — “My Mom, Greg’s Mom and Josh’s Sweet Dance Moves!” (Hulu)
One of this season’s sweetest surprises, the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, took on the holidays’ most painful tradition: trying to win your parents’ approval. In the low-rated musical comedy’s first holiday-themed episode, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) invites her mother (Tovah Feldshuh) to West Covina, California, to celebrate Hanukkah. Rebecca, a “Level-Five Mom Pleaser,” proceeds to Photoshop her life to meet her mother’s high demands. For instance, she tells Mrs. Bunch that her work, a legal firm populated by misfits, is a volunteer job. She’s helping “underprivileged lawyers.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend nails not only the lengths we go to keep others happy but also the complex relationships between parents and their children, ones motivated by stern disapproval just as much as they are by the even more elusive emotion of love. —NL
5) Frasier — “High Holidays” (Netflix, Hulu)
For a show that always dared to be smart, “High Holidays” is so simple it verges on being actively dumb. Frasier’s elderly father, Martin (John Mahoney) eats a pot brownie intended for his brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), and hijinks ensue. It’s one of Frasier’s most absurdly hysterical storylines, and the subplot, involving Frasier’s son, Freddie (Trevor Einhorn, who went on to have a recurring role on Mad Men), and his decision to become a goth, is also very funny. The fact that this is also a Christmas episode, tying back to Frasier’s main theme of family, is almost secondhand to the pure comedic joy of it all. —CO
6) Fresh Off the Boat — “The Real Santa” (Hulu)
It’s rare that we get to see Christmas celebrations filtered through the immigrant experience. In “The Real Santa,” Jessica (Constance Wu) decides that Old Saint Nick is an “underachiever” and decides to “improve” him for her kids—by telling them that he’s actually an accomplished scientist. (Oh, and Santa is Chinese!) The episode is a sly critique of how the blinding whiteness of Christmas makes other cultures feel excluded, while being incredibly sweet. Jessica is so dedicated to the “Lao Ban Santa” myth that she creates a whole guidebook to his origin story so the family can keep up the tradition for years to come.
Also, Constance Wu dressed as Lao Ban Santa—complete with a Yuletide Fu Manchu—is the funniest thing I’ve seen in ages. —NL
7) The Twilight Zone — “The Night of the Meek” (Netflix, Hulu)
“The Night of the Meek” is one of those Twilight Zone installments that tends to get left in the dust when talking about the series’ greatest episodes, but it’s a doozie nonetheless. Starring Art Carney (fun fact: He also appeared in that horrible Star Wars Christmas special) as a different kind of “Bad Santa,” this is The Twilight Zone at its most idealistic. When the aforementioned down on his luck Santa, named Henry Corwin, finds a magical bag which gives out presents, he sets out to help the less fortunate have a better holiday. In typical TTZ fashion, Henry’s journey is filled with twists aplenty, but it ends on a happy note. Turns out even deeply cynical shows like The Twilight Zone can believe in the spirit of Christmas. —CO
8) 30 Rock — “Ludachristmas” (Netflix)
Although season 5’s “Christmas Attack Zone” is also a gem (points for a bonkers good Sullivan’s Travels homage), “Ludachristmas” marked the return of the late Elaine Stritch as Jack’s mother, Colleen Donaghy. Colleen attempts to show Jack the true meaning of Christmas—which, according to her, is that all families are equally screwed up. To illustrate her point, they spend the holiday with Liz’s family—including her brother (played by a spot-on Andy Richter), who can’t remember anything past an accident in 1985. Like in 50 First Dates, he thinks it’s been the same day for 20 years. Of course, Colleen’s influence pushes Christmas into chaos.
It’s a dysfunctional message, but it’s strangely comforting to know that every family gets drunk and ends up fighting on Christmas, just like yours. —NL
9) Seinfeld — “The Strike” (Hulu)
“It’s a Festivus for the rest of us!”
That’s really all you need to know. Jerry’s relationship with the “two-face” woman, George’s creation of “The Human Fund,” Elaine’s quest for a free sub sandwich, Kramer’s return to work at a bagel shop, a young Bryan Cranston: It all pales in comparison to Festivus, the alternative holiday made up by George’s father, Frank. Introducing us to such traditions as the “feats of strength” and the “airing of grievances,” Festivus has taken on a bit of a life of its own since “The Strike” aired. Like so many Seinfeldisms before it, the holiday has become part of the lexicon at large. This is Seinfeld employing all of its many powers, and the endurance of Festivus is proof of it. —CO
10) Arrested Development — “Afternoon Delight” (Netflix)
When you’re the Bluths, Christmas is a time of togetherness, family, and running your son-in-law over with a car while you’re high on pain meds. Arrested Development was at the top of its game in its second season, and “Afternoon Delight” features a number of bits that would become classic moments from the show. As the title suggests, Maeby (Alia Shawkat) and her uncle, Michael (Jason Bateman), sing an accidentally risqué karaoke cover of the well-known Starland Vocal Band song. (They don’t realize it’s about a midday quickie.) Meanwhile, Tobias (David Cross)—in one of AD’s most inspired gags—disguises himself as a nanny named “Mrs. Featherbottom” in order to get closer to his family, following his estrangement from his wife.
What’s Christmas without a little cross-dressing and incest? —NL
11) The Office — “Christmas Party” (Netflix)
The Office did a lot of great Christmas episodes in its time, but none is quite so emblematic of the show as its first one. Perpetually childish boss Michael Scott throws the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company into chaos, first by going over their $20 limit for Secret Santa and buying intern Ryan an expensive iPod (holy 2005, Batman!), then by changing the game to Yankee Swap, which sets a bidding war in motion for the coveted music player. Feelings get hurt, naturally, and Michael fixes the Christmas party the only way he can—with booze.
It’s an episode that showcases the American Office’s signature bittersweetness and contains some heart-wrenching moments between pre-married/pre-annoying Jim and Pam, which would get called back to later in the series. —CO
12) Community — “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (Hulu)
Throughout its six seasons (and counting!), Community has offered a diverse array of meditations on genre narrative—from spaghetti westerns (“A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More”) to Ken Burns’ PBS miniseries (“Pillows and Blankets”). But one of its most radical experiments was the NBC comedy’s tribute to classic Christmas movies like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. After Abed begins seeing his friends as stop-motion animated characters, the episode is a Polar Express-style journey into Abed’s own psyche, but it’s also a reminder of the limitless bounds of television as an imaginative medium. Community offers us a simple reminder of the joy and communal power of gathering together in front of the TV during the holidays. —NL
13) Mad Men — “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” (Netflix)
What most believe to be Mad Men’s best season also produced its best Christmas episode, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” Featuring one of the worst holiday parties in all of TV history (including the Office party mentioned above), and a particularly sulky Don Draper, who is preparing for his first Christmas away from his children, this episode just screams depression. If we’re being honest, that’s pretty fitting. While the holidays are supposed to be the happiest time of the year, the stress of the season can push almost anyone to the verge of a nervous breakdown. Refreshingly, Mad Men had the audacity to suggest that the fact Christmas only comes once a year is a good thing. —CO
14) Parks and Recreation — “Citizen Knope” (Hulu, Netflix)
What I love most about Parks and Rec is how life-affirming it is, the Golden Age of Television’s answer to Frank Capra. This is a show that profoundly believes in the power of the human spirit, whether it’s to build a better government or support a friend in need. Following a scandal resulting in a two-week suspension from the Parks Department, Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) poll numbers drop in the City Council race. Her staff promptly quits, and her co-workers decide, as a Christmas present, to volunteer to run her campaign. Leslie is shown to be a compassionate friend to others, but rarely do viewers get to see her get something in return. Christmas is about giving, but this episode shows how important the act of receiving can be, too. —NL
15) The Simpsons — “Skinner’s Sense of Snow” (FXNow, Simpsons World)
They may be far more famous for their Halloween shows, but The Simpsons isn’t too shabby in the Christmas department either. Casual viewers should start with season 12’s entry into the Simpsons Christmas canon, “Skinner’s Sense of Snow,” which finds Bart and Lisa, along with the rest of Springfield Elementary students, trapped overnight in the school. Though not as tender (“Marge Be Not Proud”) or as poignant (“Miracle on Evergreen Terrace”) as some of the series’ other Christmas specials, this is its funniest one, especially considering that it came out after the end of what most consider to be The Simpsons’ glory days. —CO
Illustration by Max Fleishman