Since South Park began with a clumsy animation of a knock-down brawl between Santa and Jesus, it’s not surprising that it would have memorable Christmas episodes.
In South Park’s “Red Sleigh Down,” Santa’s sleigh is shot down over Iraq, he's brutally tortured and he's only rescued by a gun-toting Jesus. South Park’s “Woodland Critter Christmas” episode is perhaps even darker: adorable singing woodland critters turn out to be preparing for a blood orgy to summon the Antichrist.
Funny when it first aired. But by now, the dark, twisted, cynical episode is as cliched as the It's a Wonderful Life or Christmas Carol parody episode.
There’s Futurama, which imagines Santa as a killer robot singing Christmas songs about death. Or this year’s American Dad episode, in which Steve Smith accidentally kills Santa Claus, who comes back to life and vows to slaughter the entire Smith family with his army of murderous elves. And then there’s Family Guy, which this year aired an hour-long Christmas special featuring Santa as an overworked sweatshop owner full of inbred elves and carnivorous reindeer with a hunger for elfin flesh. (Oh, and Stewie and Brian accidentally murder an entire family while trying to play Santa Claus.)
But here’s the problem: Dark, twisted Christmas is one joke. And by now, it’s a creaky one.
Christmas is a challenging time to be a snarky, cynical television show ... and still be original. Sneering at Christmas is as lazy as complaining at Valentine’s Day when you’re single. A cynical Christmas episode is a bit like those kids in middle school who refused to smile for their school picture, because acting joyful is so, like, mainstream, man.
It’s not hard to find elements of irony, contradiction, hypocrisy, or darkness in Christmas. It doesn’t take any courage or wit to point those things out.
“Christmas comes with enough irony built in,” Community showrunner Dan Harmon writes on Twitter, explaining why he can’t stand nudge-nudge songs like "Santa Baby" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." “Coldness and Warmth. Ta da.”
That’s probably why the stop-motion animated Community Christmas special aimed to be more sentimental than purely funny.
Doing sentimental without being too ham-handed — that’s what great Christmas episodes strive for. West Wing, for example, won an Emmy for a Christmas episode in which a staffer spends the episode trying to get a military funeral for a homeless Korean War veteran. So, clearly, avoiding cynicism doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all joy and candy canes and dancing sugar plums. In fact (It's a Wonderful Life may be the best example), showing a bit of despair may be necessary for a television episode to understand Christmas.
In a rare genuinely meaningful moment from the Glee Christmas episode, Glee Club teacher Will Schuester explains this:
The first Christmas you remember having is the greatest day of your life. Your family’s all together. There’s loads of presents, cookies. The magic is alive and well. But before you know it, you grow up. Work and school and girlfriends take over and Christmas becomes more of an obligation. A reminder of what’s lost instead of what’s possible. Then, when you get to my age, you’re so desperate to get that magic back, to do anything to feel the way you did that first Christmas.
The rest of the episode, of course, falls prey to unearned sentiment and tries to make us hope a high-school girl will continue to believe in Santa Claus.
Classic Christmas specials are set against the background of depression: You’re a blockhead who can’t even find a decent Christmas tree, you’re a reindeer social outcast or a misfit toy, all your presents were stolen by a Christmas-hating creep.
Then, they’re about finding a scrap of hope or joy amid the crappy circumstances — togetherness, a use for your unique talents and passion, a simple song.
The best Christmas episodes aren’t entirely about the crappy side of Christmas. And the best Christmas episodes are not about Santa — evil or otherwise. Christmas isn’t about pretending to believe in something despite your common sense. It’s about finding elements of redemption within the cold, bitter winter.
Good TV can illuminate that theme in a way that’s sweet, without ever being too sugary.