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by Bill Gibron

27 Dec 2009

It’s good to know that George Lucas has a sense of humor…and no, we don’t mean the inclusion of flamboyantly gay Hutt Zero in the recent Clone Wars animated series. Where once it was verboten to take the piss out of the Dark Lord’s Skywalker saga, shows like Robot Chicken and Family Guy have actually had licensed cooperation to do so. While the former has done consistently clever things with its more vignette and sketch comedy approach to satire, Seth MacFarlane’s first attempted Star Wars spoof - the two part “Blue Harvest” episode - was borderline awful. So reverent it forgot to be funny, you could sense a show uncertain about how far to push the Luke and Leia laughs.

Now comes the necessary sequel - Something, Something, Something, Dark Side - and it’s safe to say it’s a solid improvement over the erratic Episode IV flub. New to DVD and Blu-ray, it’s a recognizable return to form. Again, the Family Guy brain trust decides to more or less regurgitate the plot of Empire Strikes Back beat for beat. We get the ice planet Hoth, the Tauntaun as sleeping bag, the Imperial Walkers battle, the trip to the Dagoba system, Yoda fu, and the Cloud City confrontation between Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, bounty hunter Boba Fett and interstellar cowboy Han Solo. Even though it clocks in at less than a hour, Guy manages to get almost all of it in. And thanks to a clever use of cast members as sci-ficons, the lampoon is mostly spot-on…mostly.

Like before, oldest son Chris Griffin is Luke, while youngest child Stewie is a pitch perfect Darth Vader (reminiscent of Rick Moranis’ turn in Spaceballs with a hefty dose of the clipped Christopher Lee from the nauseating Wars prequels). Peter is Han, dog Brian is Chewbacca, while wife Lois is Leia. Sex fiend Quagmire is a rather subdued C-3PO while black neighbor Cleveland is R2D2. Sadly, daughter Meg is relegated to little more than a cameo, her only Wars-oriented line actually commenting on said fact.

In between we get bits from favorite characters like wheelchair bound cop Joe, Herbert the Pervert, fey Bruce, and the incredibly Jewish Mort Goldman. Toss in a bunch of mindless asides, black-outs, one-off in-jokes, and antiquated homages and you’ve got the makings for a decent deconstruction. However, one can’t help feeling that this should be funnier - sharper, fresher, more outrageous and in-your-face. It’s Family Guy, after all.

Indeed, the biggest problem that Something, Something, Something, Dark Side suffers from is this desire to retell the Star Wars saga. Instead of using the material as a jumping off point - which is what Robot Chicken does - MacFarlane et. al. are like geekiest geeks in all of geekdom. Sure, they turn everyone’s favorite gun for hire into the famed Giant Chicken, but then they make the formidable fowl do little except repeat the infamous Fett’s lines nearly word-for-word. Instead of exploring the possibilities of convenience store manager Carl as Yoda, we get a couple of pop culture riffs (Van Wilder and Teen Wolf) followed by more of Lucas’ own borrowed mythology. As with Blue Harvest, the Guy gang just can’t break away and make the material their own. Instead, they simply substitute their “cast” for the classic names we all know and hope that will be enough.

Sometimes, it is. Stewie is terrific as Vader, the most fully realized ridiculing in all the Stars’ send-up. From his expert line readings to oddball tangents, one hopes the show gets around to doing Episodes I through III, if only to see the wicked little rugrat take the horrid Hayden Christensen down a few delicious notches. Equally entertaining are several of the minor performers, pieces of a comic puzzle that don’t always come together, put definitely capable of bringing a smile as they try. While Chris is acceptable as Luke, Peter is far too passive as Han to make a decent mockery. It would be nice to see more of original star Harrison Ford’s hambone bravado. Heck, we don’t even see a lot of Papa Griffin’s patented scatology.

The reason for all this safeguarding seems to come from the bonus features. MacFarlane and company are present for a jovial commentary track which illustrates some of the source material hurdles they had to over come, as well as insufferable studio mandates that had to be dealt with. In addition, the Blu-ray has a trivia track which highlights some of the same “back to the drawing board” decisions. In essence, because they were working with the blessing of Lucas (within limits) and the bottom line wary gaze of Fox, there wasn’t a great deal of farce freedom. One good thing - the home theater version keeps the foul mouthed swears intact. If you ever wanted to hear Han Solo tell Princess Leia to “F” herself, this is the title for you.

With a look at the next Wars workout (a take on Return of the Jedi) and a decent collection of behind the scenes elements (including an animatic with director discussion), Something, Something, Something, Dark Side is a first rate digital package. Where it falls down a little is on the non-theatrical tech specs. Sure, Family Guy is a TV series, and as such, stuck in a 1.33:1 full screen presentation (for now), but did this Blu-ray version have to stay within such strictures. The image is amazing, the 1080p image delivering lots of detail. So why not go the extra mile and “open up” the digital package to a more cinematic 16x9 experience. The 5.1 Master Audio option tries to. Some of the gorgeous CG animation just begs for a widescreen viewing.

For many, such format flaws won’t matter. Something, Something, Something Dark Side will remind them of why they fell in love with Family Guy in the first place, while giving them split sides over their favorite heroes and villain space opera. They will giggle at the extended Darth fart joke and love every “F” and “S” bomb dropped. Yet it’s ironic that Seth Green, creator and oddball wizard behind Robot Chicken is also a member of the Guy cast. When he takes on the most hailed and harangued movie saga of all time, he’s not afraid to take risks, push buttons, and slaughter a few sacred cows along the way. It’s a lesson MacFarlane and his faithful could learn from. While better than Blue Harvest, Something, Something etc. needed to be edgier. Instead, it’s a genial, if genuine, romp. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Dec 2009

There are very few visionaries left in Hollywood, with even fewer arriving every day - and with good reason. It’s not easy pitching your quirky, esoteric product to a group of suits solely interested in the bottom line. Today’s business model is about money, not the mind’s eye. Not matter how artistically pleasing or aesthetically sound, you just can’t stay completely true to your muse and not face some strong commercial (and career) backlash. That’s why Shane Acker’s story is so intriguing. After an Oscar nomination highlighted his beautiful, baroque animation approach, filmmakers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov championed his jump to feature films. The result is 9 (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), a stunning, if narratively stunted exercise in optical bliss and plotting hit or miss that could have been better if it wasn’t so basic. 

As one of nine living burlap puppets in a desolate, post-War environment, our title hero hooks up with the rest of his reanimated brethren: ‘1’, a despotic leader; ‘2’, a kindly sage, ‘3’ and ‘4’, twins who work in an information archive; ‘5’ whose one eyed façade hints at the horrors in this frightening new domain; ‘6’, who sees prophecy in the images he draws; ‘7’, a female fighter with more nerve than other of her kind, and ‘8’, a lumbering bodyguard to 1’s stern leadership. Together, they must figure out what happened to the human population while stopping a massive factory-sized machine from creating destructive devices bent on bringing about their own demise. Eventually, ‘9’ uncovers a secret about why he’s alive, and the power that such a status holds in bringing humanity back from the brink of utter extinction.

9 is the kind of movie that breaks your heart. It shows so much promise, but then wastes it on the same old fuddy duddy future shock storyline. After all, how many times do we have to sit through a “man vs. machines” parable where our arrogance and technological drive leads to our eventual undoing. Sure, director Shane Acker dresses it all up in World War I/II paraphernalia, the Nazi/Fascist overtones carried throughout with sledgehammer like subtlety. True, the tone is not child friendly, but geared more toward the Goth guy/gal and geek mentality. And yes, the voice work is absolutely amazing, everyone from Elijah Wood (as 9) to Crispin Glover (6), John C. Reilly (5), and Jennifer Connelly (7) spot-on in their delivery and demeanor.

But that doesn’t make the mechanical monster mash any newer or more novel. 9 constantly reminds the audience of The Matrix (especially in the look of its villains), The Terminator (in its ‘A.I. gone gonzo’ themes), and numerous other examples of the speculative type. Of course, all of this was planned purposefully. On the commentary track that accompanies the home video release Acker and his collaborators spend an inordinate amount of time on the plot, believing quite incorrectly that they have somehow stumbled upon an original storyline. Along with an equally schizophrenic spiritual message - more on that in a moment - we are stuck following formulas that would barely work at all if not for Ackers amazing artistry.

Indeed, the one thing that saves this proposed CG epic is the jaw-dropping production and character design. Whenever the story starts to lag, whenever the references become too recognizable or obvious, Acker delivers a robot or wide reaction shot that will absolutely floor you. He crafts vistas that take your breath away while populating them with particulars of equal optical excellence. Like the best kind of magician, 9 misdirects you from the misguided man behind the curtain to visual splendor that steals the show. One of the best elements of the Blu-ray release is the in-depth look at how the characters were created, along with illustrations of the themes, art design details, and voice over challenges involved.

Still, we are stuck with narrative facets that don’t feel right. The whole “soul” situation makes little or no sense, the ability to trap such an enigmatic ideal in a tiny doll appearing counterproductive to the rest of the story’s set-up. In fact, it feels like a cheat, a way of showing audiences that, in the end, the human race will somehow be saved. It doesn’t help that each of our nine leads are locked into caricaturist confines - champion, coward, iron fisted ruler, deliberate dreamer - making their path to the planet’s repopulation sketchy at best. And Acker never really explains his sci-fi rules here, something that is imperative in making this material work. Clearly, he was busier with the nuts and bolts of the film’s look than in trying to make everything in his wistful wasteland work in a literarily sound way.

And yet 9 defies you not to be moved by its visual acumen. Acker is clearly a genius in combining ideas, using a clever combination of the Victorian and the high tech, the junkyard and the completely foreign to forge a unique and memorable ideal. Sure, his puppets are nothing more than your standard sell-through figurines, but the rest of this rotting world has a perverse polish all its own. The villains here are undeniably evil in their cobbled together terror tenets. While the story never knocks us out, the action sequences and attention to detail certainly do. By the end, when we’ve wandered over from battles to matters of belief, the contrasts become more obvious. We need the bad to shore up the good. Without it, the treacle takes over, and the result is something that never quite feels new, even with all the up-to-date aspects of its approach up on the screen for all to see.

With an inferred demographic who will find this frequently flying way over their grumbling gradeschooler heads, it’s hard to see 9 becoming anything other than an obvious cult classic. Those who adore it will excuse the lack of narrative nuance, while others in the cinematic sect will worship individual elements like they are sure signs from God himself. One thing is for certain - Shane Acker has a seemingly boundless imagination that can salvage even the most simplistic, standardized sci-fi plot. 9 could have been a true animation masterpiece, the kind that rarely come along outside of a place called Pixar. Instead, it wastes a lot of creative energy on a concept that’s been before - and frankly, outside of the CG eye candy involved, better. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Dec 2009

For Mike Judge, the world is divided into the fringe - and then everyone else. His movies don’t center around young urban professionals living angst-filled lives in the big city, or high powered businessmen transacting trepidation from their unsure international connections. No, for the man responsible for a couple of backward adolescent metal heads named Beavis and Butthead, the marginalized members of society offer a far more appealing source of inspiration. The working Joes, the suffering single mothers - these are the people he wants to party with. And in his latest live action film, Extract (now out on Blu-ray and DVD), that’s exactly what he does. Within the small Texas town where flavoring manufacturer Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman) has set up shop, an entire universe of karma, pro and con, is about to unravel - and Judge can’t wait to show us how it happens.

Things are not going well for our eager entrepreneur. He is married to a woman (Kristen Wiig) who uses sweatpants as a barrier toward sexual intimacy and his workers run the gamut from the socially awkward to the borderline retarded. One day, wannabe floor supervisor Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.) suffers a horrible accident that almost costs him his testicles. Simultaneously, Joel gets a buy-out offer from General Mills. The potential lawsuit turns the deal from certain to unsure. Still, our hero is convinced he can work things out. Into his life walks smoking hot temp Cindy (Mila Kunis). Seeing her as someone who sympathizes with his plight, Joel gets bartender buddy Dean (Ben Affleck) to set up his wife with a gigolo. That way, when she cheats, he can be with Cindy blame free. What he doesn’t know, however, is that this new girl is a con artists, using Step to set up Joel for a huge multimillion dollar settlement.

In a year which has seen four men foul Las Vegas in ways only previous Sin City bachelor parties could ever dream of and stand-ups who substitute jokes about their manhood for true observational wit, Extract comes as quite a shock. Not because it out-filths The Hangover or out dicks Funny People. No, what’s really quite amazing about Judge’s fourth feature film is how character driven and situational it is. Unlike the current crop of comedies that set their sights on the scatological and then dive directly into the toilet, the man who made King of the Hill a long running hit for Fox deals in recognizable archetypes and authentic insights into humanity. Sure, his characters may be dumb, or disconnected, or just plain dense. Granted, the narrative only works if everyone, from Joel on down to Cindy, stays oblivious to what is clearly happening right before their eyes. But when sketching out the populace in such a sharp, satiric manner, things don’t have to be 100% realistic.

Extract is an excellent example of what the Coen Brothers do effortlessly - minus the movie history homages and sublime stylizations. It’s a microcosm comedy, small things blown up into universal truths. Judge clearly sympathizes with Joel, but he also understands Cindy’s motives, Step’s concerns, and the sleazy shyster lawyer (an amazing cameo) who waltzes in to undermine the company. Within each set-up are little moments of genuineness, times when the farcical façade drops and the characters voice something that seems authentic and personally plausible. If that’s all there was to it, however, Extract would be dull. It would be schizophrenic without any real focus, a proposed comedy where the only thing that works is the random interpersonal epiphanies.

But as anyone who’s followed his career knows, Judge has a wicked sense of humor, albeit a sly, subtle, and very droll one. As in Office Space, and to some extent, Idiocracy, he locates the moments of undeniable wit and then works to build them into a plausible narrative thread. Take Step’s situation. Sure, there are plenty of ball jokes and references, but Extract is not obsessed with genitals. Instead, Judge uses the slapstick set-up to delve deeper into people’s personal lives and ambitions. There is a marvelous scene between Joel and his injured worker where it is made very clear what they both really want. It’s touching and tender, and doesn’t devolve into a series of literal crotch shots. It’s the same with every potential gross out gag in the film. From a pot smoking sequence between Joel and his buddy Dean, to the world’s dimmest male prostitute, Judge takes what could be over the top and moderates it, winningly.

His casting is also top notch. Bateman is excellent as Joel, giving him enough melancholy to make us care, but never undermining his internal business acumen. He knows how to keep his company safe, even if his personal life is suffering. Affleck is also very funny as Dean, Joel’s bartender buddy and occasional indirect drug connection. Long haired, blitzed out, and blessed with no real moral compass, he provides Extract with some of its wilder moments. As Step, Clifton Collins Jr. continues his rise to character actor prominence, doing backwater bumpkin with just enough common sense to avoid being a cliché. About the only underdeveloped role here is that of Mila Kunis’ Cindy. Sure, she looks good, and sets up several of the film’s biggest laughs, but we never get beyond the basics with her. So she uses her body and her brains to get what she wants - what’s the real story?

Sadly, the new Blu-ray release does little to illuminate Judge’s process. There is no commentary, no in-depth behind the scenes documentary. Instead, we are treated to a few deleted scenes, a couple of extended scenes, and an EPK-like discussion of the “recipe” for making this kind of movie. As a frequently marginalized filmmaker (both Office Space and Idiocracy saw little or no support from their studio), it would be nice to hear the man speak up for himself. Sadly, the home theater version of Extract doesn’t do that. 

As such, Judge remains an enigma. He frequently opens doors he has no desire to walk through, giving up people, places, and particulars that may not have planned, pristine conclusions. He will take Joel’s relationship with his wife, complicated via a borderline brain dead paid paramour, and then let the consequences flow organically. On the other hand, he will use a seemingly ancillary character, a pest who offers his own unusual set of comic conventions every time he’s onscreen, and make him the catalyst to another highpoint in the story. Some will see Extract as nothing more than a bunch of idiots doing idiotic things without a rational rhyme or reason for their continuing cockeyed cluelessness. Sadly, such an opinion misses the much bigger picture. Mike Judge enjoys dealing with the marginal and the disenfranchised. It’s where he finds the most honesty - and hilarity. While it may only deliver it in small doses, Extract ends up satisfying in a very big way.

by Bill Gibron

24 Dec 2009

When Santa sits back in his North Pole office and tallies up the boy and girl balance sheet every year, one wonders what exactly he uses as a means of measurement. It used to be that obeying one’s parents, doing well in school, and avoiding the pitfalls and problems of growing up were the essential benchmarks for a ranking of “good”, while putting a tack on teacher’s chair, pouring ink on Mommy’s rug and filling the sugar bowl with ants warranted a score of “bad” and a mandatory gift of furnace fuel. But now, in a world that excuses almost any behavior as part of the maturation process, it must be impossible to differentiate between disobedient and merely misunderstood.

The same thing applies to seasonal films. For everyone who wants nothing but visions of sugarplums and candy cane wishes, there are people who prefer their seasons greetings more mocking and satiric. Then there are a chosen few who can effortlessly manage between the two ideals, easily enjoying both the joyful and the jaundiced. Therefore, SE&L will separate its list of the best Christmas/holiday films of all time into two categories – naughty and nice. It’s the only way to cover all the jingle bell basics and make sure that everyone’s Yule is as cool as possible. While far from definitive, the undeniable delights of the divergent films featured guarantee no cinematic coal in any film fans stocking.

1. Nice: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Forget all the ridiculous remakes and stick with the sparkling and effervescent original. This terrific take on the commercialization of the season never fails to bring a smile to even the most mean, miserable face. Featuring Edmund Gwenn in a role that would redefine the personification of Santa for decades to come, this masterful little fable about belief and hope is a breathtaking combination of cynical and magical – the perfect combination of Christmas then and now.



2. Naughty: Christmas Evil

Asking the disturbing question of how society would react to someone taking the role of Santa seriously, Lewis Jackson’s amazing motion picture assessment of one man’s descent into Kringle craziness remains a forgotten mistletoed masterpiece. In the lead role, Brandon Maggart spends his days in a toy factory, his nights making lists of the local school children. But when he finally ventures out on Christmas Eve, his moralistic intentions become confused, creating a memorable spree of Yuletide terror.
 


3. Nice: A Christmas Story

Few remember that Bob Clark’s now traditional cinematic treat was an unfettered flop when it first hit theaters in November of 1983. Apparently, audiences weren’t quite prepared to experience the knowing nostalgia of holidays circa the pre-War era. It took home video, and dozens of showings on Turner stations like TBS, to transform this clever comic take on holidays past into a timeless seasonal celebration. Now, devotees wouldn’t be caught dead missing a single moment of this festive familial farce.



4. Naughty: Black Christmas (1976)

Bob Clark again, this time utilizing the holiday season for his inventive twist on the slasher film. Without the strict cinematic mandates that the genre would require throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Clark created the first subversive slice and dice, providing little explanation for the sorority attacks, and no actual resolution. With a narrative featuring eerie phone calls from a horrifying killer named Billy, this film is a perfect antidote for all the tinsel and treacle.



5. Nice: Scrooge

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has long been considered a Saturnalia standard. But of all the versions of his venerable Victorian allegory, this 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney is the most magical. Using an Oliver-esque approach to its recreation of London (read: grimy and grim) and amplifying the story’s supernatural elements, director Ronald Neame and composer Leslie Bricusse deliver a wonderfully winning effort, truer to the literary classic than any other adaptation out there.



6. Naughty: Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas

Stealing the stop motion animation crown from those loveable TV titans Rankin and Bass, Burton scripted a timeless treasure that suits both Santa and Satan quite well. As poor misguided Jack Skellington, the King of Halloweentown, tries to unravel the secrets of Christmas’ festive feeling of fun, we are treated to a world loaded with artistic marvels and inventive iconography. Perfectly suited for October or December, this is one flight of fancy that grows more and more magical, year after year.



7. Nice: The Polar Express

Some still find this first experiment in CGI rotoscoping to be a little disconcerting – the humans do appear rather stiff and disturbing in their zombie like blankness – but no one can fault Robert Zemeckis’ Christmas Card come to life look for the film. Thanks to the 3D imagery, this movie comes alive with startling seasonal symbols and moments of sheer cinematic bliss. Like most holiday treasures, its thrills are as universal as a smile and as special as the time of year.



8. Naughty: Lucky Stiff

Another forgotten masterwork, this time centering on an overweight lonely heart that’s invited to a Christmas celebration by a red hot honey he meets at a ski resort. Oh course, she and her family are cannibals, cruising the country for fatted ‘calves’ to clean and dress for their own festive flesh feast. Starring voice-over artist Joe Alasky as the blimp, and Donna Dixon as the blonde with an eye for prime man meat, this quirky black comedy delivers nonstop laughs.



9. Nice: It’s a Wonderful Life

Like A Christmas Story, Frank Capra’s look at the fragility of the American dream was more or less ignored by late ‘40s audiences. But once TV took up its cause, and a lapsed copyright allowed unlimited home video releases, the once overlooked gem became a true seasonal standard. Featuring fine turns by Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, what some found almost anti-American 60 years ago is now viewed as the perfect piece of old school Hollywood craftsmanship.



10. Naughty: Bad Santa

Nothing illustrates our post-modern mindset toward the holidays better than this crude family film about a drunk and debaucherous Santa who uses his department store position as a means of casing joints for his annual Xmas eve robberies. Unfortunately, a chubby little gingersnap known only as “The Kid” throws our Kris Kringle crook for a loop. The result is both hilarious and heartwarming, with just enough scatology thrown in to keep the Noel nasty.

by Meghan Lewit

24 Dec 2009

This time of year typically brings us a slew of holiday themed television and lots of list-y goodness celebrating the best in pop culture from the year that was. In an effort to combine these two end-of-year staples, I thought I’d compile my definitive list of the best holiday episodes EVER.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few classics. But pointing out the holes is half the fun of the list, right? So, let the countdown begin:

10. The O.C.: “The Best Chrismukkah Ever”
As I am myself the product of a Jewish father and a shiksa mother, I have to give credit to The O.C. for combining the best of Christmas and Hanukkah into one über-holiday. (It’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got both Jesus and Moses on your side.) The episode also features all the hallmarks of classic season one The O.C.: a love triangle, a Newport Beach party, a drunken Marissa Cooper… and a partridge in a pear tree.

9. A Very Brady Christmas (1988)
I admit this one may be a bit of a cheat, since it’s actually a made-for-TV movie. However,  it did launch the short-lived “adult” series The Bradys, and so it makes the list. The family Brady reunites at the old homestead, but holiday cheer is low as all the kids are now dealing with grown-up problems. Greg and his wife can’t agree on where to spend the holidays; Peter is dating his female boss who (horror!) makes more money than him; Jan is having marital problems of her own; Bobby wants to be a racecar driver; Cindy is still tired of being treated like the baby; and former cheerleader Marcia somehow ended up married to an oaf named Wally. Even poor Alice is back with her old employers, having split with Sam the Butcher. But, in true Brady fashion, the family puts their problems aside and pulls together when Mike gets trapped inside a caved-in building. The whole thing is deliciously, unironically campy, but I challenge you not to choke up just a little bit when Mike emerges from the rubble as Carol and the kids sing “O Come All Ye Faithful”.

8. The Simpsons: “Grift of the Magi”
During the past 20 seasons there have been many a holiday-themed Simpsons episode—but only one that features an appearance by a wee, animated Gary Coleman as a toy factory security guard who tries to stop Lisa, Bart and Homer from destroying an evil toy called Funzo.

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Amends”
Angel—recently returned from a Hell dimension—is haunted by the ghosts of his murderous past. While trying to help him, Buffy encounters the First Evil (who we meet again as the big bad of season 7) and snow falls on Sunnydale after a poignant confrontation between the star (sun?) crossed lovers.

6. Frasier: “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”
A classic example of the kind of highbrow farce that was Frasier’s stock in trade. In order to not upset the mother of his latest girlfriend, Frasier pretends to be Jewish—meaning he has to frantically scramble to hide the Christmas ham, the tree and his brother Niles (the sublime David Hyde Pierce), who happens to be dressed as Jesus. Frasier and his father also attempt to have an emotional heart-to-heart, with disastrous results. “We never should have tried this, we’re not Jewish!”

5. The West Wing: “Noel”
Season one’s “In Excelisus Deo” is often held up as the gold standard of West Wing holiday epsiodes, but I’m always partial to a Josh Lyman-centric story, so I’m going with season two’s melancholic “Noel.” Still dealing with the fallout of the Rosslyn shooting, Leo calls in a psychiatrist (Adam Arkin) to help Josh come to terms with his post-traumatic stress disorder. The episode’s emotional climax is juxtaposed with a haunting performance by Yo-Yo Ma, and ends with a rather lovely moment in which Leo tells Josh, “as long as I got a job, you got a job.”

4. 30 Rock: “Ludachristmas”
Not wanting to spend the holiday with his irascible mother (hilariously played by Elaine Stritch), Jack attaches himself to Liz’s more wholesome family (including guest stars Buck Henry and Andy Richter, also hilarious). Meanwhile, over in the B plot, Tracy is forced into sobriety by a court-ordered alcohol monitoring device that threatens to put a damper on the annual “Ludachristmas” celebration, and Kenneth’s attempts to impart the true spirit of the holiday season leads to the group attempting to chop down the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

3. Seinfeld: “The Strike”
This episode did more than just create a pop culture buzzword; it invented an entirely new holiday. Frank Costanza introduced the world to Festivus (for the rest of us), a holiday that includes a celebratory aluminum pole, feats of strength and the all-important airing of grievances.

2. Veronica Mars: “An Echolls Family Christmas”
There’s not much comfort and joy in Neptune as Veronica is enlisted to find out who stole Weevil’s winnings in a high stakes poker game at the Echolls’ house. (“Annoy tiny blonde one, annoy like the wind!”) Meanwhile, Veronica’s P.I. dad tries to protect movie star Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin) from a stalker. Secrets are revealed and plots become twistier in one of the cleverest episodes of the brilliant teen noir series.

1. The Office (UK): Christmas Special (Parts 1 & 2)
Before Jim and Pam, there was Tim and Dawn. The original BBC mockumentary about office drones at a paper company consisted of 12 perfect episodes of bone-dry British humor and concluded with a two-part Christmas special that gave its characters (and viewers) the happy ending they deserved. Tim and Dawn find love and even buffoonish, ex-boss David Brent finds a measure of redemption in a special that also stands as one of the best series finales of all time.

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