From the traditional (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas) to the fictional (Festivus, Chrismukkah, Whacking Day), “the holiday episode” has long been one of TV’s mainstays. Most often in sitcoms, and occasionally in dramas, these annual events, whether filled with hijinks or high drama, offer an opportunity to reflect upon—or, just as often, send up—the moments in which we take the measure of our careers, our romances, our friends, our families. As such, “the holiday episode” is an emblem of the medium’s defining feature, which is its ability to unspool stories over lengths of time that reflect the rhythms of our own lives, while simultaneously confining them, for the most part, to an hour or less. Here, according to Paste, are the 35 best:
Juneteenth, first celebrated in 1865—more two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, and “Juneteenth,” the ninth episode of Donald Glover’s extraordinary Atlanta, deploys this rich history to examine the personal and political complications of the intersection of race and class. As Earn (Glover) and Van’s (Zazie Beetz) well-to-do hosts reveal themselves to be among the first season’s most compromised characters, sleepwalking through a marriage that’s been reduced to its mutual benefits, the episode derives a certain grim humor from the situation—drinks with the names “Underground Rumroad” and “Plantation Master Poison,” for instance—but it’s also a tale of the test that accompanies any holiday: To maintain one’s sense of self despite the weight of tradition, and to speak in a language one’s fellows can understand without losing one’s voice in the process. Matt Brennan
If Roseanne introduced the idea of sitcoms regularly executing “spooky” Halloween specials, then Home Improvement was one of its ‘90s progeny to learn the lesson best. The Tim Allen vehicle did Halloween specials each and every season, often revolving around “prank wars” or Tim’s elaborate haunted house/basement of terrors decorating. This episode stands out as the most memorable, though, for the concept of “Rose,” a female fan-turned-stalker who seems to be tailing the Tool Man. After initially sending him flowers and baked goods, Tim’s further communications with “Rose” take a decidedly threatening turn. The whole thing naturally turns out to be an elaborate prank orchestrated by Jill (Patricia Richardson) and Al (Richard Karn), but you’ve got to love that the last 10 minutes of a Home Improvement episode revolve around Tim thinking he’s going to be stabbed or shot to death by a psychotic fan. It almost feels like a concept that was easier to execute in 1993 than it would be in a more sober-minded 2016, when it seems all too real. Jim Vorel
There’s this generally accepted idea that the holidays are all about family, but if you have a strained relationship with yours, or can’t afford a plane ticket home, this concept—and the holidays themselves—can be a little depressing. For these and other reasons, Living Single’s “Thanks for Giving” stands out as that rare TV holiday episode where the main characters spend time with close friends instead of overbearing parents or rival siblings. Even still, there’s plenty of drama to go around. Régine’s (Kim Fields) dinner date, played by the late, great Heavy D, is a huge shock to her friends, and Khadijah (Queen Latifah) prepares herself for a romantic Thanksgiving engagement proposal. (Stand by for a completely predictable sitcom twist). But it’s the emphasis on the worlds and lives we build with our chosen families that makes this one a classic. Shannon Houston
Strap on your ankle monitors: “Ludachristmas” has arrived. And the only thing better than watching The Girlie Show writers toss their free photo scanner/photo shredders into the garbage is a 30 Rock episode starring Jack Donaghy’s (Alec Baldwin) ruthless mother, Colleen (Elaine Stritch). Not only does she successfully escape a hurricane in Florida by convincing JetBlue to accept an Amtrak ticket (?!), but she also succeeds in her mission to break the spirit of Liz Lemon’s (Tina Fey) chronically upbeat family. Meanwhile, Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) has decided to teach everyone about The True Meaning of Christmas—until his plan backfires. He’s guilted everyone so severely for their materialism that Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) leads the pack in (almost) chopping down the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. They’re stopped just in time by Tracy’s alcohol bracelet going off. Guess it wouldn’t be the holidays without family fights and somebody falling off the wagon, right? Rachel Brodsky
Bob’s Burgers has embraced seasonal episodes like many animated shows before it, with annual Halloween and Christmas episodes that are often well-received, but the heart and soul of Bob’s Burgers is really better conveyed by its handful of Thanksgiving episodes. We couldn’t include every one of those on this list, so we’ll simply include the best: “Turkey in a Can.” It hits at the most lovable aspects of Bob’s (H. Jon Benjamin) character—his strong, unyielding desire to create positive, memorable experiences for his family, which is so unlike most TV sitcom fathers in the vein of, say, Al Bundy or Homer Simpson.
Bob just wants to cook a spectacular dinner for his family, and maybe soak up a little bit of their praise in the process, but his plans are complicated by the fact that his turkeys mysteriously keep ending up in the toilet. As tensions and stresses mount, Bob races to get a turkey prepared without disaster befalling it, but can he also suss out the identity of the culprit? We wouldn’t dare ruin the surprise, but this episode manages to combine legitimate family-building pathos with a whodunit mystery and a satisfying conclusion. Jim Vorel
Some of the best holiday episodes, Christmas-themed ones in particular, work because they explore the ways in which the holidays bring out the best in us. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” does the same thing, but with the usual Community twist. In fact, holiday episodes almost always bring out the best in Community, balancing the series’ penchant for metatextual commentary and sharp emotional insights with its ability to lean on (and simultaneously subvert) existing tropes. Here, Abed (Danny Pudi) constructs an elaborate, stop-motion fantasy for himself as a way of coping with the fact that, for the first time in his life, he won’t be spending the holidays with his mother. She has a new family, and new responsibilities. Over the course of the episode, Abed realizes he’s making the same transition, and that two of the holidays’ most important aspects, ritual and family, aren’t set in stone. Rather, they adapt to our needs—if we’re open to it. The final image, of all the different characters sitting on the couch together watching a movie, is achingly beautiful, affirming the episode’s most meaningful theme: Family is what you make it. Kyle Fowle
“Snowflake Day: A Very Special Holiday Episode” isn’t just a holiday episode—it’s every holiday episode, stripped of its religious background and stuffed into one perfectly mushed lamb taco. The sheer randomness of the episode’s otherwise dated jab at political correctness makes it a cult classic of weird TV celebrations. There’s Snowflake Jake, the spice-delivering holiday mascot, the traditional Cabbage Patch dance to Q*Ball’s “Licky” (a song whose identity was a white whale for many when watching the show), and JFK’s (Chris Miller) holiday album, featuring hits like “A Jeff Foxworthy Redneck Snowflake Day” and “The Boston Celtics Fight Song.”
Such parodies are metered by the surrealism and character moments that make the absurd high school comedy one of the most revered single-season shows of all time. Abe Lincoln (Will Forte) and Gandhi (Michael McDonald) get a crappy restaurant job resulting in their invention of the dangerous Knork—half fork, half knife, all violent satire of sitcom get-rich-quick schemes— while Joan of Arc (Nicole Sullivan) learns about the holiday spirit with a homeless girl who may or may not be Mandy Moore. Of all fictional TV holidays, Clone High’s is the most refreshingly weird. Jacob Oller
One of the most underrated family sitcoms delivered one of the most hilarious holiday episodes ever with “Everybody Hates New Year’s Eve.” Young Chris (Tyler James Williams) has an impossible time getting to Times Square to see the ball drop, and Julius (Terry Crews) finds himself a town hero when he talks a man down off a bridge—in part by offering up examples of many other people who suffered from their own problems, but chose not to jump off a bridge, including Nelson Mandela and Jermaine Jackson. Of course, things don’t end up working out perfectly for Chris, but isn’t that what made this show so great? “Everybody Hates New Year’s Eve” is a truly funny holiday episode—there’s a perfect Lindsay Lohan joke for the occasion— that shows how the stresses of the holidays, and the desire to achieve the perfect holiday, can sometimes be too damn much. And it’s all capped off with a moment that many kids with moms like Rochelle (Tichina Arnold) can relate to—when Chris walks through the door with no money in his pocket, cursing his whole family with bad luck for the coming year. Thanks, Chris. Shannon Houston
The gang sets the tone early for this holiday episode, as they sneer and snark about the umpteenth TV airing of It’s A Wonderful Life before everyone gets weepy at the film’s big closing moments. So it is that the rest of the episode finds the patrons and employees of Cheers grumbling and griping their way through Christmas Eve, only to find a heaping helping of joy at the end. While it provides another step forward for the season-long arc of Sam (Ted Danson) trying to bed Rebecca (Kirstie Alley), the most touching change of heart in “Christmas Cheers” comes from Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), who goes from Grinch to Good King Wenceslas over the course of 22 minutes. Robert Ham
The fifth installment of The Simpsons’s now-iconic Halloween special goes all in on the creep factor: “Treehouse of Horror V” is weird, hilarious and keeps the audience unsettled to the very end. Its three shorts display the full range of the series’ imaginative capacities: In the first, a parody of The Shining, Homer (Dan Castellaneta) falls into a murderous rage for lack of TV and beer; in the second, his toaster-aided time-travel adventures take him, among other places, to world dictated by Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer); in the third, “Nightmare Cafeteria,” the kids of Springfield are sent to detention and come back as the next day’s lunch special. When Bart (Nancy Cartwright) wakes up from this nightmare, the whole family’s attacked by a gas that turns their bodies inside out: Cue the gross chorus line, and keep an eye on Santa’s Little Helper as the outro closes, selecting Bart for dinner. Iris Barreto
If there’s any American holiday best captured by the Arlen, Texas of King of the Hill, it’s got to be Independence Day, right? The hyper-American, patriotic celebrations of Hank Hill (Mike Judge) and the denizens of Arlen seem like their own little fantasy world, but to many Americans the reality depicted on King of the Hill is much more realistic than a story about attractive 20-somethings in a major U.S. city. At heart, Hank is a deeply sincere, decent human being, so it’s hard not to appreciate his genuine patriotism and thankfulness for what it is, even as he and his friends get swept up in a street vs. street fireworks competition. The conflict comes from outside, as Bobby (Pamela Adlon), who’s made a sudden Christian conversion after hearing some fire-and-brimstone preaching, comes down on Hank and the family for worshiping “America” above their own god. It’s the Fourth of July done as only King of the Hill could do it, with genuine pathos for the type of blue collar, conservative family one rarely, if ever, sees depicted in a positive light on TV. The episode is a good example of the way in which King of the Hill was always distinct from other sitcoms. Jim Vorel
What with all the fires, hallucinations, deaths and resurrections, it’s easy to forget that HBO’s The Leftovers actually begins with a holiday. “Pilot” finds the series’ cast of strange, damaged and unpredictable characters celebrating Heroes Day in Mapletown. As the town’s mayor aptly puts it, nobody’s going to come to a parade for “We Don’t Know What the Fuck Happened Day,” so the third anniversary of the day 2% of the world’s population up and disappeared is a day for commemorating “heroes.” Like all of the best Leftovers episodes, “Pilot” inspires many (largely unanswerable) questions about modern society: Who deserves to be honored after death? Why is it so impossible to move on? And why aren’t we okay with admitting that we don’t know or understand why something happened? The holiday celebration ends in typical Leftovers fashion—very badly, with the kind of off-putting violence only Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) could have predicted. The Season Two finale would go on to bring us another holiday-gone-wrong narrative, but “Pilot” stands out for introducing us to the Guilty Remnant, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) and a town full of dysfunctional people, all gathered together for one of the creepiest fictional TV holidays ever. Shannon Houston
In “The Book of Life,” set on Yom Kippur, the Pfefferman clan’s need for atonement and absolution clashes with the desire, as Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) puts it, to “make up our own rules.” Sarah seeks forgiveness from Tammy (Melora Hardin) for bailing on their (brief) marriage; Josh (Jay Duplass) tries, and fails, to repair his relationship with Raquel (Kathryn Hahn); Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) crosses the line with Davina (Alexandra Billings) in complaining about the latter’s current partner, Sal (Ray Abruzzo). As with so many of the strongest entries in Jill Soloway’s dramedy, the episode culminates in a gorgeous, chaotic sequence around the Pfeffermans’ table, in which each family member’s search for self-actualization is necessarily tangled up in blood ties. “The Book of Life” is, in the final estimation, quintessential Transparent, drawing inspiration from Jewish tradition and depicting the nuances of queer life, before returning once again to the series’ central notion, which is that redemption comes first from within. Matt Brennan
If nothing else comes from this Season Three episode of MST3K, it brings the world a new, much-needed holiday hymn, “A Patrick Swayze Christmas,” written by future host Mike Nelson and sung by our beloved castaways. (“It’s my way or the highway, this Christmas at my bar / I’ll have to smash your kneecaps if you bastards touch my car.”) Thankfully, there are so many more delights to be found in this installment of the beloved comedy show. Joel (Joel Hodgson) and his robot buddies make hay of the incredibly awful 1964 cult classic, while also taking time in between segments to mock holiday traditions and holiday specials alike. But true to the form, there’s a sweetness to it, too, especially at the end, when the crew sings “Angels We Have Heard On High” and exchanges gifts. Robert Ham
The Simpsons is no stranger to the holidays. We could pretty easily populate this list with only “Treehouse of Horror” and Christmas-themed episodes, (“Marge Be Not Proud,” “Simpsons Roasting Over An Open Fire,” “Treehouse of Horror” I-X) and not feel too guilty. “I Love Lisa,” with the possible exception of “I’m With Cupid,” is an example of The Simpsons distilling the essence of a holiday—Valentine’s Day, in this case—into a single episode. Part of the series’ legendary fourth season, “I Love Lisa” is filled with all-time gags, such as “Mediocre Presidents” (here’s hoping Trump will be a swift addition to Springfield Elementary’s next performance) and Principal Seymour’s (Harry Shearer) Vietnam flashback. But the episode’s most memorable moments belong to regular laughingstock Ralph Wiggum (Nancy Cartwright).
The Simpsons has long set itself apart by offering empathy to potential punch lines like Selma or Patty Bouvier or Mr. Smithers. “I Love Lisa” is a testament to that skill, focusing on a character whose most prominent feature has been his tendency to stick things up his nose, and emphasizing his compassion, discomfort, and almost tragic nature. On a day that’s derided for its falseness, “I Love Lisa” is all about discovering the real person beneath sentiments like “I Cho-Cho-Choose You.” Michael Snydel
Roseanne pioneered the idea of sitcoms doing a “Halloween episode,” and in general doing holiday-themed episodes outside of Christmas and Thanksgiving, so the series has an important historical place on this list. Their first-ever Halloween episode was Season Two’s “Boo!” which sees Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and Dan (John Goodman) engaging in an increasingly ridiculous competition to scare each other and prove who’s the scariest. The highlight is likely Dan’s final attempt, which combines a Jason Voorhees/Leatherface chainsaw attack with strategic cutting of the home’s power supply, which seems a bit like overkill. At the same time, the Conner family goes all out in decorating their home, turning it into a “Castle of Horror” for neighborhood trick-or-treaters. You’ve got to love the “simpler time” quality of it—they make their entire house into an attraction, and then simply invite children in off the street and lead them around the home. It would be impossible to even suggest the concept today without it being labeled as “creepy,” for entirely different reasons than desired. But there’s 1989 for you. Jim Vorel
The Office was essentially 12 episodes of buildup, with cringe-inducing moments, unrequited love and heartbreaking realizations. Because of that, the two-part “Christmas Special” isn’t just an incredible holiday episode and series finale: It’s also the cathartic release we’ve been waiting for. The most memorable moment comes when Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis) finally kiss after years of will they/won’t they tnesion, but just as great—as was always the case with both versions of The Office—are the smaller victories; the notion of David Brent (Ricky Gervais) going on a date and coming to understand that he might not end up alone after all is staggering. “Christmas Special” is The Office at its best, a wonderful collection of sadness, hope and beauty, even amid the mundanity of everyday life. Ross Bonaime
Ah, Christmas… a day to be close with your family. In Bluths’ case, that means three things: 1) It’s time to celebrate the annual tradition of rebuilding the family banana stand; 2) Their company Christmas party devolves into chaos; and 3) They get a little too close. Like, incestuously close.
Arrested Development made a killing on incest jokes, and “Afternoon Delight” is no exception. Here, Michael (Jason Bateman) and Maeby (Ali Shawkat), then George Michael (Michael Cera) and Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), sing a little karaoke about making some uncle/niece and aunt/nephew love in the cold light of day. Somehow, the ensuing awkwardness is hilarious both times, because Arrested Development mastered the art of cyclical humor. (Interestingly, this was the second major usage of “Afternoon Delight” in 2004. Ron Burgundy and his news team belted it out in Anchorman that summer.)
The rest of the episode is your basic slice of the dysfunctional Bluths, with Buster (Tony Hale) gaining mad skills in crane operation, Gob (Will Arnett) managing to alienate everyone with his douchebaggery, and Tobias (David Cross) blue-ing himself. Zach Blumenfeld
More than halfway through the run of Damon Lindlelof and Carlton Cuse’s sometimes infuriating, beguilingly messy experiment of a TV series, “The Constant” is a pretzeled intersection of Lost’s internal war between determinism and existentialism and the bleeding-heart character moments that pushed so many to endure the series’ bumpiest moments.
Compared to most holiday episodes on this list, there’s really only one scene that identifies “The Constant” as being a Christmas episode. In nearly the last shot, Penny (Sonya Walger) stands in her living room crying in disbelief on the phone. After nearly a decade, she never thought she would hear the shipwrecked Desmond’s (Henry Ian Cusick) voice again, and she’s crumbling in real time. And behind her is, of all things, an ornamented tree. Within the episode, December 24, 2004 has crucial significance, but the holiday is more totemic than that—a feature of the calendar in a series that routinely jumbles its characters’ sense of time and space. After seasons of uncertainty and delayed gratification, Lost offers a modicum of relief with this brief reunion of the show’s most classically romantic couple. Michael Snydel
Springfield, as a city, is beset by a constant tide of troubles, so is it any surprise that they invented an entire holiday to scapegoat the local serpent population as a means of distracting themselves from the pains of everyday life? “Whacking Day” is an uproarious slice of classic Simpsons that gives us a great variety of characters, from the slickness of “Diamond” Joe Quimby (Dan Castellaneta) to Marge’s (Julie Kavner) strangely eroticized anticipation of seeing Homer whack some snakes. Hell, the holiday even has its own hymn, sung by a choir of children to the tune of “O Tannenbaum.” And it’s hilariously violent: “We’ll break their backs, gouge out their eyes, their evil hearts, we’ll pulverize.” And like any good small-town festivities, an unaware celebrity is brought in as grand marshal—in this case, an oblivious Barry White, who lambasts the entire town after finding out the actual meaning of the holiday. It’s an event perfectly indicative of The Simpsons universe. Jim Vorel
If you like your Christmas fare devoid of Jesus, “My Own Personal Jesus” will be anathema to you: The episode hinges on a crisis of faith and is sanitized of capitalist traditions of gift-giving, plus indulgences like eggnog, leaving only traces of mistletoe, wreaths, lights, boughs of holly, and our Lord and Savior to signify the season. The spiritually disinclined need not apply, though they should, because “My Own Personal Jesus” is all about finding miracles in the real world. (Besides that, it’s hilarious, featuring more than a few classic Scrubs gags, including a black-and-white cutaway scene detailing the ugly truth of childbirth in the style of a Public Service Announcement.)
Here, Turk’s (Donald Faison) religious foundation is shaken by just about the most brutal night shift possible, and then buttressed by a climactic chance encounter that ties up two of the episode’s three main plot lines. If it ends neatly, sweetly, eve, perhaps, too perfectly, fear not: It’s early-era Scrubs, which means it has enough edge to undercut any cloying notes with a mean joke at J.D.’s (Zach Braff) expense. (In fairness, he’s a total dork and 100% deserves it. Merry, merry!) Andy Crump
The Gilmore women had notoriously bottomless appetites that they managed to satisfy while remaining perfectly slender. (Realism!) The arc of this food gimmick climaxes in the much-beloved “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving.” Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel) accidentally overbooked themselves for the holiday and must face their ultimate test: Armed with a logical game plan (“skip the rolls”), can they consume four Thanksgiving dinners? The genius of the episode is its ability to weave together four funny narratives that also signal key developments for many of series’ main characters: Chef extraordinaire Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) gets wasted to forget that her husband, Jackson (Jackson Douglas), is deep-frying the turkey with a crew of aggressively enthusiastic bros; Rory informs her family that she’s applied to Yale; Dave (Adam Brody) and Lane (Keiko Agena) have their first kiss; and the feud between Rory’s suitors, Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) and Dean (Jared Padalecki), simmers. With some of the series’ silliest bits, wittiest dialogue, and most nail-biting drama, “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” captures the hilarity and emotional chaos of the typical Thanksgiving gathering. Monica Hunter-Hart
Friends Thanksgiving episodes are always fun—it’s a chance to see the entire cast in one place, at one time, for almost a whole 22 minutes. But the most entertaining part of watching Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Monica, Ross (David Schwimmer), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Chandler and Joey attempt a friendly game of touch football is seeing how it brings out their personality traits. Uninhibited Phoebe creates a diversion by flashing her opponents mid-play. Chandler and Joey nearly come to blows over a cute Dutch onlooker. Rachel is cheerleader-enthusiastic but has zero hand-eye coordination. Ross is condescending and Monica is scarily competitive. Later, four of the six friends enjoy a post-game meal of turkey and stuffing, while Monica and Ross are locked in a stalemate over who won the game. Let “The One With the Football” serve as a cautionary Thanksgiving tale: A “friendly” game of touch football is rarely that. Rachel Brodsky
“A Benihana Christmas” has aged in the decade since it first aired—casual misogyny and overtly racist “jokes” feel particularly painful in our current political moment—but it also captures the tightrope of melancholy and mirth that The Office walked best among its mockumentary-style peers. Two primary plotlines drive the double-length episode. Jim (John Krasinski), Andy (Ed Helms) and Dwight (Rainn Wilson) bring an inconsolable Michael (Steve Carell) to a Benihana restaurant to take his mind off getting dumped right before Christmas. Back at the office, Pam (Jenna Fischer) and Karen (Rashida Jones) throw a festive coup against Angela (Angela Kinsey), who, true to form, sticks to her joyless holiday party plans. The cast converges as a sake-tipsy Michael returns with his new (and very temporary) waitress “girlfriend” and the warring parties unite for the closest Dunder Mifflin ever comes to a successful company event. And lest you think that The Office would deliver an uncomplicated yuletide ending, both Jim and Pam (who aren’t together at this point in the show) reconsider who they really want to be kissing under the metaphorical mistletoe. Steve Foxe
“The Best Chrismukkah Ever” doesn’t feature the tropes most commonly associated with a holiday episode, focusing instead on Marissa’s (Mischa Barton) drinking problem, the tension between Sandy (Peter Gallagher) and Caleb (Alan Dale), and the introduction of the much-loathed Oliver (Taylor Handley). What The O.C. does, though, is use those melodramatic storylines to craft a holiday episode that embodies the central theme of the series’ first season: that disparate parts can make a whole. So, Seth (Adam Brody) brings the (pretty lapsed, it seems) faiths of his parents together with the invention of Chrismukkah, and then brings Ryan (Ben McKenzie) into the fold by giving him his own personalized stocking to hang alongside the rest of the family’s. By the end of the episode, the Cohen-Atwood family is secure in knowing they can rely on each other. There’s hardly a better holiday message than that. Kyle Fowle
Here’s the thing about How I Met Your Mother: The downer of a series finale colors how I view the series. Every episode is now tainted with the understanding that the show knew all along that the mother (Cristin Miloti) was merely a maudlin pawn to get Ted (Josh Radnor) back to Robin (Cobie Smulders). But if you can suspend that knowledge, “Slapsgiving” epitomizes why we loved the show. After losing a bet to Marshall (Jason Segel), Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) forgoes getting 10 slaps immediately in favor of five slaps doled out whenever Marshall sees fit. For the third slap, Marshall chooses the first Thanksgiving he and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) host as a married couple. He’s even created a countdown clock, which puts an already jittery Barney on edge. The ongoing slap bet was one of the comedy’s best series-long gags, and the episode also kicks off another major recurring joke (mock salute Major Recurring Joke). “Slapsgiving” celebrates what so many young adults know: In those post-college years before you start a family of your own, your friends are your family. They are the ties (and slaps) that bind. Amy Amatangelo
“The Strike” is the Festivus episode, of course—the Costanzas’ December 23 holiday, which revolves around an aluminum pole (Frank finds tinsel distracting), the Airing of Grievances (self-explanatory), and the Feats of Strength (wrestling). Though Frank (Jerry Stiller) ostensibly hatched Festivus in response to the rampant and (in his case) violent commercialism of Christmas, I suspect its real-world appeal has less to do with the lack of giving and more to do with the act of grieving. “I got a lot of problems with you people!” Frank screams. “Now you’re gonna hear about ‘em!”
This year more than ever, maybe, families will gather round and withhold their grievances for fear of opening permanent rifts in their relationships. I have friends too terrified to ask about their family members’ choice in the presidential election. For them—and, presumably, their parents and siblings—shouting at and power-bombing their kin might prove incredibly cathartic. But this is true every year, at every holiday, for a buffet of reasons. What’s so maddening is that, even if we fight, no one ever wins. The greatest draw of Festivus, then, might be its finality: It ain’t over ‘til somebody gets pinned. Evan Allgood
All conversations about the beautiful metaphors in creator Matthew Weiner’s seminal series inevitably involve mention of the Season One finale, “The Wheel.” The episode, which Weiner directed and co-wrote with Robin Veith, is mainly remembered for Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) suave ability to sell just about anything in a boardroom with such flourish that even his co-workers cry—in this case, the recently philandering Harry Crane (Rich Somer). But it subtly hints at what all holiday TV episodes are about: families, both the work kind and the real ones.
The Kodak Carousel slide projector pitch is chock full of Don’s own photos, as he narrates a tale of the picture-perfect nuclear life while his beautiful wife and two adorable kids are off to spend Thanksgiving without him. Meanwhile, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) is forced into a conversation with his nosy father-in-law, who wants a grandchild more than he wants Pete to get ahead at his job. And Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) offers the biggest proof that there’s no escaping family—especially during the holidays—when she gets a promotion and becomes a mother on the same day. Peggy’s contempt for the hospital nurse who questions why she doesn’t want to hold the baby she’s denied was growing inside her helps explain the father-daughter dynamic she’ll eventually share with Don. Whitney Friedlander
I’m old enough to have watched Friends when it first aired, so I’m always amazed when I talk to teens who love the show. How is it possible that 16-year-olds still find the landmark NBC comedy, which ended 12 years ago, cool? (I know “cool” isn’t a cool term any more, but you know what I mean.) For one, Friends holds up amazingly well. The clothes and technology may be dated, but the humor is spot on.
And “The One with Chandler in a Box” is peak Friends. After Chandler (Matthew Perry) kisses Joey’s (Matt LeBlanc) girlfriend (Paget Brewster), the series’ defining male friendship is threatened. To show his remorse, Chandler spends all of Thanksgiving in a huge crate. While the others (including a pre-Alias Michael Vartan) eat Monica’s (Courteney Cox) Thanksgiving meal, Chandler is relegated to pithy comments from his confined space. It showcases Perry’s perfect deadpan delivery and LeBlanc’s savvy simpleton dialogue. When Joey declares that Chandler is “doin’ some thinking,” I laughed more than I have at any comedy this year. Episodes like this one are why these Friends will always be there for us. Amy Amatangelo
The Bob Newhart Show was something of a spiritual predecessor to sitcoms like Seinfeld: There was no hugging and learning; its humor was mined from the minutiae of everyday life and the neuroses of the characters. (It was, after all, a show about a psychiatrist.) The plot of “Over the River and Through the Woods” is simple: Bob, Jerry (Peter Bonerz), Howard (Bill Daily) and Bob’s most neurotic patient, Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley), gather on Thanksgiving to watch football, get depressed, drink, and order Chinese food. That’s it. And yet, the episode is truly hilarious, delivering, among its other merits, genuinely funny drunk acting. The only shame is that Bob’s wife, Emily, (Suzanne Pleshette) isn’t more involved. Chris Morgan
The hyperkinetic fencing match that is Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue often conceals emotional gut punches, and “In Excelsis Deo” has two major ones. First, Mrs. Landingham’s (Kathryn Joosten) heart-wrenching revelation that she lost her twin sons in Vietnam contextualizes the universally respected secretary: She doesn’t just run things, she mothers them. Her elegantly crafted speech resists the trite lilt typical to Sorkin and goes for no-nonsense sadness, instead. It’s broad enough to fit our own experiences into, while being specific enough to hurt. The second gives consummate curmudgeon Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff, winning an Emmy for the episode) a chance to ensure the government works, a goal that everyone in Jed Bartlett’s White House shares. When he arranges for a military funeral for a homeless veteran, it’s not just a moment of growth for the character, it’s an embodiment of the series’ thesis: Those in government want to help, and that desire comes from the heart. Jacob Oller
Buffy the Vampire Slayer tackled many holiday-related episodes during its seven seasons, but it’s hard to top the first one. “Halloween” falls early in the series’ second season, just as it was finding its creative footing. Setting an episode on the holiday with ghouls and goblins seems like an obvious fit, but the writers use “Halloween” as a way to flip the script on all the main characters. Thanks to the magical MacGuffin of the week, everyone is transformed into whatever costume they’re wearing: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) becomes a helpless noblewoman; Xander (Nicholas Brendon) channels his manly side as a soldier; and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) literally becomes invisible thanks to her Charlie Brown-esque ghost costume. They milk that set-up for all it’s worth. Pretty much everyone gets a chance to play against type, and they even manage to move a few major plot threads forward in the process. It’s Buffy at its Buffy-est, in the best possible way. Trent Moore
The holiday season isn’t just about the holidays themselves. This is why “Xmas Story,” Futurama’s first Christmas episode, works: It emphasizes the time of year before the festivities. We get excited about the change in the air first, and the celebration of holiday customs second. Thus, “Xmas Story” begins with skiing, Futurama-style: You can clear trees from your path with simple word commands, and chop one down with a laser axe. (Also be on the lookout for old men waltzing around in winter weather wearing their birthday suits. It’s a thing.)
Everything Christmas-y comes after, including the crew’s encounter with robo-Santa Claus, who turns out, in the year 3000, to be delightfully murder-happy. He’s got a strict moral compass and the firepower to punish the naughty as needed, which naturally means bad news for the Planet Express crew, who are all subjectively naughty. (Except for Bender, who is objectively naughty, as though that needs to be said.) “Xmas Story” leans on cheek and wise-assery more than emotionalism, so don’t expect it to give you the warm and fuzzies. Do expect it to remind you of what’s best about Xmas time: Cold weather, roaring fires, and the company of those closest to you. Andy Crump
Based on series creator Hugh Wilson’s experiences in advertising sales at Atlanta’s WQXI, WKRP in Cincinnati and its genre-defining Thanksgiving episode, “Turkeys Away,” seem at once quaint and prescient. Its dispatch from a struggling radio station in the Carter era begins with the usual broad gags (pencil rockets) and office banter (“Only the mail, Herb,” receptionist Jennifer Marlowe says, fending off a coworker’s advance. “That’s I’ll ever have for you”), but when station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) devises “one of the greatest events in gobbler history,” “Turkeys Away” transforms itself into a bracing, devilishly funny portrait of media excess. To see the punctilious Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) report on live turkeys being dropped from a helicopter as if covering a riot or a foreign war is to glimpse, for a moment, our mortifying present, in which the stuff of situation comedies has become headline news. Forty years on, whether we read it as premonitory tragedy or classic farce, the episode’s last line—”God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly”—remains one of the finest bits of comic writing the medium’s ever produced. Matt Brennan
Halloween episodes can be pretty gimmicky (“guys, hear me out—what if everyone’s in fun costumes?”), but Freaks and Geeks’ masterful “Tricks and Treats” is anything but. Instead, it manages to drive the show’s plot forward while effortlessly and perfectly capturing the details of the holiday we all remember so vividly from our youth. The overeager freshmen, clinging to their childhoods, who insist on going trick-or-treating one last time. The older teens who are too old and cool to be bothered with begging for candy, but too young not to feel compelled to drive around town aimlessly and raise a little hell. That one creepy house that hands out circus peanuts. The kid who thinks “Guy with a Knife in His Head” is effort enough to put into a costume. The ever-present fear that someone’s sneaking razorblades or tiny poops into your candy.
But more than that, “Tricks and Treats” captures our need to fall in line, as Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) gets peer-pressured into throwing eggs and accidentally nails her brother (John Francis Daley) with one. The way he seethes and tells her later, at home, “Nobody thinks you’re cool, you know,” is so poignant—it’s the worst thing you can possibly hear when you’re in high school, after all—you almost forget it happens in an episode in which Bill (Martin Starr) is dressed as the Bionic Woman. Bonnie Stiernberg