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A Christmas Carol: Our Five Favorite TV Retellings

A Christmas TV trope if ever there was one, the Dickens classic has inspired countless riffs.
  • Justine Bateman, Michael Gross, Tina Yothers, Michael. J. Fox, and Meredith Baxter in Family Ties “A Keaton Christmas Carol” (Paramount Television)
    Justine Bateman, Michael Gross, Tina Yothers, Michael. J. Fox, and Meredith Baxter in Family Ties “A Keaton Christmas Carol” (Paramount Television)

    When it comes to Christmas episodes, it seems there are only so many directions a show can take, and when it comes to Christmas TV tropes, none is as enduring as A Christmas Carol. (Only It’s a Wonderful Life comes close.) Over the years, every show from Doctor Who to Beavis and Butthead has riffed on the Charles Dickens classic to varying degrees of success. 

    While an exhaustive list would be, well... exhausting, below are five of our favorite TV adaptations:

    Family Ties:  “A Keaton Christmas Carol” (December 14, 1983)

    While buttoned-up young Republican Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) was always the family’s resident stick-in-the-mud, the setup to this episode is a little flimsy: apparently annoyed by the cold weather, Alex refuses to participate in any of the family’s festivities until he dreams himself into the Scrooge role, with his family taking up the roles of the spirits. Youngest sister Jennifer (Tina Yothers), as Christmas Past, reminds Alex that he found the joy in Christmas as a child, while middle sister Mallory (Justine Bateman) picks up the role of Ghost of Christmas Future to show him a 2013 in which his family lives in squalor while he is rich, lonely, and bald. It’s really this final point that sparks change in Alex when it comes down to it, and there’s no guarantee that celebrating Christmas now will keep his hair lush in the future, but hey, whatever works.

    Northern Exposure: "Shofar, So Good" (October 3, 1994)

    Being confronted by your past sins, seeing how they’ve affected others in the present day, and learning of the future repercussions doesn’t have to be Christmas-specific — especially since not everyone celebrates Christmas. These themes also happen to fit perfectly into the paradigm of Yom Kippur, which gives Northern Exposure a chance to put a unique spin on the tale through the eyes of Cicely, Alaska’s only Jewish resident, Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow). The night before his annual fast, Dr. Fleischman receives a dream-visit from his childhood rabbi, who leads him on a three-part vision quest designed to show him how to be more adaptable and kind to his fellow Cicely residents.

    My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: “A Hearth’s Warming Tail” (May 14, 2016)

    Anthropomorphic ponies apparently don’t commemorate the birth of Christ, either, but Ponyville’s holiday stand-in, Hearth’s Warming, provides another creative framework on which to hang Dickens' story. As Twilight Sparkle reads the classic tale, it’s brought to life in high-energy, song-packed fashion, with members of the core pony posse taking on the roles of the three spirits. Pinkie Pie as the Spirit of Hearth’s Warming Presents (plural!) is a particular standout: the joke, while a little on the nose, injects just the right amount of silliness.

    Quantum Leap: “A Little Miracle” (December 31, 1990)

    When Sam (Scott Bakula) leaps into the body of a butler who’s working for a Scrooge-like businessman, his objective seems pretty clear: stop his boss from building an office tower on the site of a Salvation Army mission. Since it happens to be Christmas Eve, Sam and Al (Dean Stockwell) decide to stage their own production of A Christmas Carol, using their knowledge of the future and hologram technology to mimic the supernatural. Since Al is typically a hologram that only Sam can see, he’s particularly excited for the opportunity to appear to others, so he dives headlong into the role of Christmas Yet to Come (even though his wardrobe choices actually evoke Jacob Marley).

    Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: “Kimmy Goes to a Hotel!” (April 15, 2016)

    This retelling of the classic Christmas tale is remarkable mainly due to its brevity: it’s relegated to just a few scenes in the episode’s C-plot, but in Kimmy Schmidt’s inimitable joke-packed style, it manages to smash an entire Dickens novel into about five minutes’ worth of hilarity. Titus (Tituss Burgess), forced into a management role at the theme restaurant where he’s working, initially lets the power corrupt him, but when he’s forced to encounter his past (a starry-eyed younger colleague) and his future (President Obama’s graying hair), he’s inspired to walk away from the pressures of his job and run home to celebrate Fake Christmas with his fake family.

    Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie

    TOPICS: A Christmas Carol, Family Ties, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Northern Exposure, Quantum Leap (2022 Series), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Holiday Programming