Features

Once Quiet, December Has Become Rumspringa For Peak TV

From the heartwarming to the truly bizarre, TV is breaking all the rules this month.
  • John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch drops on Netflix Christmas Eve. (Netflix)
    John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch drops on Netflix Christmas Eve. (Netflix)

    It's very old news to say that the old structures of the TV "season" have largely melted away under the white-hot heat of the Peak TV inferno. The summer rerun season is no more, with cable, streaming, and even network series premiering there with impunity. The old "sweeps" periods, where networks would bring out the big event episodes in November, February, and May have become greatly de-emphasized in the era of streaming platforms not reporting their ratings. We really have arrived at twelve months of the year where TV is at the same robust level of robust. OK, maybe make that eleven. Because just like a youngest child who realizes that her older siblings have exhausted their parents and sapped their strictness, December is behaving like an unsupervised teenager, at least as far as TV is concerned. Suddenly, December is where TV goes to wild out for a few weeks before the holidays: burning off old programming you thought was already canceled, airing some of the wildest high-concept series of the year, and sprinting through mini-seasons of new shows with episodes airing multiple times per week.

    And while all this is happening, Prestige TV hasn't let up one bit. HBO entered the month airing perhaps its most ambitious concurrent slate in a while, with Watchmen, Mrs. Fletcher, and His Dark Materials. The launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+ has added series like The Morning Show and The Mandalorian to the fray. Netflix made sure to get The Crown in before the end of the year, and ditto for Amazon and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

    So there's your highbrow. Let's now take a tour of the lowbrow, the fast-brow, and the WTF-brow that's about to flood into our lives. Or flood past our lives, just as likely. It's not like December TV used to be a power-down time because industry executives threw a dart at a calendar. It's hard to get people to watch as much television — especially appointment television — over the holidays. You're out shopping, or attending holiday parties, or… you know, looking at the lit-up houses and skating on ice rinks and traveling through the woods on a sleigh of some kind. Christmas stuff! Most TV shows didn't want to risk viewers missing an episode (especially in the pre-DVR/VOD days), so they just punted on December. Nowadays, however, the mentality is very different. While the big narrative sitcoms and dramas are still lragely taking December off, they've been replaced not with reruns, or even familiar holiday specials/movies, but with brand-new event programming. And these mini-seasons of event programming are moving at a rapid pace.

    The second season of NBC's Making It, the crafting competition show hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, premiered last Monday night. By this Wednesday, it will have aired all 8 of its episodes and will pack up for the year. FOX's new sitcom The Moodys is airing its holiday-themed season two episodes at a time over three nights. On NBC, Ellen's Greatest Night of Giveaways sprints to three episodes in three nights. ABC's Great American Baking Show  is taking a bit more mercy on its audience, airing once a week for four weeks, but the same network's Great Christmas Light Fight — where you don't even have to leave the house to check out the Christmas lights — airs two episodes at a time over the course of three weeks.

    The above series are all holiday-themed, in one way or another, so it makes some sense that they would air in concentrated bursts before the holiday season is over. That's not the case with Netflix's Lost in Space, which is debuting a second season you really didn't think was going to be made in its entirety on Christmas Eve.

    And in perhaps in the most cookoo programming move of the entire month, John Mulaney takes to Netflix on December 24th — yes, another Christmas Eve debut to rival Lost in Space — with his special John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, which takes the form of a children's show/variety hour. Mulaney promises to "tackle grown-up topics with his kid pals, The Sack Lunch Bunch." The way Mulaney tells it, it's kids' programming that reminds him of what kids programming was back when he was young. And since he doesn't plan on having children, this gives him a chance to talk to kids and see what they've got on their minds.

    A little Free to Be You and Me, a little Kids Say the Darndest Things and a little Today's Special the entire idea is such a wild stab in the dark at nostalgia programming that it just might work. If nothing else, it will fit in perfectly with what December television has become: a lightning-quick stampede of content the likes of which you won't get all year. God bless us, everyone!

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Holiday Programming, ABC, FOX, NBC, Netflix, The Great American Baking Show, The Great Christmas Light Fight, John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch, Making It, The Moodys