Netflix once again has its sights set on holiday TV domination this year with a stacked selection of new holiday titles that promise to keep homebound viewers busy until they ring in the New Year, but long before the streaming giant entered the fray, countries all around the world produced special episodes for the holiday season, with the UK leading the charge. These are episodes that have delivered shocking deaths (Downton Abbey), resolved will-they-won’t-they romances (The Office), and revived beloved series (Absolutely Fabulous). If Community had been a British sitcom, its "Six Seasons and a Movie" battle cry would have been "Six Series and a Christmas Special" (okay, two series).
In its bid to lead the Christmas TV market, Netflix has followed the model of British specials by producing quite a number of one-offs over the last few years. Below are some of our very favorite specials and Christmas-themed episodes from the streamer's deep catalogue to get you in the seasonal mood.
This actually was a British Christmas special before it landed on Netflix (originally airing on Channel 4). Starring Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as two men stationed in a remote snowy outpost, it features a disturbing use of glam rock band Wizzard’s ‘70s holiday earworm, "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday." Technology is a driving force (this is Black Mirror, after all), but the paranoia-laced story unfolds, it becomes clear that despite sharing its title, this episode bears little resemblence to the dreamy White Christmas of the classic Bing Crosby song.
Before Netflix went full Santa Claus on their Christmas line-up, Bojack Horseman dipped its toe in the British-style holiday standalone format. A skeptical Bojack (Will Arnett) was against the whole holiday vibe, but succumbed to Todd (Aaron Paul) and his desire to watch the Horsin’ Around Christmas special. Typically Bojack skipped the holiday specials of this show. He argued they're "Cynical cash grabs by greedy corporations looking to squeeze a few extra Nielsen points out of sentimental claptrap for mush-brained idiots who’d rather spend their Christmas watching a fake family on TV than trying to have a conversation with their own dumb families." He has a point, and yet the collective experience is one we (and ultimately Bojack) are drawn to.
The final season arrives on New Year’s Eve, but two years ago Netflix celebrated the Winter Solstice with a bonus holiday episode bridging the two parts of its first season. A Yule log is lit to prevent spirits from entering their home, but Sabrina’s (Kiernan Shipka) desire to contact her dead mother makes the whole plan go awry. No holiday episode is complete without family drama, particularly in a house with spells and spirits. The Spellmans are not the only ones in danger: while working as a retail elf, Sabrina’s best friend discovers the mall Santa was trapping the souls of children in wax. This is for anyone wanting a Sabrina warm-up and a healthy dose of horror to counter more typically sentimental holiday fare.
For those looking for something entirely unconventional this holiday season, look no further. Created by Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, this American-Japanese animated special is set in a modern-day, alternative history version of New York City. This is a world in which Magicians saved New York from demons in the 19th century, which might explain the sentient Christmas tree threatening the city.
OK, so it's not Christmas-themed at all, but this Valentine’s Day special shares a similar form and is exceptional in every way. Drawing on rom-com classic When Harry Met Sally (aka the perfect New Year’s movie) in its opening sequence, this one highlights how the Big Mouth creative team balances the sweet with the vulgar on a day that can be anxiety-inducing during puberty. This might seem like an odd time of year to watch this one-off, but hey...February is just around the corner.
Dan Levy gifted Schitt's Creek fans with not only a British-style holiday episode bridging Seasons 4 and 5, but he also shared a glimpse of what life was like for the Rose family back when they were wealthy. Johnny (Eugene Levy) longs for the days of those parties, but since they lost their money, that tradition has been skipped. Written and directed by Dan Levy himself, this special is sentimental without turning saccharine, delivering yet another humbling moment for the Rose family, who are far richer living in Schitt's Creek than they ever were before.
Instead of releasing the Gilmore Girls four-part revival special all at once over Thanksgiving, Netflix could have spread it out over each subsequent season. Watching the feature-length episodes back-to-back had the unfortunate side effect of highlighting Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory’s (Alexis Bledel) more unpleasant qualities. That said, this first installment handled the death of Richard Gilmore (Edward Herrmann) and the first holiday period without him in a way that befitted both the character and actor (Herrman died two years before the revival). Much like the holiday movie The Family Stone, Amy Sherman-Palladino captures the complexity of family and the raw emotions the holidays can dredge up. If that’s not enough Gilmore Christmas content, there are six holiday episodes from the original series (Season 6 skipped this annual tradition, another reason to avoid it).
Following the show's disappointing cancelation news this fall, Season 3's holiday-themed season finale also doubles as the GLOW series finale. For her Secret Santa gift, Carmen (Britney Young) asks a depressed Ruth (Alison Brie) to put together a wrestling version of A Christmas Carol. What follows captures what made GLOW so special, as the joy of performing something new tempers the low morale. "People love Christmas," Carmen observes after the success of this gift: it won’t fix everything, but for a brief moment everyone is united in cheer. What more could you want? (Other than Season 4, of course)
There is a more on-the-nose Kimmy holiday episode — "Kimmy Goes to a Hotel" in Season 2 — but this year's interactive special is a slice of escapism that feels tailor-made for the holiday season. Taking on a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format, it reinforces Kimmy’s (Ellie Kemper) positive outlook on life via the journey you decide to take. If the Kimmy's earliwe Fake Christmas outing reinforced the importance of a found family, this elevates that concept further but with more attempts at getting it right along the way.
Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.