When it comes to television at this time of year, it's the Christmas specials that rule the scene. Spending an evening with stop-motion Rudolph and the Whos of Whoville is nothing less than sacred tradition in many households. Regular series, on the other hand, tend to get short shrift. But that's not fair! We invite these characters into our living rooms every week for years, and then forget all about the holiday magic they shared with us. Now, however, it's easy to rediscover those memories. Here are six Christmas episodes you can watch online for free, from over the years.
Happy Days, "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas"
First aired: Dec. 17, 1974
The car breaks down, the mechanical Santa outside is going haywire, and they can't get the lights on the tree to work. But Howard Cunningham is still happy to have a nice Christmas with just his family. Then Richie realizes Fonzie is going to be alone for the holiday. The Fonz puts on a brave face, claiming he's going to his cousin's in Waukesha - who hasn't used that one before? - but eventually, of course, the Cunninghams melt through that cool exterior, in time for Christmas Eve.
This last episode from the show's first year is neatly crafted, good-humored storytelling, from long before Happy Days literally jumped the shark. (And, for pop-culture trivia buffs, it marks the final appearance of Richie's dopey older brother, Chuck. Who? Precisely.)
South Park, "Woodland Critter Christmas"
First aired: Dec. 15, 2004
Sure, South Park chronicles the frequently offensive adventures of a foursome of foulmouthed grade-schoolers. But there's a warm heart at its core, and never so much as when the holidays roll around. After all, the animated short that inspired the series centered on a battle between Jesus and Santa over the true meaning of Christmas.
Over the last 14 Yuletides, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have said hidey-ho to Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo, seen Santa's sleigh shot down over Iraq, and sent their characters on a Wizard of Oz-style journey across the alien landscape of Canada. But they outdid themselves in season eight, when some fuzzy little forest animals beseeched young Stan to help them build a manger to celebrate their savior's birth - to wildly, horrifically unpredictable result.
The Simpsons, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"
First aired: Dec. 17, 1989
Twenty-three seasons in, it's easy to forget that America's best-known cartoon sitcom also started with a Christmas episode. The Simpsons' debut doesn't deliver endless laughs, but it's fascinating nonetheless. Homer is less dolt and more down-on-his-luck family man, but otherwise, much of what would endure is there: an inciting incident unrelated to the rest of the story (Bart gets a tattoo, and Marge has to spend the family's Christmas money getting it removed); coldhearted Mr. Burns refusing his employees their holiday bonuses; the infuriatingly chipper Flanders; and Barney stumbling into Moe's Tavern to provide Homer with a terrible plan to get gifts for his kids (the dog track).
The ending is touchingly simple, even more so knowing what a sophisticatedly sprawling set of stories Springfield would go on to give us.
The Office (U.K. version), "Christmas Special"
First aired: Dec. 26-27, 2003
Regardless of the U.S. version's success, there will always be a cohort of fans who insist that Ricky Gervais' original two-season BBC run of The Office is unsurpassable, largely because of its refusal to pull punches. Where Steve Carell's Michael Scott was a likable doofus, it's tough to see Gervais' David Brent as anything but a bumptious fool who gets what he deserves, and he wasn't the only character who ended the series sadder than when it began.
This two-part addendum, though, serves not just as epilogue but also redemption. The slow-burning romance between Tim and Dawn finally achieves a modicum of consummation, and Brent grows a pair and stands up for himself - though not before sustaining further cringe-inducingly hilarious humiliation, not the least of which is his awesome, softly lit music video.
All in the Family, "Christmas Day at the Bunkers"
First aired: Dec. 18, 1971
Four decades later, it's still easy to see why Norman Lear's social-issues sitcom was so groundbreaking. The plot of All in the Family's first Christmas episode isn't so remarkable, involving another case of a holiday bonus not materializing (though here, Archie Bunker has only himself to blame) and cycling through a string of visitors all expecting some kind of gift, which just turns Archie more Grinch-like. And some jokes aren't nearly as provocative today ("I'm as gay as anybody here!" Archie snaps when accused of a lack of holiday spirit).
What is notable, even in the 21st century, is that this is a Christmas episode that - gasp - actually features discussion of religion. Though not a pivotal plot point, Archie's theories on why Christianity is the one original faith (before "splitting off into all them other denumerations") are worth hearing. They're maybe the only time you'll hear Jesus mentioned in a network TV episode inspired by his birthday.
Melrose Place, "A Melrose Place Christmas"
First aired: Dec. 16, 1992
Yes, there's some early-'90s kitsch value to this one: guys wearing loud-patterned, baggy shirts. Girls with neurotically orderly coiffures. And clunky, socially conscious dialogue. ("Aren't you going to see your parents?" "Oh, no - not after the lack of support when I was fired for being gay.") But damn if Darren Star and Co. didn't do a fine job of weaving the holiday spirit into this episode from the primetime soap's second season. Even when Alison is undergoing surgery at the beginning, the anesthesiologist puts her under by asking her to sing "Jingle Bells." The story lines are cheesy, but not as cheesy as you recall. (When doctor Michael - still a nice guy at this point in the show's run - delivers his first baby shortly after losing his first patient, the writing is self-aware enough to wryly acknowledge the life/death resonance.)
No, it isn't high art. But looking back from our vantage point on the Jersey Shore, probably it wasn't as low as we thought.