We’re Doing Holiday Programming All Wrong

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We’re Doing Holiday Programming All Wrong

It’s not a novel observation to say that the winter holiday season has metastasized. Even I, a person who is thoroughly red-and-green-pilled, can grant that Christmas merchandise has no business showing up in stores until after Halloween, but it’s not up to me. Stores are only one location for Christmas creep: There’s also TV. The unstoppable dominance of Hallmark holiday movies has meant more and more networks and platforms are getting in on the genre: 116 original stories of merriment will premiere this season — so many that Hallmark had to start its Countdown to Christmas on October 20th, squarely in the middle of what used to be the sacred spooky season. The vast majority of these are, well, it’s hard to say they’re “new,” since they tend just to remix holiday tropes already established in earlier theatrical or TV movies. But they do try to make you invest in their characters having a good time through their generic Christmas festivities, even though it’s hard to care because you’ve never met them before.

It doesn’t have to be like this, and in the U.K., it isn’t. We’re long overdue copying their holiday programming strategy.

This is not to say the British just skip holiday programming. On the contrary, the market that has to make do with famously short TV seasons gets a little holiday treat in the form of one-off specials. Sitcoms like Blackadder, sci-fi series like Doctor Who, panel shows like Would I Lie To You?, gentle dramedies like Call the Midwife all have produced special, often super-sized episodes to air during the holidays, including this year. (My beloved Taskmaster, ever the iconoclast, has produced a one-off New Year Treat the past few years, and will air its latest January 2nd.) The original British edition of The Office used its double-length Christmas special as a series finale send-off for characters its audience had come to treasure; this year, the original British Ghosts will do the same. 

Since American TV seasons are generally much longer than those of British shows, it’s more common for a Christmas episode to pop up in the normal course of events. But that just means networks and platforms here have the chance to get more creative. For example, Royal Pains. Because USA’s medical dramedy was set among the rich and fabulous in the Hamptons, it was always a summertime show. Then, in December 2012, it was time for the long-awaited nuptials of Evan (Paulo Costanzo) and Paige (Brooke D’Orsay). It was a story development big enough to make into an event, and an event that showed the by-then well-known characters in a whole new context: facing down a blizzard?! A few years later, Fox’s revival of Fantasy Island was a summer show too, with sunny Puerto Rico standing in for the titular location. But after its first-season finale in September 2021, we got a very fitting December two-parter, in which a businesswoman’s fantasy is to see what it’s like to live in a wholesome cable Christmas movie. (No one mentions “Hallmark,” but then again, they don’t really have to.) 

The proliferation of platforms producing short seasons means there’s a huge opportunity for us to check in with characters we never see any time close to the winter solstice, as with Fantasy Island and Royal Pains. Give us a Star Trek: Lower Decks one-off so that we can see how the various alien races on the Cerritos take to human holidays, or don’t. Let me peek in on Manhattan, Kansas and spend the holidays with Joel (Jeff Hiller) and Sam (Bridget Everett) — how do these noted mischief makers amuse themselves during the famously fallow week between Christmas and New Year’s? And what about The Boys? The people demand to know whether superheroes’ sociopathic tendencies extend to gifting fruitcake. 

Or: give us one-off TV movies that don’t have anything to do with the holidays at all. Today, 14 years after Monk’s series finale, Peacock is bringing us the TV movie Mr. Monk’s Last Case. It turns out OCD patient Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) didn’t do so well during the COVID pandemic, leaning heavily on his stepdaughter Molly (Caitlin McGee) and ignoring everyone who continues to suggest he might benefit from returning to murder investigations with the San Francisco Police Department. When a tragedy derails Molly’s wedding, Monk is moved to help solve the case, for her sake. Conveniently, several of Monk’s best friends — many of whom had scattered by the end of the original series — are back in town for the wedding, and also get involved in Monk’s sleuthing. 

Altogether, it makes for a delightful and charmingly brief reunion, suggesting Monk creator Andy Breckman — who returned to write the movie — has noticed what the rest of us have: Though there has been a mania in recent years for TV series revivals, there isn’t always a whole season’s worth of material to be mined from characters who seemed pretty well settled when we last saw them. If streaming ratings indicate that audiences might like a new story about their old friends, a one-off movie might be just right. Producers might be more likely to get even reluctant cast members back if the commitment is for a breezy 90 minutes rather than eight or 10 episodes. 

And, like Mr. Monk’s Last Case, just because you drop it around the holidays doesn’t require it to be connected to Christmas at all, other than that it’ll feel like a gift.

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