TV's not-so-secret Santas

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2010 - 3:43 PM

It's the most wonderful time of the year for very special episodes.

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The "Community" cast gets the stop-motion treatment for its holiday episode.

While you're picking out a tree and battling other shoppers at the mall, network elves are wrapping up their own holiday tradition: churning out "very special" holiday episodes that aspire to be as touching as anything Charles Dickens or O. Henry ever concocted.

Who can forget Arthur Carlson's faith on "WKRP in Cincinnati" that turkeys could fly, or Frank Costanza's creation of Festivus on "Seinfeld," or Sheldon's reaction on "The Big Bang Theory" when Penny gave him Leonard Nimoy's autograph on a napkin?

Dan Harmon, creator of "Community," hopes his show next Thursday, in which Abed searches for the true meaning of Christmas in the world of stop-motion animation, will join that list of classics.

"Christmas is a magical time of year, even in L.A.," said Harmon, who figures the ambitious episode took about three times longer than usual to film. "You're naturally more romantic, more wistful and thinking about ideology."

The tradition also has a lot to do with timing. November sweeps, a period in which ratings are used to determine advertising rates, prompted writers to come up with above-average fare. Sweeps no longer count as much as they used to, but the lure of doing something extra-special this time of year remains strong.

"Raising Hope" raised the bar last month with a Thanksgiving episode in which the in-laws kidnap the family's baby. This week's installment finds Virginia Chance trying to one-up the church's Nativity scene while her husband resists the urge to deal some precious toys on the black market. It's more sentimental than it sounds.

"I think there's a higher expectation this time of year to possibly get to a sweeter, more emotional place," said creator Greg Garcia, who previously served up "My Name Is Earl" and "Yes, Dear." "Whether the plot is realistic or unrealistic, I think you're probably hoping for a warmer ending than usual."

Not everyone gets into the holiday spirit. Cable shows tend to avoid season-related plots because it's less certain what time of year episodes might run. Network shows that do well in reruns -- think crime procedurals -- are also wary of how a holiday plot will play in summer or in syndication.

That's why executive producer Peter Lenkov, a veteran of "24" and "CSI: NY," hasn't done a Christmas episode since he was running the Craig T. Nelson-vehicle "The District" nine years ago. But this year, he decided it made sense for his freshman hit, "Hawaii Five-O," to weave Santa into the story line.

"One of the things we try to do is showcase Hawaii, and I don't think a lot of people have seen what Christmas is like there," Lenkow said. Most of the episode, which airs Dec. 13, deals with the return of the man who killed Steve McGarrett's father, triggering what Lenkow promises to be the most action-packed sequences to date. But there's also a secondary story line about how breakout character Danno Williams despises being away from the mainland during the holiday season.

We have it on good authority that he does not end up paying a young boy to run out and buy a Christmas duck, then runs down the beach tossing presents to islanders. Perhaps Lenkow is saving that for next year.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin

  • HAWAII FIVE-O

    9 p.m. Mon., WCCO, Ch. 4.

    RAISING HOPE

    8 p.m. Tue., KMSP, Ch. 9.

    COMMUNITY

    7 p.m. Thu., KARE, Ch. 11.

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