Day 3: “Christmas Special” Pt. 1 and 2, The Office (2003)

On the third day of Christmas, Ben Gallivan gave to us…

"Christmas Special," The Office

Now, before we start, we’re not talking about the comparatively sub-par offering that the US series of the same name produced. Granted, I know that the show’s principal writing team were also behind it – but to me it just didn’t transfer as well as it could have so I am writing this as a purist; it isn’t bias, it is plain common sense. In all honestly, I am not totally aware if there was an American edition of the Christmas specials of which you will hopefully be reading more of but even still, I would imagine that the emotion shown by each and every single character (and therefore actor, because that is how The Office works) outshines anything that Mr Carell & Co would have the chutzpah to even try and replicate.

And so it begins…Part 1

In January 2001 a BBC documentary crew filmed the everyday goings on in a typical workplace. Now, nearly three years later, we return to find out what has happened to the employees of…The Office.

In the opening scene, we find David Brent – late of Wernham Hogg – reflecting upon his time as manager of the eponymous office and proclaiming himself not to be “a plonker.” For my American readers, of which I am sure outnumber my friends and family that I will undoubtedly send the link to this over-indulgent synopsis, a “plonker” is an idiot, a numbskull, as vividly portrayed by Nicholas Lyndhurst as Rodney in erstwhile Xmas favo(u)rite Only Fools and Horses. As a brief side note, the show is no longer limited to prime-time Christmas viewing, having been repeated for nigh on 30 years and has lost a little of its original spark. Such is life.

Things have changed at Wernham Hogg; Gareth Keenan is now in the boss’ chair, prompting almost unwatchable exchanges between the former and current residents. Tim Canterbury – sadly, but almost predictably – has moved sideways rather than upwards and still finds himself under Gareth despite his promise in the earlier series, we find that he has gotten nowhere. Even the “new Dawn” doesn’t get his taunting of Keenan – making his life even more of a misery than usual.

Exchanging (un)pleasantries with local grocers, selling chamoix leathers to tiny offices – this is Brent’s life now. Travelling up and down the country selling tampons to anyone who’ll have them. The tables have most definitely turned compared to the series proper; the embarrassment doesn’t come from Brent’s own faux pas anymore (well certainly not as much anyhow) but from how quickly his life has turned around for the worse. Most notably surprising is how he is treated by Gareth. Whilst filling out the internet dating form for Brent, Gareth frequently teases him about his appearance and age and general life at the moment. When pressed to explain where he has been travelling, Brent pathetically suggests Hull; “Well I had to travel to get there, it didn’t come to me; Oh look here comes Hull down the motorway in a car.”

Even his sarcastic remarks have become feeble.

"Christmas Special," The Office

Brent obviously sets himself up for these things. Who else would spend £40,000 compensation money to record a single that is certain to go nowhere? Who returns to his old place of work on an almost weekly basis to “keep up morale?”

Brent’s turnaround is the main focal point of the first part of the Christmas specials. The office Christmas party is the sub-story which gets a look in every now and again (the agenda scene being a particular delight) and some really uncomfortable moments that were one of the keys to the show’s success; this time primarily in the form of Dawn and Lee’s “life” in America, full of bickering and screaming children.

And so it continues…Part 2

The second part of the specials is more classic The Office than the first. The whole episode generally focuses on the lead up to and happening of the office Christmas party. Brent starts showing his former self again (despite being a picture of frustration and confusion) when it comes to choosing a date for the office Christmas party – after lying to Neil about actually having one. With Gareth’s somewhat limited help, we’re back on the internet dating scene and together they line up three possible women to be Brent’s date for the party.

To anyone who had up to that point been a fan of The Office, the likelihood that you could then “see what was coming” would be pretty high. This is classic David Brent territory; awkward, jerky and somewhat inappropriate conversations whether it is in front of a large group or as a one-to-one. In the first date, Brent somehow manages to steer the conversation towards breasts, seemingly within a couple of minutes of sitting down. The second date doesn’t even get as far as the two actually meeting, with the call – naturally conducted in a lay-by on a motorway – ending as soon as Brent’s potential date mocks the manager of The Office without actually realising she’s talking to him.

One of the most magical moments of the second part, however, is Brent’s visibly disappointed reaction to his third date. These three seconds are the three that I have no doubt rewound and played again and again. But essentially Brent is out of luck, and has to wait until the night of the party itself in order to meet his next date, Carol.

And so onwards…to the night of the party!

It is often said that if anything more was done with the UK version of The Office then it would be ruined entirely and that is because of the genius of the final scenes of these Christmas specials. In many ways, it brings us back to square one; the only difference being that Brent ends up happy and we – well most of us – feel happy for him, despite the years of him making us chew on the backs of the sofa in horror.

Carol – David’s date – turns up and they hit it off immediately. They are seen laughing and joking either on camera or off it. The return of Dawn (not so much Lee) is the highlight of Tim’s year, not because of the possibility that she could be the love of his life, but also because they can taunt the still-oblivious Gareth about his life in the Territorial Army (and the homoerotic connotations that this has). They’re partying like it’s 2001 all over again. But then come three moments of genius that make this special live up to its billing.

"Christmas Special," The Office

Brent vs Finchy: Well it had to happen didn’t it? The obnoxious Finchy’s endless taunting of Brent finally comes to a head at the party. After years of pandering to him and laughing off any insults, the one directed at his new flame hits hard. “Why don’t you fuck off?” are words that Finchy doesn’t hear very often – and certainly not those expected to come from Brent – and it shows.

Tim and Dawn: Well it had to happen didn’t it? But did they have to do it so well that it can make grown men weep? At first, you think it’s all over; Lee drags Dawn away once he’s had his fun, despite Dawn obviously having a great time with her own friends. Lee is a dick – no change there; even I could have written his lines for these specials. He is sleeping in the front of the taxi when Dawn opens her Secret Santa gift. It’s an oil painting set from Tim – accompanied with a sketch that she’d drawn of him a day earlier with the words “Never give up” written on the back. She leaves Lee, she goes back to the party, she kisses and leaves with Tim. Sorry for the brevity, but I need to go and mop up the tears.

David Brent funny?: And so the party ends with everybody in high spirits (or high, and drinking spirits) when Brent gate-crashes the photo taking and asks for a picture of just him and the “old gang.” He plays the fool, as he does but something is different this time. He makes them laugh.

And everyone thought he was just a big pair of tits.

Tomorrow: A yuletide adventure spanning seven years and one apocalypse.

Day 2: “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” The Simpsons (1989)

On the second day of Christmas, Zach Kaplan gave to us…

When growing up, I often heard that it wasn’t ideal for a family to eat dinner gathered around the television instead of having a conversation about their day. I didn’t get it. My family did that every night, and it never seemed so terrible to me. Besides, who can find anything worthwhile in their daily lives to talk about?

Our program of choice was always The Simpsons. Instead of worrying about my own problems, I was laughing at those of my favorite cartoon family. I wished I could be like the rebellious Bart, though I knew I could never be an underachiever, let alone proud of it. And that’s the way it went every night of my pre-college life, except for when we’d eat too late and have to watch King of the Hill instead. Or when, in high school, my new stepmom forced us to turn off the set and focus on each other, but by that time my ability to connect on any level deeper than a joke was too far gone. Being able to distract myself and tell myself that everything is okay proved a very useful skill throughout my life, as has the ability to tune it all out and focus on an old, familiar TV show.

“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is perhaps the crystallization of that perfect old TV show, the first episode, with all of its early, unsure steps and lines that sound less like real dialogue and more like catch phrases to be printed on t-shirts – which they of course in turn were. But it’s also a much more mature Simpsons than the show that we know now, about the family that flies internationally on a whim, fights murderous robots in a theme park and saves its town from becoming encased in a giant dome (a plot that Stephen King would later rip off).

At the beginning, its creators wanted them to worry about money; after all, Homer works a blue-collar job and Marge is a 1950’s-model unemployed housewife. Indeed, every problem in this holi-debut is a direct result of their paucity. Mr. Burns denies Homer a Christmas bonus, so he has to get a second job as a mall Santa and is forced to skimp on gifts. Pressure from Patty and Selma remarking that it barely looks like Christmas around their house causes Homer to steal a pine tree from private property. And along the way, Flanders is there with his elaborate light display and copious gifts that become mixed with Homer’s after bumping into him, only for his son to retrieve the one Simpson present in the pile – a rubber pork chop (for Maggie – it says “for dogs”, but she can’t read).

The last few years have been both some of my most rewarding and most challenging. I moved away from my home state, gained employment and financial independence from my dad, and got married to my lovely wife. All of this has been quite a period of personal growth, especially the last event – it’s difficult to want to become a better person for myself, but it’s a lot easier to do it for her.

By the time I moved to the big city, I was no longer the introvert that I was in high school; college had cured me of that, as had my subsequent involvement with improv comedy – but instead of feeding my inner self until it grew and filled me out, I had built a shell behind which I could hide, a shell of not taking things seriously and treating everything like a joke. It’s not difficult for me to see roots of this in my childhood, though I’ll never blame who I became on one source entirely. And hey, it had helped me deal with some things that I wasn’t ready to face when I was younger. But with the identity of an adult life comes responsibilities, and I had the responsibility of becoming more in touch with my emotions. I can’t say that I’m fully where I’d like to be, but I’m a lot farther than I was four years ago.

Now watching that particular episode, I’m not focusing on the part where Bart pulls down Homer’s Santa beard or when he coins the catch phrase, “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” I’m paying attention to Homer trying so hard to be the provider and do right by his family. I empathize with him when he tells Marge, “I don’t deserve you as much as a guy with a fat wallet and a credit card that wont set off that horrible beeping.” And as I watch him pick out presents – the pork chop for Maggie, pantyhose for Marge (“practical and alluring”), pads of paper for Bart – I think of the many times I’ve headed to the discount rack for gifts while wishing that I could get them what they deserve, begrudgingly talking myself into reduced-price DVDs and such.

(I’m also paying attention to that weird African-style dance that Lisa does at the beginning where she looks like she’s not wearing any pants. First episodes are weird.)

But, like all good Christmas specials, this one ends on a happy, anti-commercialist note. Even without any money for gifts, Homer and Bart snag a free family dog that brings the entire bunch together at the end. “This is the best gift of all, Homer,” Marge says. “It is?” he replies in disbelief. Sometimes I’ve been equally shocked at the support of loved ones like my wife, who appreciates what I do even when I think I’ve ruined Christmas with my inability to produce wealth.

When it first premiered, I was Bart and Lisa, chiming in with the interstitial lyrics to “Rudolph” to the chagrin of my parents. Now, I’m Homer – imperfect, unwealthy, and, despite difficulties like unpleasant relatives and dollar store Christmases, carried through by the support of my loving wife, friends and family.

I guess that’s what Simpsons…I mean, Christmas…is all about.

Tomorrow: From a Christmas pilot to a Christmas finale, we’ll take a look at a festive conclusion to one of the greatest television shows ever made.

Day 1: “A Christmassy Ted,” Father Ted (1996)

On the first day of Christmas, David Black gave to us…

After two phenomenal series Father Ted was awarded with a feature-length Christmas special, and so on Christmas Eve in the year of our Lord 1996, a fifteen-year-old me sat down in front of the television set to watch Father Ted. I loved it. I still do. I watch it every year and it’s still as great as ever.

I could wax lyrical about all the great things in “A Christmassy Ted,” and so I’m going to. Dougal versus the Christmas tree lights, Mrs Doyle’s window sill dismounts, “Gifts for husbands, like pipes and slippers,” Dougal’s weird familial one-liners, Priest Chatback, a Glittery Dougal, “So a protestant is better than me!”, Dougal presiding over a funeral, Ted’s list of everyone who’s fecked him over, Larry Duff skiing, Dougal’s matador stuff, “bizarre irregularities in his accounts,” Ted’s speech, “La Marseillaise,” the shots framed with Todd’s anatomy, “I don’t know. It was just going that way,” Dougal hanging up the phone, etc.

Father Dougal: Can I open another window on the Advent calendar?
Father Ted: All right. But remember, only today’s window.
Father Dougal: Oh! A shepherd! Great! Fantastic stuff! Can I not open the other two?
Father Ted: No, Dougal.
Father Dougal: God, I can’t wait to see what’s under tomorrow’s window. I bet it’s a donkey or something.
Father Ted: Really? So, you’ve changed from your initial prediction of… what was it again? “Ruud Gullit sitting on a shed.” God, Dougal, where do you get these ideas from?

In many ways, however, one of the real strengths of this episode is all the things that it doesn’t do. This is a situation comedy that successfully takes the high road, but brilliantly acknowledges the roads less travelled. For once in a sitcom Christmas special, Christmas is simply the sit and not the source of com. It’s a move acknowledged by the baby that isn’t left on their doorstep and therefore deliberately denying us a version of the Nativity filled with Three Men And A Baby-style high jinks.

Father Ted: A nice quiet Christmas with no unusual incidents or strange people turning up, that would suit me down to the ground.

This episode doesn’t take the easy option at any point. It isn’t yet another retelling of A Christmas Carol, the spirit of Christmas isn’t revealed to any of the characters, and they don’t learn anything. Nor does it try and show the inhabitants of Craggy Island undergoing all the same Christmas rituals as their viewers.

Father Todd Unctious: He gives good mass…he really knows how to work the altar. Look at that chalice work.

When it does acknowledge Christmas it does so in explicitly crass ways such as the jingle bells that are practically bolted onto the opening theme tune, showing the priest’s collective reaction to a televised mass or getting the big guest stars out of the way in the shamelessly conspicuous Ballykissangel opening dream scene and then rapidly replacing them with giant peanuts.

Father Dougal: What’s goin’ on?
Father Terry: I think Ted has a plan.
Father Dougal: No, I mean in general.
Father Terry: Oh, we can’t find a way out of the lingerie section.
Father Dougal: Oh, right.

On subject of pop-culture references, the Mission Impossible cat burglar scene came at a time when such a nod was still new, and most notably the idea of eight priests finding themselves in Ireland’s biggest lingerie section played with the same high stakes as being behind enemy lines in a Vietnam War movie is a stroke of unadulterated genius. Any other sitcom would be happy to rest on those laurels, but Ted is different, and takes us into the bizarre Film Noir flashback confession of Father Todd Unctious.

I was very disappointed to discover that Graham Linehan is not a fan of this episode and feels it is too long. I think he’s a bit hard on it. The extended running time broadens the scope of “A Christmassy Ted” beyond the other episodes.  Between the priestly platoon, the opulence of the “strapped for cash” Vatican and the Golden Cleric scenes the Christmas special has the highest number of priests per square inch of any episode, and they each have their own distinct characters, attributes and motivations.

Mrs Doyle: Father Andy Riley?
Unknown Father: No.
Mrs Doyle: Father Desmond Coyne? Father George Byrne? Father David Nicholson? Father Dick Linlidge?
Unknown Father: I’ll give you a clue.
Mrs Doyle: No clues! I’ll get it in a second. Father Ken Sweeney? Father Neil Hannon? Father Keith Cullen? Father kieran Donnelly? Father Mick McAvoy? Father Jack White?…Father Henry Bigbigging? Father Hank Tree? Father Hiroshima Twinkie? Father Stig Bubblecard? Father Johnny Helzapoppin? Father Luke Duke? Father Billy Furley? Father Chewy Louie? Father John Hoop? Father Hairy Cakelinem? Father Rabulah Conundrum? Father Pee-wee Stairmaster? Father Tri-Peglips? Father Jemimah Ractoole? Father Jerry Twig? Father Spodo Komodo? Father Canabramalamer? Father Todd Unctious?
‘Father Todd Unctious’: Yes!

In any other episode the idea of a character “being vaguely unhappy but not being able to figure out exactly why” might go underexplored, but here it gets the attention it deserves. It’s all done without being pious and not a moment is wasted.

Father Ted: And who’s that Todd Unctious? I didn’t invite him, did you? No, I barred you from inviting people over after that tramp stayed a week when I was away.
Father Dougal: That wasn’t a tramp. That was the Prime Minister of France.

The resulting piece of television is fantastic, but that’s not surprising because there are no bad episodes of Father Ted. Any episode of Father Ted shown at Christmas would have felt sufficiently “special.” “A Christmassy Ted” is a fantastic episode, but crucially it’s not very Christmassy, and that’s what makes it so great.

Father Ted: Dougal, fantastic news!
Father Dougal: You’re getting married.
Father Ted: No, I’m no…is that a joke?

Tomorrow: A classic Christmas special that also served as the pilot for one genuinely world-changing series.

Announcing: The 12 Days of Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! And welcome to what I hope will be a very special new article series here on Noiseless Chatter: The 12 Days of Christmas!

Starting Thursday, and continuing daily through to Christmas Eve, we will be spotlighting special Christmas episodes of our favorite — and not so favorite — television shows. Each day of Christmas will be spent with a different fictional family, and we’ll make the most of the time we spend with them.

I’ve assembled a group of friends to help me along as well. Some of the names will be familiar to readers here and others will be new, but they’re all excellent writers, and we’ll come together to turn this series into one big, long Christmas party…consisting solely of the nerds who stand alone in the corner talking about television shows.

I won’t tell you which episodes of which shows are being covered — you’ll have to tune in daily to find out — but I will say that there’s a great cross-section of programs here, and we’ll explore a lot of very different approaches to celebrating Christmas along the way.

So remember, that’s Thursday, December 13, with a new article going live every morning through Christmas Eve. I hope you’ll join in the discussions and the good cheer, and that you’ll enjoy some of the selections we’ve made.

A sincere thanks to everybody out there who’s seen this blog through its first year. Here’s to many, many more.

Oh, also, I’m aware that the fucking A.V. Club beat me to this. BUT WE’RE DOING IT ANYWAY.

We start on Thursday…celebrating Christmas with three men of the cloth. What could possibly go wrong?