5
Dec
2012
RTBN 25 Days of Christmas: Day 5
The West Wing holiday episodes
Rachel
RTBN 25 Days of Christmas is the RTBN staff's irreverent exploration of our collective holiday pop culture traditions.


West Wing Christmas

Christmas specials"”the stand alone standbys that let you know it's the holiday season"”are like the distant cousins you see once a year and always wish you could hang out with more (until you realize that they're unemployed and would probably get pretty boring pretty fast). But then there are the Christmas episodes of your favorite shows. These shiny ornaments on the television season are great. It's like when your siblings are extra nice to you because it's Christmas and they're feeling sappy.

Not all shows do holiday "very special" episodes well. Sometimes they come out as unfortunately recycled tropes, regifted material that you really could live without. But sometimes holiday episodes are good and move you"”like when, on Christmas morning, you look at the joy on your little brother's face when he opens his first present and decide not to hate him for making your whole family get up at 6 a.m. because "Santa came."

Considering the stellar quality of The West Wing as a whole, it's unsurprising that the holiday episodes of the series are fantastic. Why wouldn't I want to spend Christmas with this awesome cast of characters? Of all the seasons, there are two particularly notable holiday episodes: seasons one's "In Excelsis Deo" and season two's "Noel."

"In Excelsis Deo" is a predominantly Toby-centric episode. Picking such a generally dour character is a bold choice for a holiday episode. Even bolder is hinging the whole holiday episode on the death of a homeless veteran. Add to that a young gay man beaten to death for his sexuality, a heartbreaking look into Mrs. Landingham's past, and a right-wing nut's attempt to bring down the beloved chief of staff, and, well"”it's not exactly feel good stuff.



In "Noel," a recently shot Josh deals with music-induced PTSD. The whole episode is arranged in a series of flashbacks, as an unstable Josh talks with a trauma specialist. Meanwhile, CJ deals with a woman who had a meltdown during a White House tour after seeing a painting that was taken from the wall of her grandfather's home by the Nazis. Again, far from fluffy. But here, again, it's the ties that bind and an exploration into how they come to bear, not in a generic way, but in a way that matters. The entire staff knows something is wrong with Josh. And everyone wants to take a brief moment to share something beautiful with the people they love, even in an environment heavy with chaos and import.



As I've said previously, the holiday season's relationship with happiness is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface. Just as so much Christmas fare is based in nostalgia, these sterling episodes of The West Wing show us that even at Christmas, there's plenty to change in the world, at whatever level you can"”and it would be downright irresponsible not to. But that doesn't alter the fact that you should still take a minute to appreciate a well-decorated tree or a well-played carol.

Tomorrow, Rachel gushes about her love for Love Actually.
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