It seems the only requisite for a series to have a Christmas episode is to be on the air during the month of December.
Magnum P.I., Without a Trace, even Walker, Texas Ranger had at least one Christmas episode during their runs. Special Christmas episodes are more commons for sitcoms, but that didn’t stop ER from having 15 during its 15 seasons, or Ally McBeal from having one in each of its five seasons (and two during its third and fourth seasons – I recommend the great “Saving Santa” episode from 1999 in which a department store is taken to court for replacing a plumper, older Santa with a younger, thinner one.)
30 Rock, one of my favourite shows of 2013 (and ever), had five Christmas episodes in its seven-season run – there was no Christmas episode in Season 1, presumably because the new show was building the foundation for the rest of the season, or maybe producers thought the show would be cancelled before Christmas, and no Christmas special for Season 6, which started in January to accommodate Tina Fey’s maternity leave.
I wouldn’t describe 30 Rock with any of the adjectives usually reserved for Christmas – heartwarming, cheerful, merry, jolly. Maybe “naughty.” It was an often cynical, always sarcastic show about a show that quickly became much more than that: a realist mirror onto society, race, gender, politics and business. Even around Christmastime, 30 Rock found a way to say something about the holiday, whether it was about family or consumerism or the stress of it all.
Here are 30 Rock‘s five Christmas episodes, ranked:
5. “Secret Santa” (Season 4)
The only 30 Rock Christmas episode without Jack’s mom, the impossible-to-please, biting and vicious Colleen Donaghy (Elaine Stritch) who would definitely disapprove of Jack reconnecting with his high-school sweetheart, the now-married Nancy Donavan (Julianne Moore, sporting a thick, exaggerated Boston accent that you do get used to eventually), via NBC’s newest social-networking venture, YouFace. Liz ponders what to get Jack for Christmas; the two are exchanging gifts for the first time this year and Jack, as Jack does, makes a game out of it – a game he plays only because he knows he will win. He loves gift-giving because he guilts his recipients: nothing they give him can ever measure up to what he gives them. His assistant Jonathan – who calls Jack the best gift giver of all time – once bought him a 95-dollar bottle of olive oil; In return, Jack freed Jonathan’s sister from a North Korean jail.
Jack: “Gift-giving is the purest expression of friendship. I’m going to think about what I know and like about you and that’ll lead me to the perfect gift, and you do the same.”
Liz: “So, bath salts in a coffee mug would be … not it?”
Pete is feeling especially festive today. He wants to exact “Christmas vengeance” on Jenna, who never pitches in for the TGS cast and crew gift to the show’s cleaning team. He finds out Danny (Cheyenne Jackson) can sing and know it would crush Jenna if he sang on TGS‘s Christmas show instead of her. Worse, though, would be if the two sang a duet! Jenna would hate that, Pete says, and talks Danny into it. In the writers’ room, Lutz, Frank and Toofer create a new religion, Verdukianism, to get out of Kenneth’s Secret Santa. Among the tenets of Verdukianism are the healing power of root beer and the belief that a man can have up to nine wives if two are men. On the day of Merlinpeen, Verdukians leave work early to go to the movies. Kenneth faces his own faith when he finds out the trio invented the religion: Does that mean other religions are made up, too?
4. “Christmas Attack Zone” (Season 5)
Things we learn in “Christmas Attack Zone:” Jack and Avery (Elizabeth Banks) send out a Christmas card that reads: “Happy Holidays … is what terrorists say. Merry Christmas.” Jack’s biological dad Milton Greene (Alan Alda) tells Jack, who is expecting a child with Avery, about a Greene custom: “We have a tradition in our family where we let the child name itself.” “That’s hippie nonsense,” Avery quips. “Suit yourself,” Milton says, “but my son Spider-Man turned out just fine.” Liz travels *on* Christmas Day to avoid the crowds and the Lemon family meltdown that happens every Christmas Eve. Liz invites Jack to her Christmas Eve plans, which involve a meal at K-Mart Café and watching Tootsie. Upon hearing this, Jack invites Liz to his house for Christmas Eve where he is hosting his “Christmas Attack Zone:” Colleen Donaghy doesn’t know Avery is pregnant, and she doesn’t know that Jack found out Milton was his biological father. He’s going to ambush her. Liz is against it because she wants a drama-free Christmas Eve, but as she puts it, “As hard as your try, you can’t escape the horrors of Christmas.”
Jenna is having a blue Christmas after breaking up with Paul (Will Forte); she won’t have a date and costume-partner for the Tom Ford and Elton John-hosted party New Queer’s Eve. The Jenna-Paul storyline on 30 Rock is the kind of weird romance only this show can pull off. They first fall in love when Paul is a Jenna Maroney impersonator.
Tracy is struggling with his new identity as a serious actor after being nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Hard to Watch. He wants to make sure his movie Chunks 2 (a Nutty Professor dig if ever there was one) doesn’t come out and undermine his new reputation.
“From now on, the only movies Tracy Jordan makes are about the Holocaust, Georgia O’Keeffe, or both.”
3. “My Whole Life is Thunder” (Season 7)
“My Whole Life is Thunder” was the fifth-to-last episode of 30 Rock ever, so the series had some business to get down to and some stories to wrap up. Colleen comes to New York and tells Jack she feels she doesn’t have much longer to live. It’s an oddly sentimental Colleen, and Jack doesn’t buy it. He’s even a little annoyed she would suggest she would die. Jack’s said over the years that she’ll outlive everyone.
“I have a few things I want to say to you before I meet the Grim Reaper, who is black, I assume, what with the hoodies he wears.”
Colleen does die in “My Whole Life is Thunder” and Jack seizes the opportunity and challenges himself to delivering the greatest eulogy of all time. There’s a rousing speech, a “Danny Boy” flute solo, an appearance by Kermit the Frog. It’s exactly what Jack wanted, until he was interrupted by Jenna, who planned to marry Paul (Will Forte). Jack lets it happen because he says Colleen would have hated it.
Newlywed Liz is being honoured by organization Women in Media as one of the top 80 women under 80 (who aren’t Betty White) and invites Jenna as her guest. Upset that she wasn’t invited to Liz and Criss’ City Hall wedding, Jenna wants to upstage Liz and marry Paul as Liz goes up to accept her award. It doesn’t happen because Liz tells the lighting lady to light the stage like a grocery store aisle, scaring Jenna into even getting close to the podium.
This is the least Christmasy Christmas episode 30 Rock did, but it’s the one where the episode moves the series forward the most. Colleen dies, Jenna gets married, Liz’s life starts to turn around. We know it’s Christmas because of Colleen’s explanation for why she had a black eye: “I was watching television and they started interviewing an Asian Santa Claus, and my arm went numb.”
2. “Ludachristmas” (Season 2)
GE’s gift to its employees is a new handheld photo scanner/paper shredder (If you want to scan a photo you pull the switch to PS, if you want the paper shredder, you pull the switch to … PS); it’s a terrible gift that’s quickly thrown out by everyone who receives it, much to the horror of page Kenneth Parcell who laments everyone losing grasp of the true meaning of Christmas. He puts on an intervention of sorts right before the annual Ludachristmas, an annual booze-filled party with a history of debauchery. The message gets through, somehow, after Kenneth and his reverend friend show the TGS team a video of some disenfranchised kids, but it’s taken to the extreme. They reject Christmas and its consumerism and want to cut down that gigantic tree at 30 Rock.
Meanwhile, Liz’s parents are in town and Jack is confused that Liz isn’t a “ball of anxiety.” Unlike Jack’s mom Colleen, who is also in town for Christmas, the Lemons are really supportive of their kin. “Show us what you’ve been working on, Wilma Shakespeare.” Liz’s mom asks Jack: “Is this beautiful genius the best employee you’ve ever had or what?” When he gets Liz alone, Jack asks if she’s OK: “What did your mother mean when she called you a beautiful genius? Was she taunting you?” Jack gets used to the Lemons’ compliments and joins them for a skating session and dinner. Colleen finds out, of course, and issues herself a challenge. “Give me 10 minutes with the Lemons and I’ll have them tearing at each other like drag queens at a wig sale.” She doesn’t believe that the Lemons are as happy as they seem and almost takes offence to Jack’s suggestion that they are more supportive than her. She pries into the Lemons’ lives and tries to get a rise out of Liz’s parents. It must be so hard, she says, that Liz is so far from home and on her own. Poppa Lemon says it gives them an excuse to visit New York. Colleen tries again: And no grandchildren … Their spaniel keeps them busy, Mama Lemon says. Politics? Colleen tries. Nah, the Lemons don’t discuss politics. “Life is too short.” Colleen is at wit’s end when Liz’s brother lets slip that the Lemons weren’t at the history-making football game Liz took part in at her White Haven high school. And the Lemons unravel as Jack and Colleen sit back and enjoy the show.
1. “Christmas Special” (Season 3)
Jack was so close. He flew down to Florida early to surprise his mother Colleen and shower her with Christmas presents (she called all of them “adequate”), but on his way out of the state, he hits her with his car. It was an accident, but Jack isn’t so sure he didn’t subconsciously mean to hit Colleen. Now, on the recommendation of a “quack doctor,” she’s spending Christmas in New York with him. They even gave her a titanium hip – she’s going to be stronger than ever.
Liz gets the TGS writers to take part in the Letters to Santa program, a post-office initiative that redistributes letters kids write to Santa to do-gooders who buy them what they wished for. It’s Liz’s first Christmas alone; her parents are going on a cruise with a “Sexy at 70” theme. Liz goes overboard, buying toys, TVs and what she thinks are rapping Santas to two kids who live Uptown. She delivers the presents-filled wagon with the help of Tracy, Grizz and Dot Com. To her shock, the door is open by two men who take the wagon and don’t say a word.
Tracy: “What’s the past tense for scam? Is it scrumpt? Liz Lemon, you just got scrumpt!”
A furious Liz goes back to 30 Rock with a mission: “I will not rest until the Letters to Santa program is shut down.”
Kenneth: “What is wrong with you? You are being a real Scrooge.”
It was just two dudes, Liz tells Kenneth. There were no hugs!
Tracy: “If all you want is a hug from a black person maybe you should host The Price is Right.”
Kenneth is a consummate believer in Christmas and the human spirit. “It’s a religious holiday. When has religion ever caused any problems?” Liz calls Kenneth naive, and Kenneth say she is being a real c-word, “that’s right, a Cranky Sue.” Liz tries to be hopeful and optimistic. She has to, given her bad-luck streak in life and love. But she’s also a little selfish and only wanted to do the good deeds because they would make her feel great about herself. The episode gives Liz some of the best scenes of season three. In her anger, Liz goes to the post office to try to get census information on the address where the toys were stolen. Her interaction with the post-office worker was inspired – for fans of the show, this is when she calls Irene “Trené” and asks Tracy to “help her out here.” Later, she goes back to the apartment to prove to Kenneth that the Letters to Santa program is a scam. The door opens with two kids standing on the other side. She handles it about as poorly as she could, telling them that those gifts under the tree, she did that! “But what about Santa?” they cry.
Colleen is in eight episodes of 30 Rock in total, and they are among the best of the series, in part because of actress Elaine Stritch’s work. It’s also in part because of Jack’s transformation around her: he’s almost immeasurably successful, confident and all knowing as the hot-shot NBC executive. Around his mom, though, he’s emasculated, embarrassed and rendered completely powerless. He tries to fight back and outwit Colleen, but she is a firecracker even more relentless and competitive than he is. She’s in Jack’s apartment, a place he doesn’t want to be, so he announces to the TGS cast and crew – who were counting down the seconds to Christmas break – that they are going to put on a Christmas special. Jack oversees the whole thing and wants to make sure everything is perfect. It keeps him busy and away from Colleen, but you sense that he also wants to make her proud. He remembers the horrible Christmases of his childhood, with his mother inviting her boyfriend, Mr. Schwarz, over. He later figures out the Mr. Schwarz is of FAO Schwarz-fame. As Liz put it, Colleen put out to get Jack and his siblings toys for Christmas. The episode ends with Jack telling his mother he loves her and doesn’t want her to die. “I’m never going to,” she says, or threatens. The credits roll with Jack and Colleen singing “The Christmas Song” at the piano. It’s an almost tender moment when Colleen reminds us we are watching 30 Rock: “You’re flat, Jack.”