Christmas TV episodes are a living thing, or a moving target, depending on your point of view. New ones are always airing, and your own perspective on the holiday changes, too.
So a personal Top 10 feels ephemeral. Recently revisiting those I chose a few years back for my book “Christmas on Television,” I found myself less enchanted with several, more enamored of others and wondering whether newer shows were ready to join the list.
Or whether a best-ever list made sense at all, considering how some folks love sentiment while others prefer seasonal subversion, and those preferences don’t always intersect.
In other words, here’s my Top 10 Christmas episodes list, starting with subversion and moving into sentiment. Unless, of course, my mood shifts while I’m writing. (All are available on DVD, with other viewing options noted.)
1. “The Jack Benny Program” (1960, CBS). This one has topped my list since the first time I saw it. The legendary penny pincher goes Christmas shopping in a department store and slowly, inevitably drives a counter clerk quite palpably insane. The ending is so shocking (but hilarious!), sitcoms today couldn’t get away with it.
2. “Married ... With Children” (1987/ 1989, Fox). It’s a tie! The first holiday episode of this anti-”Cosby Show” had Santa land (hard) in the Bundys’ backyard, prompting a Christmas coroner’s visit. In the next one, comic Sam Kinison played Al’s guardian angel, “It’s a Wonderful Life”-style, showing what the family’s life would be like without their sad-sack husband/ dad — happy!
3. “Green Acres” (1966, CBS). Eddie Albert’s exiled city guy seeks an old-fashioned Christmas, while his rustic neighbors all want modern gear like fake trees with sap squirters — Arnold the Pig loves them. Mindbendingly surreal. (Watch on Hulu.com.)
4. “Becker” (2000, CBS). Ted Danson’s holiday hater throws out his back while shopping and lives his worst nightmare laid out in a syrupy store display.
5. “Seinfeld” (1997, NBC). Festivus! The anti-holiday alternative of George’s dad (Jerry Stiller) involves aluminum poles and airings of grievances.
6. “Northern Exposure” (1991, CBS). The Alaska town’s raven pageant brings together Christians, Jews and animists. Emmy winner for drama writing.
7. “My So-Called Life” (1997, ABC). Claire Danes’ angsty teen tries to help her kicked-out gay pal and a mysterious homeless girl. Gritty yet angelic. (Watch on Hulu, Netflix.)
8. “The West Wing” (1999, NBC). Richard Schiff’s Toby is moved to action when he learns a homeless Vietnam vet died wearing a coat he’d donated to Goodwill. Emmy winner for drama writing.
9. “Little House on the Prairie” (1974, NBC). Ingalls family members make “Gift of the Magi” sacrifices to buy each other frontier Christmas gifts.
10. “All in the Family” (1977, CBS). Christmas on this landmark show took on topical issues like job loss, draft dodging, divorce and even losing touch with God. That last one may have been the best, with atheist Mike helping despondent Edith find her faith again.