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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rev.: “Christmas Special”

Illustration for article titled Rev.: “Christmas Special”
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For its Christmas Special, Rev. hauls out the most reliable modern Christmas plot: The protagonist is busy and stressed out and almost misses the magic of the holiday, and then a series of special moments on Christmas Day cause him to realize how lucky he is. It’s a plot that has barely any gas left in it, so it’s a wonder that Rev. gets as much mileage out of it as it does. One of the reasons the show can work with older plots like this is the unique specificity of its setting—it’s unlikely you’ve seen this story set in quite this particular place before—and the warmth of its sincerity. This is a show that isn’t afraid to do things like have a genuine Christmas miracle (albeit a very small one and one that will only feel like a miracle to the two people involved) and play that absolutely straight.

Another reason this works is that it more or less makes sense that Adam would be infernally busy around this time of the year. The episode begins on December 23, and he’s already over-tired from waking up at 5:30 every morning to make sure everything gets done by midnight mass the next evening. The episode gives us an eye into how busy he is through some quick cuts of him riding his bike all over the neighborhood, set to a festive, jingly version of the show’s theme song. He’s tired enough as is, but he’s managing to keep his cheer somehow, as he races from purchasing necessary supplies to making sure Nigel is keeping the candle-orange assembly line moving to playing Santa for the kids at the school. The episode contrasts his good cheer with the increased curmudgeonly natures of those around him, as if Adam were the sole Bob Cratchit in a nation of Scrooges.

As if that basic Christmas plot weren’t enough, the episode layers another on top of it. Alex’s bitter father Martin has showed up unexpectedly, and he wants to spend a quiet holiday with family, not tending to whatever obligations Adam has that need doing around the church. It’s a bit unbelievable that Martin wouldn’t give Adam any latitude—he is, after all, a Christian minister during one of that religion’s two holiest seasons—but we also get just enough suggested back-story for this relationship that it all works. Adam’s never matched up to Alex in Martin’s eyes, and the lack of children the two have had makes him seem even more suspect to the old man. The sheepish reaction of Tom Hollander to the old man is just enough to let you know that Adam has dealt with Martin the way he deals with every problem in his life: He feigns meekness and lets whatever rage he has simmer under the surface.

If anything, this episode is a bit overstuffed. It does its best to make sure that every beloved character from the series turns up at one point or another (lest this turn into an unplanned series finale), and that means that certain characters are reduced to essentially a cameo (this is what happens to poor Mick, who pops up at the church during midnight mass to sell DVDs), while still others pop in for a scene or two but don’t get a chance to be as rich as they’ve been in the past (see also: Nigel and the Arch-deacon). The focus of the episode is resolutely on the relationship between Adam and his wife, which is much less strained than it was an episode prior, and the relationship between Adam and Colin, which takes a bad turn when Adam has to uninvite Colin from Christmas lunch because Martin is going to be there and won’t enjoy sharing the table with someone like Colin. (Again, we see how Adam is something of the picture of modern Christian charity, while others around him have essentially no patience for such a thing.)

The relationship between Colin and Adam has built so steadily and slowly that it’s only here that Adam admits that, yes, this strange drunkard is actually his friend. This, granted, comes shortly before he uninvites Colin and his “friend” knocks him in the eye, giving him a black eye he nurses throughout the rest of the episode, but as with gifts, it’s the thought that counts. If the episode is a little scattered, it works because it finds this consistent throughline of asking when enough is enough, at the holidays or any time of the year. When do you stop making excuses for people and realize they’re always going to let you down? When do you stop letting people take advantage of you and stand up for yourself? And when do you simply say enough is enough and stop loading yourself down with obligations, even if it’s the busiest time of the year?

All of this boils over at midnight mass, as you’d expect it to. (It’s notable that Adam has time for only an extremely brief prayer—which might not even be one—to whine about his hurt eye. That pressure release valve stays closed, so his complaints keep building throughout the episode.) Adam’s been unable to buy enough mince pies for the service, and Alex isn’t coming because he told her to stay with Martin. He went to visit his friend Joan, only to find she’d died (in one of the more trite, predictable moments of the episode), and the Arch-deacon stuck him with a substantial cab fare when he came to tell Adam that he was running short of the total he needed to match for the Christmas period. That Adam boils over and yells at the drunken revelers who’ve left the pub on Christmas Eve to turn the church into a second pub isn’t unbelievable, but the broad comedy of how he launches into an impromptu, improvised version of “The Twelve Days Of Christmas” all about him doesn’t work. The show has never been at its best when it goes broad, and this scene simply stretches on and on. Cringe comedy works best when it’s somewhat believable the characters would be doing such a thing, but here, it feels utterly forced that Adam would go on and on like this, perhaps because the episode has so resolutely piled on the misery up until this point.


But you know what? It’s Christmas, and I like Christmas, and the show allows for the possibility of grace (as it always does). The next morning, Adam gets to sleep in, and when he tells Martin that he’s decided to go over to the church for the homeless lunch, Martin says he won’t go, but Alex decides to accompany him. And once he gets to the church, the episode shifts into a somewhat predictable denouement, but one that’s still heartwarming, nonetheless. The other characters, stranded in London because of an unexpected snow, all come to the church, as if drawn by Adam’s unexpressed need, filling in the spots at the table for the big dinner for the needy, all of them sharing together as fellow men, regardless of their social station. The final image is that of the characters filling in spots at the table as in da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, and it’s a beautiful place to leave this series for now, as Martin carves the turkey, and the characters we’ve come to know take a moment to care for their fellow man and each other. Christmas leaves the possibility of generosity tinged with grace, and in its final minutes, the episode displays just how beautiful that possibility can be.

Stray observations:

  • Oh, yes. Alex is pregnant, and the revelation feels so well-earned that I can’t quibble about how pat it is, nor how it goes back on the wonderful moment in the last episode where the two decided they’d not have kids. The two have waited for this so long, and they seem so genuinely happy that I’m not going to begrudge the episode that moment. Also, I think it will be very amusing to watch them care for a baby.
  • I had hoped that the Arch-deacon would bring Richard to the final dinner, but I guess he left him waiting in the taxi. At least he paid Adam for the fare he skipped out on.
  • With that, we’ll leave you until this show returns in January of 2014. If Hulu handles the return of the show like it is the returns of Misfits and The Thick Of It, then we’ll get the episodes the same day as the United Kingdom. Let’s hope that deal can be worked out!