Every Christmas can be a ruined one if you want it to be. The right mix of the comfortingly familiar and the thrillingly new is unachievable, and when each family member works independently toward her or her idea of a perfect holiday, there are going to be moments of disappointment for everyone. Christmas can be a wedding where everyone is a bridezilla.
TV episodes set at Christmas almost invariably deliver the moral that none of the disappointments matter. As long as a family is together, it’s OK that nothing went off as planned. If the show is a drama, something tragic will happen (anything from someone getting fired to someone getting shot) that will make everyone forget about the squabbles over decorating the tree and appreciate just being with each other. If it’s a comedy, people spend most of the episode being petty and manipulative before realizing that Christmas isn’t about forcing your idea of the perfect holiday onto everyone else.
The Michael J. Fox Show nears the halfway point of its first season by checking most of the boxes of a Christmas episode list. Mike and Annie compete to get each other the better gift, daughter Eve complains that the holiday is bogus (and flirts with Judaism in her usual clueless way), and Ian holds a grudge about the gift he never got when he was eight years old. On top of all this, Mike unexpectedly has to work on Christmas Eve during a snowstorm, a sitcom tradition going back to the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (also set in a TV newsroom).
There’s a self-congratulatory air to “Christmas” that belongs to a show more successful than MJF has been. Just about everyone gets a showcase scene (save poor Wendell Pierce as Mike’s boss, still used as comic relief on a show that’s supposed to be funny most of the time), and there’s special guest star Sting, whose awkwardness playing himself makes me thankful (or is it angry?) that he wasn’t tricked into attempting a real character, perhaps Mike’s third cousin from England.
The episode doesn’t work because the characters are still so fuzzy that we don’t feel any emotion in saying good-bye to them for a few weeks in what is essentially the midseason finale. The strongest aspect of the series remains Fox’s performance, but it’s not enough to carry this episode. He does have at least two good moments. One is when he agonizes over what to give his assistant after she’s presented him with a ridiculously expensive briefcase; he finally pulls the necklace he bought Annie out of his desk drawer, kicking off the “I’ve got to find another one for my wife!” plot. The other is when he’s on air and has to use his finger as a cursor on a giant weather map. Since some of us without Parkinson’s disease know the feeling of trying to locate New York City and instead zooming in on a desert in Sudan.
While Mike is struggling at work, Annie is at home with Sting (his visit was her gift to Mike), having to admit that she’s never heard of any of his songs. This seems unlikely if Sting really is one of her husband’s favorites, so my interpretation of this too-long scene is that Annie hates all of Sting’s songs and is just fucking with him. Meanwhile, Ian runs around trying to find a “space fish” toy for little brother Graham and finds one through a a Santa-like dishwasher (I hope he’s not the cook) in a diner. And Eve kvetches all over Manhattan after attending what she calls a “Chhanukah” party.
Everyone ends up with Mike as he wraps up his shift at the TV station, and all the failed Christmas Eve plans are forgotten when Sting picks up a guitar and warbles a non-Christmas tune. This feels like a lump of coal to TV viewers who complain about dreary pop songs being played over dramatic montages. Would you rather have this?
- “What am I standing under?” “It’s broccolini with a little ribbon tied around it. They were out of mistletoe.” Mistletoe is nonexistent in the sitcom universe.
- Mike on exchanging gifts with Annie: “Are you sure you’re ready? Because mine’s going to make you cry. And not in a good way.” Sometimes I like getting caught off-guard by the sour-sitcom lines that pop up on this unabashedly sweet sitcom.
- Mike behind the anchor desk: “When we return, move over Felix and Oscar. There’s a new odd couple in town. A lamb and a monkey … are friends.” Cut to talking-head Mike: “The news used to be … newsier.” WNBC probably isn’t insulted by that.
- WNBC calls its coverage Storm Watch ‘13, with a backward apostrophe. I don’t know if that’s a joke.
- A Jewish cab driver sets Eve straight on the true meaning of the holiday: “When someone gets in my cab with a perfect gift for a loved one, you’ll never see a happier person.” Thanks for turning up the pressure, The Michael J. Fox Show. You’ve ruined Christmas!