Thanksgiving in May, Christmas in August: How Cable and Streaming Remade the Special Holiday Episode

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Thanksgiving in May, Christmas in August: How Cable and Streaming Remade the Special Holiday Episode

If you tuned into any of ABC’s primetime comedies last week, you’d be forgiven for agreeing with the network’s cringe-worthy marketing: it was a “spooktacular; lineup. On blackish, the Johnsons riffed on The Purge, The Goldbergs took on Stephen King, The Real O’Neals hosted a fabulous costume party, and, true to what’s become an annual Halloween-themed tradition for the hit show, Modern Family married its familiar hijinks with its love of puns, presenting us with the Dunphys riffing on a beloved TV family, dressing up as a beaver and a ‘50s housewife with a cleaver sticking out of her head.

No one does Halloween quite like a sitcom family: Taken together, these episodes are a reminder of the way network television remains beholden to a sense of timeliness that sets it apart from its cable and streaming rivals.

One need not look far for examples. After all, Friends made its annual Thanksgiving episode one to watch, using everything from stunt casting (see Christina Applegate and Brad Pitt) to flashback sequences (“The One with All the Thanksgivings”) to bolster what had, early in the show’s run, become a runaway fan-favorite tradition. Similarly, The Simpsons has made its Halloween episodes the most anticipated entries in its long-running canon: The animated sitcom’s recent celebration of its 600th episode happened to fall on the latest “Treehouse of Horror” installment. Even The West Wing made its Christmas specials a highlight of its 22-episode season. These episodes, much like fall premieres and winter finales, give network shows a rhythm that mirrors our own. This adherence to seasonal temporality may very well be what sets network shows apart from its cable counterparts.

True to its self-parodying humor, it’s no surprise 30 Rock turned this trope on its head, making each season’s take on Valentine’s Day—sorry, Anna Howard Shaw Day—more ridiculous than the last. The Emmy-winning series even went so far as to create its own “Leap Day” holiday to further skewer this stale sitcom formula. Tina Fey’s comedy, which so often turned its razor-sharp zingers toward the peacock hand that fed it, was particularly aware of the extent to which network TV craved and aspired to timeliness. It’s a criticism 30 Rock turned on its head in its live episodes, the second of which hinged on the communal spirit that had made television such a staple of American households.

For the bulk of its history—that is, before the introduction of new technologies like the VCR and the DVR, not to mention the arrival of new cable and streaming models—network television didn’t just organize itself around a rigid sense of daily temporality (daytime, primetime, evening news, and so on), it followed and mirrored a seasonal schedule (hence fall premieres and summer doldrums).

This adherence to the calendar is what led networks to capitalize on annual festivities as perfectly primed moments to boost viewership. And so we got the various Charlie Brown specials you’ve been watching since childhood and the Rankin/Bass Christmas stop-motion stories that play every year around the holidays; it’s what encouraged network shows (sitcoms in particular) to anchor broadcasts to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and any other day worth celebrating. These episodes added to the intimate connection that viewers feel with the characters (and especially families) they see on the small screen every week: Who better to spend the holidays with than those familiar faces you’ve grown to know and love?

In contrast, cable series are characterized by their indifference to what we might call the temporality of network TV. While shows like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family happen in tandem with our own lives, with back-to-school episodes and summer hiatuses, cable series have often made a point of divorcing themselves from our own sense of time. This is why Mad Men has no qualms about airing its aptly titled episode “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” in August, and why Veep’s scheduling allows for a “Thanksgiving” episode where Selina Meyer pardons a turkey to air in May. We’ve come to accept that the serialized storytelling of dramas such as Breaking Bad and of comedies like Girls have timelines that are necessarily distinct from our own. Broad City’s sweltering Season Two premiere, “In Heat,” had many New Yorkers nodding their heads over the familiarity of the show’s take on the city’s summer weather, even as it aired in the middle of wintry January. This derives, in part, from the different production model: While network shows tend to shoot concurrent with their airing, the cable model often privileges airing seasons that have already been shot and cut by the time audiences have a chance to see them.

Streaming models, which are further disrupting this framework, aim more for what we might call “evergreen content,” series and episodes that, despite dropping at specific times during the year, necessarily exist outside of any temporal anchor. Whether I watch Transparent as soon as it debuts or wait months to catch up on it, my engagement with its plots and characters, will (by design) not be too much affected. It’s somehow less jarring to sit down in December to watch the Pfeffermans celebrating Yom Kippur than it is to stumble on a summer rerun of a Christmas Cheers episode. This is because the network model necessarily exploits the holiday specials to tug at one’s heartstrings, abusing the familiarity of its characters to wring some sentimental message that remains contained to the episode at hand.

Going further than 30 Rock, Netflix’s BoJack Horseman laid this very conceit bare with its Christmas episode, which expertly mimicked and mocked the way network shows are premised on the idea of bringing people together. In BoJack’s words, “Christmas episodes are always stupid. Cynical cash grabs by greedy corporations looking to squeeze a few extra Nielsen points out of sentimental claptrap for mush-brained idiots who’d rather spend their Christmas watching a fake family on TV than trying to have a conversation with their own dumb families.” At its core is that interplay between audience and show that depends on a shared sense of time, to which BoJack pays lip service (the episode was released on December 2014) but ultimately undoes (we can watch it anytime we want).

The upcoming Gilmore Girls revival, which debuts Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving, may very well be the most network-like product Netflix has yet produced—not surprising given its WB/CW roots. It will follow, as its subtitle suggests, “A Year In The Life” of the eponymous mother-daughter duo. When Amy Sherman-Palladino’s beloved series premiered in the fall of 2000, it kicked off with a back-to-school storyline that aligned the show with Rory Gilmore’s schooling, a template that it would replicate through its seven seasons, with summer breaks mapping on nicely with the very breaks the show would take during those months.

As if to remind us of that temporality—not to mention as a way to organize its plots now that Rory isn’t at school anymore—the revival will instead follow the seasons (and the show’s theme song) taking us through “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Fall.” It’s a neat structure, one that harkens back to the rigid notion of time that network TV encourages. It’s no surprise Sherman-Palladino was originally against releasing all the episodes at once, understanding, perhaps, that the rhythm of her show is inherently tied to a network-model even if it’ll be delivered on Netflix.

Which brings us back to ABC’s spooktacular lineup. Organizing an entire week’s worth of programming around Halloween is par for the course. But in 2016, when television exists more and more as on-demand service severed from the tyranny of a programming schedule, it also feels like a soon-to-be relic of a quainter network-driven television world. A reminder of a time not so long ago when viewers were beholden to the strictures of TV time and not the other way around.

Manuel Betancourt is a New York-based writer who has contributed to Film Comment, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic and Esquire.