Has Streaming Killed the Holiday Special?

They're still going strong on network television. But will Hulu and Netflix keep the tradition going?

Master of None Thanksgiving lena waithe
The "Thanksgiving" episode of "Master of None" is one of the rare memorable holiday episodes.
By Bonnie Stiernberg / November 26, 2019 6:00 am

I don’t remember how my old roommate and I got the idea to watch every holiday episode we could find on the assortment of streaming services we subscribed to — I think maybe we had just finished decorating the Charlie Brown-sized tree we bought and wanted to put on something festive to congratulate ourselves while we attempted to finish off the Christmas beers in the fridge — or how it became a thing we regularly did. But for several years, we’d devote a night or two to typing “Christmas” (or “Thanksgiving,” or “Halloween”) into the search bar and taking turns choosing from whatever came up. There were a lot of options, of course, but they tended to all come from the usual suspects: The Office. Friends. 30 Rock. New Girl. The Mindy Project. Brooklyn Nine-Nine — network sitcoms, most of which were already off the air.

Growing up, it wasn’t Christmas until Darlene Love sang “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on Letterman after Dave hurled a football at the meatball perched atop his tree. Later, in college during those early seasons of The Office, we’d make sure we were in front of a TV (this was pre-Hulu, kids!) to see what each character dressed up as for Halloween and then a few months later we’d tune in to see if any of the Dunder Mifflin Christmas parties could top the one from season 2 where Jim gives Pam the blue teapot (spoiler alert: no). Holiday episodes were appointment viewing; but with so many of us cutting the cord and opting instead to plow through entire seasons of a show whenever we feel like it, are they a thing of the past?

They’re still going strong on network TV. Last Tuesday, the Pearson clan gathered together on This Is Us for a characteristically heartbreaking Thanksgiving full of shrimp, Police Academy 3 and early-onset dementia. Brooklyn Nine-Nine still is devoted to its annual Halloween Heist episode, even though NBC’s decision to have it air midseason meant it had to become a Cinco De Mayo heist instead last year. And even classic episodes are finding new life: Jimmy Kimmel and Norman Lear’s latest live comedy event will be a recreation of an All in the Family holiday episode, airing Dec. 18. But with cable companies losing one-million subscribers in the first quarter of 2019 alone, how many people are still watching?

Unlike traditional broadcast shows, the original series on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon’s Prime Video, tend to shy away from the holiday episode (with a few notable exceptions, like Master of None‘s excellent Thanksgiving episode). Part of that, presumably, stems from the logical assumption that people are binging these shows, and a Christmas episode just doesn’t feel right in, say, June. But there’s also the underlying perception that holiday episodes are slightly gauche and unbefitting the prestige programming available to us — that the holiday episode, like the multicam show filmed in front of a live studio audience, is a cheesy relic of the traditional network sitcom.

Is the issue actually that, rather than doing away with the holiday episode, streaming services are overlooking killing the sitcom? They engage in massive bidding wars over favorites like Friends and Seinfeld, but their original series tend to prioritize drama and prestige comedy. As Vulture’s Dan Nosowitz wrote in his 2016 piece “Where Have All the Fun Sitcoms Gone?”, “While it’s tempting to assume that these kinds of high-art comedies are exempt from trend-chasing, television is notorious for just that — think of how many Lost-lite shows came out within a year of Lost becoming a giant hit. Soon, it became weirdly marketable to produce not-necessarily-funny comedies about creative types on anti-depressants living in New York City and Los Angeles.”

Courtney Cox on Friends (NBC)with  turkey on head
Monican Geller: Thanksgiving TV icon

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for holiday content on streaming services — it’s just in a different format. If you’ve scrolled through Netflix at any point since Halloween, for example, you’ll notice that it has leaned in hard to the holiday romcom, churning out a truly absurd amount of Hallmark Channel-quality fare like The Knight Before Christmas and Let It Snow in the hopes of recreating the success they had with 2017’s A Christmas Prince. (A Christmas Prince 3: The Royal Baby, incidentally, comes out Dec. 5.) Holiday-themed editions of reality competitions like The Great British Baking Show and Nailed It! are no-brainers, easily digestible (pun intended) and festive. The Dennis Quaid vehicle Merry Happy Whatever, set to premiere on Thanksgiving, eschews the holiday episode in favor of a holiday series, with the entire eight-episode season taking place over the course of a 10-day Christmas visit.

And yet, will any of this be as memorable as Monica shoving a turkey on her head on Friends? Will future generations embrace it the way I get nostalgic for Paul Simon singing “Still Crazy After All These Years” in a turkey suit on SNL every year around this time despite it happening 12 years before I was born? It used to be that, thanks to the magic of syndication, these episodes were inescapable; I knew that at any given point of the day on Dec. 23, I’d be able to turn on the TV and find Frank Costanza describing the origins of Festivus. But thanks to streaming, we’ve reached a whole new level; our viewing is fractured now. With everything constantly at our fingertips, we’ve got endless choices about what to watch and when to watch it, and with so many different, new services emerging — HBO Max, Disney+, Apple TV Plus — there’s no guarantee that we’re even choosing from the same pool of content. The water cooler moments are few and far between, and the holiday episodes that become part of our own traditions seem to be going the way of lead tinsel.