The best holiday TV is Halloween TV.
You might assume the best holiday TV is Christmas TV — you’ve been told this for years. But you’ve been told wrong. Christmas TV is frightening. Christmas TV is about dead parents and fiancees and Christmas in Santa Monica. There are dead parents and fiancees in Halloween TV, but they tend to be more lively, so to speak. Christmas TV is about young professionals who work too much and can’t appreciate the spirit of the holiday, not until their family is gathered around them, at which point they realize at last what’s meaningful in life. If a family is gathered around someone in Halloween TV, there is a solid chance they are deciding what tastes better — the left eye or the right shoulder.
Christmas TV gets a hushed reverence. Like the Oscar season it parallels, Christmas TV is chockablock with nostalgia and violently earnest reminders to have faith in mankind; it’s hidebound to insistent moral uplift, and genuflecting at a honey-glazed vision of the holidays that, depending on your tax bracket, is not particularly relatable. Christmas TV, by Dec. 24, becomes an unintentionally stressful yardstick, one that is expelled on Dec. 26 like spoiled turkey. Halloween TV, on the other hand, is playfully stressful, resistant to meaning, quite malleable and healthily self-scrutinizing.
Halloween TV is about allowing the people who make TV to blow off steam, if only for a single episode. It is a clandestine resume builder, a show-and-tell courtesy of the union set-decorating and costume-design departments — its craftspeople, restricted to a few prosaic situations for the other episodes that season, get inspired, absurdist and fantastical. For years I have been unable to resist any Halloween episode, no matter how ridiculous. If it’s a mediocre TV series, such as Fox’s “New Girl,” its Halloween episode is its best (Zooey Deschanel as “Zombie Woody Allen” is spot-on self-flagellation); if it’s smart, like NBC’s still-grieved “Community,” its Halloween episode underlines everything clever about the show. Truthfully, though, I like every Halloween episode of every show. And Halloween TV is older and more pervasive than you know.
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In the 1950s, while trick-or-treating was still finding its footing in our postwar suburbs, “Lassie” delivered a Halloween episode with a sick dog and a witch. “The Andy Griffith Show” set a Halloween episode in a haunted house that Pennywise the Clown would have found inviting. There were Halloween episodes of “Law and Order” and “Lou Grant” and “M*A*S*H*”; there were six Halloween episodes of (the original) “Hawaii Five-O” and four Halloween episodes of “Dawson’s Creek.” There were Halloween episodes of “Gilligan’s Island.” Even “Star Trek.” There were Halloween episodes of “Saved by the Bell” and “Boy Meets World” about killers on the loose. If Christmas TV is about struggling to prove your worth to your kids (all they want is a mommy), Halloween TV is about four things: the haunted house on the block, the misunderstood Boo Radley everyone assumes is an ax murderer, the ghost in the attic, the kooky costume party.
Like Christmas TV, Halloween TV gets lightly refreshed at times — NBC’s “David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special” (coming Saturday), with Tom Hanks providing the voice of an animated version of his nonsensical “Saturday Night Live” character, is this year’s most notable addition. But unlike Christmas TV — with its Grinches and Heat Misers, its 24-hour marathons of “Elf” and Hallmark made-for-TV schmaltz — Halloween TV is manageable: Basically, there are two classics, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (airing Oct. 29) and the latest “Treehouse of Horror” episode of “The Simpsons” (its 28th aired Sunday, and FXX is running 26 of those episodes between Monday and Oct. 31.). Both specials have been around so long that “The Simpsons” once did a parody of “Charlie Brown” featuring a racist “Grand Pumpkin” who gets executed by a pious Tom Turkey.
Nevertheless, there are so many Halloween TV festivals — Freeform’s 13 Nights of Halloween, SyFy’s 31 Days of Halloween, Disney Channel’s Monstober — that Halloween TV (augmented with a quick trip to YouTube, and a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu) plays like a veritable haunted mansion of shocking turns: For instance, it’s worth stumbling on the 1976 Halloween episode of “Little House on the Prairie,” which opened with a beheading. (I’m not kidding.) Likewise, one of the most haunting things I remember as a child was the 1972 “Fright Night” episode of “The Brady Bunch.” Watching it again, I was surprised to find its initial scenes just as unsettling today: Two of the Brady girls lie in bed, in the middle of the night, listening to creaking floorboards above their heads. With the actresses’ straight blonde Joni Mitchell hair, and the show’s no-budget reliance on darkened corners, it would fit neatly into the “Conjuring” franchise.
Not that Halloween TV is above pining for manufactured sentiment. Who can forget (or remember) “The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t” (with Judd Hirsch as Dracula) or “Halloween is Grinch Night”? On Saturday, CBS has “Michael Jackson’s Halloween,” an animated special awkwardly described as two teenagers’ journey to personal discovery. Trouble is, sentiment doesn’t stick to Halloween TV. Meaning gets nicely weird: The great Halloween episode of “Buffy” featured the cast playing their ugliest fears (Buffy as a damsel, for instance); when Louis CK took his TV kids trick-or-treating on “Louie,” the show veered from mild bullying into an eerie, real-world scene about protecting family.
I should note that I don’t consider cable TV’s glut of night-vision-wearing, reality-based ghost shows — “Ghost Hunters,” “Most Haunted USA,” et al. — Halloween TV: These shows exploit the pain, longing and history connected to a supposedly haunted location, with little curiosity for the people connected with those places. Halloween TV, at its best, is about vulnerability. There’s a wonderful Halloween episode of “Happy Days” (directed by creator Garry Marshall himself) that finds a lot of discomfort in a simple act: Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham watching horror TV alone, in the dead of night. Which, of course, is how many experience Halloween — watching Halloween TV. Halloween TV is radical this way: It reminds us we’re lonely, that things often don’t work out for the best. Charlie Brown goes trick-or-treating and gets a pillowcase full of rocks. Linus waits all night in a pumpkin patch for a Great Pumpkin who never comes. He learns a valuable lesson: Life is full of disappointment. Then you die, and then sometimes, you rise again.