'Tis the Season: A New Medium

We've been reviewing Christmas movies, specials, books, episodes - God, you name it - for more than a decade now, and granted, a lot has changed. Overall, we've seen both an increase in quality and quantity, a wider variety of subgenres represented, and a more global pool of customs being drawn from. But one of the most noteworthy changes in holiday media is one I'm not seeing discussed.

I refer to the advent of the Christmas television series or season as a medium.

On one hand, this is to be expected. Streaming functions differently than traditional TV. It has different goals and different limitations, and those result in drastically different kinds of programming. Traditional TV favored weekly, episodic stories that could maintain casual viewers: streaming platforms know you can (and generally will) start from the beginning and watch every episode (at least until you get bored). Even shows that maintain weekly releases are typically fewer episodes in length, since the incentive has shifted from filling time to delivering higher quality (or at the very least appearing to do so).

This leaves Christmas episodes in an awkward situation. Ultimately, the "Christmas episode" was really an aftereffect of the structure of television series, which played out over the better part of a year, broken up by scheduled breaks filled by reruns. This meant every December shows had an opportunity to film and schedule an episode about the holidays where the narrative mirrored the broadcast.

But as viewers shift to streaming platforms, that's no longer the case. Entire seasons are released at once. Even when the narrative is spaced out, there's less incentive to include a Christmas installment in the middle of a season dropped in the summer.

Granted, some shows do so anyway, while others might release a Christmas special in December, independent from the rest of the season. But this is quite a bit pared back from the tide of holiday episodes we got from traditional TV.

But while this disincentivizes the traditional television episode, it opens the door for entire seasons - or even series - to be set entirely around the holidays (or nearly so). The third season of Fargo did this, as have Dash & Lily and Hjem til Jul. And this year, of course, there's Hawkeye, Nisser, and Santa Inc.

Are these really new? There's an argument to make that these are really better described as miniseries, as opposed to full TV shows. And it's worth noting there's no shortage of Christmas miniseries on Netflix, as well. While I can't think of an example of an older ongoing show doing something similar for the holidays, I wouldn't be surprised if there are a handful I'm not aware of.

I don't think most of the new shows are best described as miniseries, though. The line between series and miniseries on streaming is admittedly vague, but unless we want to consider everything Netflix produces a miniseries, I think think these need to occupy their own category.

Besides, in some ways, several feel closer to movies to series. This is especially true of Dash & Lily and both seasons of Hjem til Jul - it's pretty easy to imagine these being edited into feature films. Again, this is true of a lot of streaming shows, particularly ones with overall runtimes between two and four hours. And, to be clear, these aren't just movies cut into bite-sized chapters: the episodes of all of these shows contain individual story arcs designed for just this format. This doesn't always work out for the best - Santa Inc., in particular, would probably have benefited from the streamlining required of feature films - but more often than not these shows have impressed me.

Really, this is a new medium, and I expect it will continue to evolve. After all, there's always a demand for stories around Christmas, and the old models no longer fit as well in the new format. So far, most of the ones we've seen have been pretty good - several have been great. Let's hope that trend continues, since it takes a much larger commitment to watch a season than a single episode.