Christmas-themed episodes for sitcoms usually stand out from other episodes of the series by wrapping up in a warm, sentimental, often treacly way. The Wonder Years, however, consistently wraps its episodes up poignantly. Thus, “Christmas” (I’ll put it in quotes when I mean the episode name, not the holiday) feels very consistent within the series and never a “very special episode.”
The theme of the episode is the same as pretty much every Christmas special ever made — that people and family and memories matter more than anything material. Still, The Wonder Years manages to do a lot with this familiar holiday idea, and it manages to feel pretty fresh. You can tell the writers knew they were walking on a well-trod path with the Christmas special, particularly the scene when formula would dictate a gentle snow starts falling, but instead it started pouring rain.
We get some fantastic family scenes here, from buying the Christmas tree to sitting in the family room on Christmas Eve to drying off in the kitchen. Wayne is never not the highlight of his scenes (much like Paul). I particularly enjoyed his cadence of “nice going, butthead!”
The most successful moment of the episode was when Kevin went to Winnie’s door and was reminded that she’s spending her first holiday season without her brother. I’m glad The Wonder Years brought up Brian’s death; it had largely been forgotten since Swingers, second episode of the series. It also grounded the “memories matter” lesson of the episode by bringing back a moment established as deeply important to these characters.
Winnie’s gift of a four-leaf clover seems a bit random as a gift, but I think it’s extremely fitting. It ties again back to Swingers, when Winnie asks Kevin to go swinging instead of making out. A four leaf clover, like the swings, is a symbol of intentional innocence, conjuring images of kids playing in a clover field, hunting for that one lucky oddity. Contrast that to the gift Kevin wanted to get for Winnie, perfume, which is implicitly sexual and mature (though Winnie had already been wearing it at school).
There’s also a bittersweet iron in Winnie giving Kevin the symbol for good luck. Winnie is the one who recently lost a family member, so you’d expect the luck-wishing to go the other way.
All in all, “Christmas” matches the high expectations I had for a holiday-themed episode of The Wonder Years.
A few other thoughts:
- This week’s edition of Wow, Awesome Editing: The cuts back and forth between the television singers and Wayne and Kevin’s bewildered looks to open the episode. Fantastic.
- I know nearly every Christmas-themed episode of television likes to postulate the importance of making great memories with family. But I can’t remember any show doing it better than The Wonder Years: “Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you wish to never lose.” I love it.
- Best scene of the episode: Kevin and Paul bantering in the hallway as they compare Haunakkah and Christmas, while Kevin dreams of Winnie.
- While the episode definitely emphasizes the importance of memories and family, it also never condemns gifts as materialistic. Norma makes a pretty convincing argument for Jack to buy the tree.
- I appreciated the way they wrote Janet this episode. She stays consistent with her personality — judgmental, know-it-all teen — but expands beyond her typical topics of liberal politics and hippie-ism.
- This was the first episode that suffered from being a couple of decades old. In 1989, TV shows didn’t trust you to know plot points from episodes a season removed, so the house-sitter at the Coopers’ had to explain Brian’s death, diminishing the impact. I hope future episodes can trust viewers a bit more with callbacks.