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Why more TV shows should do year-end Christmas specials

The canceled NBC series Timeless wraps things up in grand fashion with a two-hour Christmas-themed finale.

The cast of Timeless has a festive time of it in their series finale.
Darren Michaels/Sony/NBC
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 16 through 22 is “The Miracle of Christmas,” the two-hour finale movie of NBC’s Timeless.

If I could steal anything from the British model of making television, it wouldn’t be shorter seasons or greater creator control or anything like that. It would be Christmas specials.

Sure, the British model allows for tighter storytelling, and when you get on a creator’s wavelength, that’s glorious. But I’ve watched many, many British shows where I simply said, “Sure! Seems fun!” and then walked away without feeling particularly affected one way or another. Some British shows are Fawlty Towers or The Office or Peep Show. Most are ... not, and without the greater sprawl of a US series, they don’t have as much space to course correct.

But Christmas specials — we should absolutely steal this concept. Every year in the UK, a variety of shows, some of which might have been over and done with for years, will parade onto the airwaves throughout the back half of December.

Doctor Who traditionally serves up a Christmas Day adventure (though it’s shipped its seasonal episode to New Year’s this year), and you can find any number of beloved British series that have produced specific holiday tales — including The Office, which signed off for good with a two-part Christmas special.

But we don’t really have a tradition like this in the States, where we tend to spend Christmas going to the movies. And that’s fine and all, but why should you have to leave your house? Christmas could be a wonderful season to revisit old TV shows you’ve forgotten, wrap up others that were canceled unceremoniously, and drop in on your favorites.

And here’s Timeless to lead the way forward with a two-hour movie/series finale, centered on Christmas and wrapping up a convoluted sci-fi series that very few people watched, but that was nonetheless beloved by those who did.

Timeless was a victim of changing TV business models. The way it wrapped up might be a beneficiary of those changes.

Lucy, Rufus, and Wyatt look toward the future. Probably literally.
Darren Michaels/Sony/NBC

Just in case you’ve never heard of Timeless, it was a sort of time-traveling cop show. To be sure, it was built atop an involved mythology about the mysterious Rittenhouse organization, which was trying to alter the course of history for reasons that mostly boiled down to “the show needs a bad guy.” But for most of its enjoyable two-season run, it was a case-of-the-week series where the characters chased Rittenhouse into the past, tried to figure out what the group’s plan was, then attempted to preserve the present/future.

It was quite entertaining, even if it had the occasional over-explain-y ridiculous stuff I expect from broadcast network sci-fi shows. It advanced its mythology intelligently, for the most part, and its 10-episode second season struck a very nice balance between its more episodic elements and its serialized story.

But Timeless fell victim to two main problems.

First, nobody was watching it, at least not on traditional television where they could be counted in the Nielsen ratings. Despite occupying a promising timeslot behind The Voice in its first season, Timeless routinely lost a huge chunk of the reality show’s lead-in viewership.

And second, the show was produced by Sony Television, not by NBC-affiliated Universal. In an era when more and more networks also “own” the shows they produce (a trend you can read more about here and here), Timeless was too low rated for NBC to grant further reprieves.

And “further” is a key word here. Because Timeless had already been canceled once before — at the end of its first season, before a massive fan outcry convinced NBC to revive the show as a midseason replacement and it reemerged for a trimmed-down, much improved season two. But the improvements didn’t boost its audience in a tangible way, so it was canceled yet again, before earning what seems like one last reprieve: a two-hour movie that would ultimately wrap up the majority of the show’s conflicts, professional and personal, in addition to resurrecting a major character from the dead. No small feat!

Now, if you’ve never watched Timeless, “The Miracle of Christmas” is probably not the place to start. Hell, I had watched the majority of the series, and yet I found the wrap-up movie confusing until I read a few recaps about the events of season two. (Yes, it aired back in the spring, but I have watched so much TV since then.) The “Previously On...” montage — which attempts to encapsulate 26 episodes of TV into about two minutes — is all but inscrutable unless you already have dissected those 26 episodes over and over, in which case why do you need a “Previously on ...” montage?

But even though it is clunky in its attempts to cram what feel like three seasons of plot into two hours of TV (hey, that’s the same problem the Sense8 wrap-up movie had!), “The Miracle of Christmas” ends up being a sweet gift for Timeless fans who wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to spend more time with these characters, and who would otherwise have had to accept that fan favorite Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) was dead. (This movie resurrects him in slightly inexplicable but highly thrilling fashion, which is par for the course with all of its story choices.)

“The Miracle of Christmas” knows there’s no good reason for it to exist, so it goes all-in on fan service. Its final image of Timeless’s main time-traveling trio — Lucy (Abigail Spencer), Wyatt (Matt Lanter), and Rufus — looks like something that should be screencapped and turned into desktop wallpaper, if people still do that. (What? You didn’t all have the last shot of Angel as your desktop wallpaper for years and years? Forget I said anything ...)

So, yes, it’s a slightly discombobulating watch for Timeless newbies, and even for more casual fans like myself. But at the same time, it’s not really being made with those viewers in mind. It’s being made for future fans who discover the show on streaming — and thus won’t face the same problem of a seven-month gap between the season two finale and the wrap-up movie. They’ll plunge right into “The Miracle of Christmas” and simply have a grand time.

And, really, that would be a much better way to populate the airwaves at the end of the year than just trotting out an endless onslaught of reruns and burnoffs. Why not resurrect beloved old shows and give them one-off Christmas specials, episodes that wouldn’t function as full revivals but would still give us a taste of long-gone hits? (Don’t tell me you wouldn’t watch a one-time Christmas drop-in to Cheers!) Why not give canceled series another episode or two to finish things out, like Timeless got? Or why not do super-sized editions of current favorites? Imagine a big, festive episode of This Is Us or The Good Place or The Conners running on Christmas night! Couldn’t that be fun?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The American TV production system would make this incredibly difficult to pull off financially, for a variety of reasons. I understand why it’s not going to happen. But then I watch something like this Timeless movie and I think — what if? C’mon, networks. Take me up on this!

You can watch the complete run of Timeless on Hulu.

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