For better or for worse, almost every TV show has a Christmas special (or two). While some stick to a tried-and-tested formula of awkward dinners revolving around long-lost family members, often with any upset resolved before the episode’s end, some pave their own way with unique offerings that become instant classics. Here are the eight that we rate the highest: from the climactic peak of The Office, to bleaker-than-bleak Black Mirror. Basically, the ones that we'd be just as happy watching in July.
The Office – ‘The Christmas Special Part 2’
As a mockumentary set in a stereotypical office environment, it's perhaps unsurprising that the best episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's beloved TV series is its two-part Christmas special. After all, what could provide more fodder for awkward moments than an office Christmas party? Set three years after David Brent has left Wernam Hogg to become a travelling salesman, it sees him returning for the annual festive bash, with most of the episode dedicated to his desperate attempts at finding a date. Not only does it show Brent standing up to bully Chris Finch, but it also features fan favourites Tim and Dawn finally getting together after he encourages her to pursue her love of drawing with an art-set.
The O.C. – ‘The Best Chrismukkah Ever’
The first season Christmas special of seminal '00s teen drama The O.C. saw the introduction of one of our favourite motifs in the series: Chrismukkah. An amalgamation of the Christian and Jewish holidays, it is the brainchild of resident sexy-geek Seth Cohen, and crops up again and again throughout the four-season run. In the first instalment, it's all business as usual for our favourite Orange County residents, with Seth disastrously attempting to juggle his two romantic interests Summer and Anna, Ryan dealing with a drunk shop-lifting Marissa and Kirsten fighting with her dad, Caleb.
Black Mirror – ‘White Christmas’
It really is testimony to Charlie Brooker's satirical genius that he managed to lure mega-watt Hollywood star Jon Hamm across the pond to star in his Christmas episode of Black Mirror. Not that it's in any way festive – in fact, this might be one to recommend to the Grinch in your life. It opens with two men – Hamm and Rafe Spall – spending Christmas day together at a remote, wintery outpost. The two begin telling each other the story of how they ended up there, which are predictably bleak, involving the questionable effects that advanced technology has had on their lives, from augmented reality 'eyes' to personal assistants cloned from conscious beings.
Downton Abbey – ‘Christmas At Downton Abbey’
AKA The One Where Lady Mary And Matthew Finally Get Together. The first season's festive offering – which wasn't an official Christmas special, as in later series – had several important storylines, including most predominantly the resolution of the heir issue, with Lady Mary finally succumbing to Matthew's rakish upper middle class charms. It also showed the blossoming romance between Lady Sybil and Branson, including a hand-holding scene (!), and the introduction of a telephone to the house, which was handled with the usual raised eyebrow. Minus points for the much-maligned slippy soap storyline resulting in Cora miscarrying, but no Christmas special is perfect.
Peep Show – ‘Seasonal Beatings’
Fans of Channel 4's Facebook page will know that every Christmas, without fail, they post the same video clip of Mark's epic rant at Jeremy when he thinks he hasn't bought the turkey (spoiler alert: he has). 'You fucking idiot, Jeremy! You total fucking idiot! That was YOUR job, you fucking moron! You cretin! YOU'RE A FUCKHEAD! THAT'S WHAT YOU ARE! A FUCKING SHITHEAD!' It would warrant a position on this list for this gem alone. It also deserves a mention for the inevitably awkward parents-meeting-the-girlfriend plotline with Dobby, plus Jeremy's complete inability to cook the dinner properly, refusing to cut crosses into the bottoms of the Brussel sprouts and not buying enough potatoes, with Mark giving him an 'I told you so', as predicted.
Friends – ‘The One With The Holiday Armadillo’
As far as Christmas specials go, this one of Friends is a classic. While we adhere to the general online consensus that Ross Gellar sucks, he truly shines in this episode, showcasing his wackier, weirder side. When he decides to teach Ben more about their Jewish heritage – thereby enforcing a Santa ban – he soon realises that he has upset his son, so attempts to redeem himself by dressing up as Father Christmas. When he can't buy a red suit because they're all sold out, he resorts to the next best thing – the 'holiday armadillo' - an instantly memorable farcical moment. The real zinger though? When Chandler turns up dressed as Santa and Monica is totally into it.
Dawson’s Creek – ‘Merry Mayhem’
In one of those entirely plausible 'everyone miraculously ends up having to change their plans last-minute' situations that only happens on television, the entire cast end up at Dawson's family home for the holidays. This is the catalyst for what must be the worst Christmas dinner ever, with Dawson and Joey's new partners predictably becoming jealous of them, Dawson's unbearably rude boss Todd getting drunk and insulting everyone, and finally, as the piece de la resistance, Audrey crashing Pacey's BMW into the house. Merry Christmas.
Gavin & Stacey - 'Christmas Special'
To admit that you love Gavin & Stacey is to place yourself in diametric opposition to the cutting edge of pop culture, but Christmas telly is all about comfort viewing – and this hour-long festive special is precisely that. Best enjoyed a few mulled wines down while eating leftover turkey (ideally prepared a la Nigella Lawson, just like the Shipman family's endlessly discussed Christmas roast), the script from Ruth Jones (aka Nessa) and a pre-Late Late Show James Corden (Smithy) is a perfect example of how the most hilarious – and poignant – micro dramas can be wrung out from the most mundane of scenarios. In this case, it's all about what happens when you throw together a bunch of in-laws, exes and random hangers on (shout out to Julia Davis' Dawn) during the already-overwrought festive season. Plus, more things should open by cutting between characters shouting 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' (1984 version, obviously) over the phone while driving in separate cars.