Critic's Notebook: NBC's Christmas Specials Fail to Ignite the Holiday Spirit

Paul Drinkwater/NBC
'A Legendary Christmas With John and Chrissy'

NBC's corporatized Christmas programming block is a slick advertising display devoid of genuine holiday joy.

Centuries from now, our alien overlords will look back on Earth's history aghast at our worldwide ritual slaughter of living beings. How we hacked at their flesh and adorned their corpses with lights and baubles as they rotted away in our living rooms while incubating shiny offerings for our young. How the tallest among their kind, worshipped for several weeks at the former center of the universe in New York City, was traditionally harvested to build shelter for humans. They'll call us savages (though they may snidely praise our primitive technology).

As for now, we're still only in 2018 and Christmas trees are pretty, dammit. But even if these ornamented conifers don't happen to remind you of the end of Hereditary, it's still difficult to muster any genuine delight at the vertically integrated spectacle of NBC's annual tree lighting special Christmas in Rockefeller Center or its ill-conceived musical variety hour A Legendary Christmas With John and Chrissy. At best an evening of background listening while you scour the internet for post-Cyber Monday deals, this holiday programming block had all the warmth of a fixed rictus.

Friedrich Nietzsche was fascinated with — and horrified by — the concept of eternal return, the idea that all events continue to recur infinitely across time and space. He would have probably run screaming from Christmas in Rockefeller Center, a monotonous stream of advertisements interrupted by awkward hosting, wan celebrity Christmas carols, cloying inspirational segments and cringey NBC corporate plugs repeating contiguously until someone flipped a switch to bedazzle a 72-foot Norway spruce. (Her name was Shelby, by the way.) Was it the worst way to spend three hours if you include the preshow? Certainly not. But did it invoke the hygge of Christmastime? Maybe only if you're a fan of jazzy riffs on holiday classics.

If anything, this evening was a sobering reminder for cord-cutters and cord-nevers that commercials, as it turns out, still exist. In between the ads for Target, Today anchors Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb, Al Roker and Craig Morgan chugged along, reminding us to watch America's Got Talent and shop from Kay Jewelers. Musical performances of varying acoustic quality largely catered to the minivan majority: John Legend, Martina McBride, Rob Thomas, Kelli Pickler, Tony Bennett, Pentatonix and a teenage ventriloquist named Darci Lynne Farmer all sang while their cold breath hung in the air. Other than the hard-working Rockettes, who physically resembled gold-plated multiples of the sexy Svedka robot, and the the cozy costuming — shout-out to whoever draped Savannah Guthrie in that fabulous crimson fur jacket — the best part of the show was the audience unexpectedly booing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cutting through the unbearable whiteness of treeing, A Legendary Christmas With John and Chrissy immediately followed the live festivities. Hosted by R&B singer Legend and his model-and-more wife Chrissy Teigen, this muddled one-hour filmed special felt like double that. Framed as a '90s sitcom parody (complete with a truly eldritch laugh track), this vaguely pleasant though meandering special seems more akin to a backdoor pilot than a stand-alone variety hour. (Is a lifestyle show in the works for these two?) There is no discernible plot, but I was able to gather that Legend and Teigen play amplified versions of themselves trying to host the perfect Christmas. Inviting over more and more real-life relatives and celebrity friends to their home (a set) over the course of the special, they adorably squabble over who makes the best mac 'n' cheese and just generally love on each other. They're the kind of celebrity wunderkinds whose veneers are seemingly invisible, despite the relentless calculation that goes into sculpting a public persona. In showing us just how imperfect they are, they become perfect in our eyes.

Brimming with smooth holiday musical performances and forgettable celebrity cameos, A Legendary Christmas is mostly invested in showing Legend and Teigen just sort of bop around, giving space to their random assortment of celebrity friends to land punchlines. (I love you, Awkwafina, and I'm so sorry for the bad dialogue you had to endure.) Seeing Stevie Wonder, Zach Galifianakis, Retta and the Queer Eye cast is nice, but it's not clear what the producers are trying to convey beyond obvious artifice.

Is this couple as charming as they think we think they are? Probably! Teigen particularly shines in the one sketch that almost works, a dream sequence where she shows up on The Voice and must use her innate comic sensibilities to win over judges Adam Levine and Kelly Clarkson, both imitating and satirizing the stars to their faces. Even if I am skeptical of cults of personality, she and Legend certainly have natural charisma that this special nearly sucks dry from them, and I would have much preferred to see them in a more intimate setting instead of one that relies on hacky scenarios and gummy joke-telling. Perhaps a Christmas special set in their own home featuring Teigen sharing recipes or segments allowing her to use her comedic timing and delivery skills. ("I can’t just insult John," chirps Teigen when trying to figure out a talent to showcase. "I do that every day!") I like that this special predominantly features people of color, and the stars' heart is apparent, but none of the post-modern setup nourishes their talents or gives their natural chemistry opportunity to bloom.

What, then, is the ideal holiday special? If corporatized outdoor concerts fail to sell you their brand of Christmas and unctuous variety hours kind of slick off into the ether, what exactly will warm the cockles of a cynic's heart? The best ones, I've found, extend an already existing story — such as a Downton Abbey or Doctor Who Christmas special  — and don't appear to be sponsored by any one particular business. (Lest you think I'm being a grinch, please note I was the one who had to lasso my husband into putting up the holiday decorations the minute we returned from Thanksgiving break. Like Holden Caulfield before me, I am just not into phonies.) If Christmas is about "being present" and not just giving presents, as Legend shares at the end of his special, then why is NBC so sweatily pushing me to buy a Google Home Hub?