Christmas specials have been around as long as television itself, with anthology programs such as Kraft Television Theatre and Actors Studio airing Christmas-themed shows in the late 1940s. By the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed that every show on the primetime schedule was required to have a Christmas show of some sort; maybe not every year, but often. Dramas would feature what we now refer to as Very Special Episodes, where meager lessons about the joys of the season were learned. Sitcoms fared no better, featuring either a take on The Gift of the Magi or the inevitable riff on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
With such stale, predictable holiday offerings, it’s no wonder that television shows began to take a more cynical and edgy look at Christmas. Arguably beginning in 1989 with the first full-length episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” American television has seen an increase in subversive, anti-holiday content in its Christmas-themed episodes. While programs often focus on how cynical and commercial Christmas has become, many shows seem to be reacting to the strange retcon-like behavior in the TV shows of the past, where incorrigible characters and rotten eggs suddenly turned saintly thanks to a momentary injection of Yuletide cheer.
American Dad has taken this particular concept to an entirely new level, with the Smith family, whose members range from eccentric to downright hateful, becoming even more a threat to society during holiday episodes than they already are in the rest of the year. Also, by the time their fourth Christmas episode, “For Whom the Sleigh Bell Tolls,” aired during season seven, certain running gags could be expected: Stan Smith would go a little crazy in the head as he planned for a perfect holiday, mass chaos would reign, people would die, and talking goldfish Klaus Heissler would get completely screwed. You could also bank on the shows being some of the best produced and best written in the entire series, and “Sleigh Bell Tolls” was no exception.
When “For Whom the Sleigh Bell Tolls” opens, the Smith house is, as usual, fully decked out in Christmas swag, a reflection of patriarch and deeply disturbed human being Stan Smith’s obsession with all things conservative and American. Also as usual, there is something lurking about in his life that threatens to ruin the holidays, and this time, that something is his son-in-law Jeff, who still believes in Santa Claus. Stan plans to keep Jeff from participating in the Smith family Christmas celebrations, while also sneaking the gift of a semi-automatic rifle to Steve, despite Francine’s objections. Meanwhile, Roger, a self-described “advanced drinker,” stumbles across the legend of a mysterious moonshiner in the nearby mountains, a man rumored to brew the strongest alcohol available.
The typical Christmas mayhem begins early in the episode when new gun owner Steve, after a few A Christmas Story-inspired moments, accidentally slaughters a mall Santa. The Smiths decide to bury the body out in the forest and forget it ever happened — Francine very sensibly suggests they bust out his teeth and cut his hands off to get away with the crime — but it turns out Steve killed the real Santa, the one Stan said didn’t exist, and the jolly old elf is not only immortal, but seriously pissed off.
Elsewhere, Roger has found the mysterious moonshiner, a hermit-slash-hillbilly who goes by the name of Bob Todd (among others). Arguably the most popular of the many one-off characters in the series, Bob Todd is the kind of hillbilly stereotype that Americans can’t seem to get enough of. He’s half inspirational loner, half vintage Mountain Dew commercial, and the show alternates between making him the most competent person in the room and the butt of some pretty typical white trash jokes.
The two halves of the storyline meet when the Smiths take refuge from Santa and his marauding elf hordes at Bob Todd’s. “Santer’s after ya, huh?” Bob Todd says, with sympathy, as we learn that our charismatic hillbilly doesn’t care for Santa any more than the Smiths do. A hilarious and gruesome bloodbath ensues, and the situation is resolved thanks to some quick thinking and a little deus ex machina action. American Dad Christmas episodes tend toward the surreal anyway, yet the most famous scene in “Sleigh Bell” — a hallucinatory live-action game of “Donkey Kong” with Bob Todd’s thick mountain accent providing the sound effects — is one of the most plausible things that has ever occurred in an American Dad holiday show.
In fact, the entire show is a wacky expression of some very real and very serious issues, mainly that of gun control. “For Whom the Sleigh Bell Tolls” is a remarkably well-made and funny half-hour of television, but it’s also pertinent and pretty raw, full of the kind of sharp political satire that can only be delivered through wacky hijinks. Still, the episode never pulls its punches. American Dad all but shouts to American conservatives, “Hey, you want a ‘War on Christmas?’ Here’s your War on Christmas, brought to you by the NRA and a heady mix of idiots, alcohol and semi-automatic weaponry. Enjoy.”