Best TV to Watch in Dec.: Christmas Specials, ‘Nightflyers’
The end of the year brings a cavalcade of seasonal specials, — and whether you like yours with a side of righteous feminist outrage or glorious drag eleganza, you’re all covered. There’s also a spike in curiosity-piquing nonfiction set for the next few weeks, covering everything from Marilyn Monroe’s legacy to the Sandra Bland death investigation to the spiritual transcendentalism of surfing. All this, plus the return of Starz’s double-your-pleasure sci-fi/espionage thriller and a new Pete Holmes stand-up set on HBO. Here’s what you’ll be watching this month on network and cable TV. (For your best streaming options for Dec., go here.)
Counterpart, Season 2 (Starz, Dec. 9th)
In this science-fiction-meets-spy-thriller’s breakout’s first season, the Man Who Knew Too Much, a.k.a. Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) discovered a parallel universe full of exact doubles. Now, the sophomore run starts with a potentially disastrous switcheroo, as the original Howard hops into the other-world to enjoy his clone’s somewhat better life, while the doppel-Howard gets abducted by a showy organization back in our dimension. Valuable new additions to the cast this year include James Cromwell as a nefariously Russian-accented head honcho for the kidnappers and Get Out star Betty Gabriel as a valuable ally for Silk One and Silk Two.
Full Frontal: Christmas on I.C.E. (TBS, Dec. 19th)
Late-night treasure Samantha Bee won’t let the holidays slow down her one-woman crusade to restore sense and decency in America. This Yuletide special will indeed require the Full Frontal host to lace up her skates, and a guest appearance from people’s hero Adam Rippon has been rumored. But the focus will stay on the immigration crisis currently stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border to small towns across the nation; the laugh-a-second variety program doubles as a fundraiser for the effort to reunite families separated by Trump’s deportation policies. Expect a tune or two, some celebrity cameos, bitter comedy about the slow-moving oil-fire that is now America and more double salchows than any other show on the airwaves.
The Great American Baking Show (ABC, Dec. 6th)
It’s all the soothing comfort of watching exceedingly polite people bake delectable confections in a low-pressure environment — now without the accents! The Stateside version of Britain’s most charming export returns after a brief hiatus with a string of holiday-themed episodes and a bevy of cakes, pies, tarts and flans. Returning favorite Paul Hollywood and newcomer Sherry Yard will levy judgement on the scrumptious creations in this season, with one-time Spice Girl Emma Bunton and NFL vet Anthony Adams keeping spirits high as co-hosts. Indulge those visions of sugarplums — and candied cherries, and chocolate trifles, and berry-stuffed pastries, and …
Icebox (HBO, Dec. 7th)
Though this searing drama began as a short film in 2016, it sounds like it could’ve been written 10 minutes ago: A Honduran boy named Óscar (Anthony Gonzalez) fleeing gang violence seeks refuge in the United States, only to get lost in a labyrinthine and unfeeling immigration system. After being snatched by border patrol agents, he’s sent to a “processing center” that looks a whole lot like a prison and has to await an uncertain fate with other Hispanic children far from home. Written almost entirely in subtitled Spanish, Daniel Sawka’s film is a broadside against indifference to an ongoing tragedy.
Marilyn Monroe For Sale (Smithsonian, Dec. 23rd)
In the end, all we are lives on in the things we leave behind. That’s the guiding principle behind this documentary, which endeavors to gain new insight on the timeless screen idol by examining a huge cache of her possessions put up for auction at Julien’s in Los Angeles. Through the actress’ personal letters, extensive wardrobe and Hollywood souvenirs, a modern audience can more finely shade their impression of the complicated woman behind the “dumb blonde” bit. An esteemed lineup of historians and biographers provide commentary on the assorted showbiz artifacts’ significance, piecing together a portrait defined by wit, glamor and, ultimately, tragedy.
Momentum Generation (HBO, Dec. 11th)
Documentarians Jeff and Michael Zimbalist capture a particular cultural moment with this account of surf culture during the Nineties. Specifically, they focus on a group of disaffected punk kids united by their love of gnarly tubage who became the sport’s Next Big Things. It was all-for-one for guys like Rob Machado and Kalani Robb, until the industry (boo!) pit them against each other. Even folks who don’t live, breathe, eat and hang 10 this stuff will be bowled over by the tasty-wave footage.
Nightflyers (Syfy, Dec. 2nd)
Oh look, a TV series adapted from the works of George R.R. Martin — perhaps people will be interested! The Game of Thrones mastermind pivots to sci-fi/horror with this adaptation of his story cycle set in the year 2093, aboard a massive space vessel plotting a course to make contact with extraterrestrial life. Of course they’ve got some unwelcome company aboard the ship. And from the looks of the trailer, fans of elaborately wrought techno-corridors in the style of H.R. Giger are in luck.
Pete Holmes: Dirty Clean (HBO, Dec. 15th)
What does Pete Holmes, everyman extraordinaire of the stand-up comedy circuit, have on his mind these days? To wit, his wife’s figure (he’s a fan!), Lululemon apparel (it makes him look inconspicuous!) and his plans for a Biblical-themed buffet restaurant (he’s got the tagline all picked out and everything!). The comedian mines philosophical profundity from the crushing banality of daily life. There will be jokes about cats and traffic jams.
RuPaul’s Drag Race Holi-Slay Spectacular (VH1, Dec. 7th)
Ready your finest seasonally-appropriate puns, because the inimitable RuPaul has summoned an all-star lineup of past contestants to compete for the title of Christmas Queen Supreme. Such titans of drag as Trixie Mattel, Shangela Laquifa Wadley, Kim Chi and Latrice Royale will design original outfits putting Mrs. Claus to shame. Also on deck: Lip-syncing for their lives to a selection of RuPaul-sung holiday hits and generally embodying the spirit of cheer in the most gloriously over-the-top fashion possible. Spike that glass of eggnog ASAP.
Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (HBO, Dec. 3rd)
On July 10th, 2015, the politically motivated 28-year-old Sandra Bland was arrested on a trumped-up traffic violation charge. She was then found dead in her cell three days later. The authorities ruled suicide by hanging. Her community and loved ones suspected foul play and a shameful cover-up. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner gained near-total access to the Bland family and their legal team in the two years they spent chasing the truth, constructing a respectful tribute to an icon for the Black Lives Matter movement.