Santa visits the "South Park" gang. (Comedy Central )
Television's holiday season isn't just about Jimmy Stewart realizing he has a wonderful life, Charlie Brown and his fresh-faced gang learning the true meaning of Christmas and the big-hearted Whoville residents sharing their roast beast.
That syrupy sweet programming is easy to find most any day, but there's also a whole treasure-trove of not-so-traditional movies, marathons and specials that favor the naughty over the nice. For fans of a slightly twisted Christmas, network and cable channels are serving up some alternatives to the Rankin-Bass catalog and the iconic department-store Santa story, "Miracle on 34th Street."
Fox, for instance, aired a special episode of its long-running series "Cops," themed to the holidays over the weekend. The hour — dubbed "Ho! Ho! Ho!" — focuses on prostitution busts in Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., and Alameda County, Florida. The reality show, celebrating its 25th year, debuted the streetwalker-centric concept a decade ago, and it's been a hot commodity ever since.
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"We're not about chestnuts roasting on an open fire anyway," said John Langley, the series' creator and executive producer. "We're day-to-day crime and law enforcement. This just seemed like a cheeky, fun twist on Christmas."
Langley, no Grinch himself, said he loves "It's a Wonderful Life" and other sappy holiday fare, but chooses to throw some crime drama into his viewing schedule "to cleanse my palate."
"I like ice cream too, but if I eat too much I'm going to get sick," he said.
Fox, after all, is home to a boundary-pushing animated block of Sunday half-hours anchored by "The Simpsons," on which dad Homer once blew the family Christmas budget at the dog track. (But the lovingly dysfunctional Simpsons ended up with a pet, Santa's Little Helper, so it all worked out).
Have a hankering for Mr. Hankey? Comedy Central is showing several of its thoroughly irreverent Christmas episodes of "South Park," with appearances by the singing, dancing lump of waste affectionately referred to as "the Christmas poo."
Other episodes on the "South Park" lineup include "Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson" and "Red Sleigh Down," from the show's creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who broke into Hollywood in the '90s with a now-infamous video holiday card dubbed "Jesus vs. Santa."
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Comedy Central also plans to air "A Very Sunny Christmas" episode of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," steeped in booze, burglary and bullies, and the black comedies "Bad Santa" and "The Cable Guy." Those shows, plus a supersized block of raunchy comedian Jeff Dunham and a "Beavis and Butt-Head" marathon, began on the weekend and run through Christmas Day.
Despite the reported death of cynicism in this country, trend spotter Jane Buckingham thinks TV audiences prefer a little darkness along with the light.
"We don't believe in Santa Claus anymore, but we don't want to completely give up that sense of tradition," said Buckingham, president of Trendera, a consulting and trend forecasting company. "We want it both ways."
The small screen provides that, in the form of Hallmark and Lifetime's packed schedule of original happy-ending flicks airing all month on the one hand and SyFy channel's supernatural-tinged programming on the other. SyFy has a "Silent Night" episode of its popular series "Haven" that's rife with characters mysteriously disappearing.
Country singer and "The Voice" judge Blake Shelton trotted out a bit of his off-kilter humor for the "Not-So-Family Christmas Special" that aired on NBC twice earlier this month. In between holiday duets with stars like Kelly Clarkson and his wife, Miranda Lambert, Shelton and Larry the Cable Guy appeared in a claymation sketch where they went hunting, got liquored up and accidentally shot Rudolph. By the time the sketch was finished, the pair had laid waste to a North Pole wonderland.
Television programmers took full advantage of the calendar — the Mayan one that some claimed foretold the end of the world on Dec. 21 (we made it!). SyFy's holiday fare included a "Countdown to Doomsday" special and an original movie, "Doomsday Prophecy."
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Meanwhile, the National Geographic channel, home to the cult hit "Doomsday Preppers," featured a number of cataclysmic shows over the weekend including "The Mayan Apocalypse 2012" and "Evacuate Earth."