It can't be all schmaltz, all the time. Let me introduce you to a new Christmas classic, of the bracingly creepy kind.
Things start innocently enough. Two men are in an isolated house at Christmas. They don't know each other well. They're just stuck there for some reason. One, Matt, decides to make the occasion festive by cooking a Christmas dinner and swapping yarns with the other, Joe. But Joe seems wary, unsure, yet is eventually enthralled by Matt's story.
That's his downfall. This is a cautionary tale, perhaps the most caustic and twisted Christmas special in years. Things get dark in the story. Very dark. In the end, when the two men have swapped stories, and we've seen them unfold, there are five deaths – two murders, one suicide and two deaths that are accidental but preventable.
Black Mirror: White Christmas (Wednesday, SuperChannel, 8 p.m.) is it – and it is several things. First, it's a remarkable feat of acting by the two leads. Jon Hamm (yes, Don Draper from Mad Men) is Matt, and Rafe Spall (from Life of Pi) is Joe.
The Black Mirror series was created by Charlie Booker, and they've been running on Channel 4 in Britain (here on SuperChannel) for the past few years. Each is a blackly comic yarn, a kind of Twilight Zone on acid. This one, being the Christmas special, is especially chilling. But brilliantly done.
Joe says to Matt, "What went wrong for you out there that you ended up here?" Matt, all suave charm, replies, "It's a job, not a jail." But tells his story anyway.
Matt worked as one of those guys who teaches other guys how to seduce women. In that, we have the most repulsive of men, and Hamm does a sublime job as the smooth-taking manipulator who is actually nothing more than a pathetic voyeur. The story is set in the very near future and Matt is able to guide his on-the-chase guy through an earpiece and other technology that allows him to see and hear everything as his student crashes a workplace Christmas party in search of a woman to conquer.
Unknown to his client, Matt has sold viewing of his adventures to other guys. Thus, there is a chorus of men egging on the client, who just repeats what Matt says. It's a success. A young woman is interested. She invites the client back to her place. And there, the story takes an appallingly dark turn.
Matt explains that after that, his wife "blocked" him. He became just an anonymous shape to her. What the viewer is seeing is a heightened, scary version of "blocking" on social media.
Joe's story seems more benign, innocent. He had a girlfriend, Beth. They got on well. Her father didn't like him, but that didn't matter. Then Joe discovered Beth was pregnant and she didn't want to have the baby. He was enraged. Beth "blocked" him. He moped and tried to stalk her for several years. And one day he had a realization. It wasn't a happy moment.
In the end, Black Mirror: White Christmas is about technology creating a hellish world, because we allow it. And we allow it to become that because we are, essentially, selfish and cynical.
Watch this tomorrow, on Christmas Eve, and you will see a sharp, breathtaking swipe at this digital, social-media-enhanced world we live inside. It just aired in Britain and a review in a local Metro paper included this: "If you like your festive programming with a bit of warmth and cheer, then avoid Black Mirror: White Christmas like a post-apocalyptic plague."
Fair enough. But we're all adults, even at Christmas, and it can't just be all schmaltz, all the time.
One Direction: The TV Special (NBC, 8 p.m.) is, you know, the boy-band performing their "music," doing "funny" things, and "surprising" their "fans" with footage of personally delivered holiday cheer. It is followed by a repeat of Michael Bublé's Christmas in New York (NBC, 9 p.m.) and then Kelly Clarkson's Cautionary Christmas Music Tale (NBC, 10 p.m.). Choices, choices in the saccharine department. All times ET. Check local listings.