Santa and the Netflix algorithm have an awful lot in common. Like its fellow big, red, globe-trotting entity, the streaming service sees you when you’re sleeping (because you’ve stopped binge-watching). It knows when you’re awake (because you’ve resumed binge-watching). It knows when you’ve been bad (stuck in a rut of The Office reruns) or good (finally getting around to that Israeli crime drama everyone’s always raving about). And based on all that activity, it’s here to give you seasonal gifts, tailored to your taste.
As my colleague Miles Surrey has heroically outlined in detail, Netflix has turned Christmas content into a cottage industry unto itself. There are the standard acquisitions stockpiled for exactly this purpose, like The Holiday. There are deliberately schlocky original films, like A Christmas Prince and, now, The Princess Switch. There are the slightly less schlocky original films like The Christmas Chronicles, designed to be consumed sincerely as a family rather than ironically with a drinking game. (Take a sip every time Vanessa Hudgens’s accent makes you snort-laugh!) And then there’s the output that isn’t Christmas-specific in itself, but rather a holiday-themed extension of a pre-existing property. Netflix, in its adolescence, has embraced the television Christmas special.
Last week, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina released a so-called “Solstice Special,” an epilogue of sorts to the 10-episode season that premiered just a couple of months prior. (In Sabrina’s campy, comic book universe, the Church of Satan is an actual church, meaning that witches have their own, pagan winter celebration to mirror the mortal, Christian kind.) About a week prior, Ezra Koenig’s meme-fluent anime homage Neo Yokio returned more than a year after its six-episode first season with “Pink Christmas,” a supersized tale of demonic possession and conspicuous consumption. And on the same day as “Pink Christmas,” beloved baking showcase Nailed It! dropped a capsule mini-season dedicated to misshapen turkey cakes and Hanukkah treats—as did its obvious inspiration, The Great British Baking Show, on November 30, though the latter is only distributed internationally by Netflix, not produced by it. Even children’s multi-cam comedy Prince of Peoria has “A Christmas Moose Miracle.”
The original Christmas special is not exactly a new development for the entertainment giant. Almost exactly four years ago, BoJack Horseman, one of the service’s first in-house series, yielded “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish,” a full-length glimpse of its show-within-a-show Horsin’ Around, starring a much younger version of its title character as a sitcom dad to three orphaned children. The next year saw A Very Murray Christmas, a more classical variety show and an early example of Netflix using its deep pockets to draw in major star power, particularly of the comedic variety. (In addition to its namesake host, Murray Christmas was directed by Sofia Coppola and included cameos from the likes of George Clooney and Chris Rock.) “Pink Christmas” and Nailed It! Holiday! stand on the shoulders of entertainment giants, and also horses.
But while the 2018 boom in seasonal programming isn’t without precedent, it’s certainly an escalation. And it’s one that makes perfect sense for Netflix’s overall strategy, combining two key planks of its now-transparent playbook for world domination: volume and international reach.
Netflix has long since figured out that it doesn’t have to deal with the tricky paradox that’s long left Christmas in the realm of movies over TV. People crave something to occupy themselves in the absence of work, most shops and restaurants, or any other alternatives to face time with their extended family. With all the parties and meals and other social engagements that come with the holidays, though, they also don’t have the ability to shape their schedules around appointment viewing. And so every December, network television goes into hibernation, ceding its time to the every-hour-on-the-hour flexibility of the multiplex. Enter streaming, now years into its quest to render the time slot obsolete. Netflix already has evergreen content to revisit any time you please; now, it’s offering a plethora of topical options to create a sense of urgency and/or yuletide cheer. And in true Netflix fashion, it’s covering every base possible. Neo Yokio’s young, jaded, cooler-than-thou target audience is hardly the demographic one associates with the Christmas spirit, but they get a pink-tinged parable of their own to complement the more normie-friendly ones. “Pink Christmas” is something for the surly teen home from his freshman year to watch in his room while all the cousins watch Nicole Byer make double entendres in the den.
There’s also the distinctly British tradition of airing stand-alone, out-of-season but often internally significant episodes around the holidays. Think of the multiple Downton Abbey specials, or Sherlock’s Victorian throwback, or Black Mirror’s own “White Christmas,” which predates the Charlie Brooker anthology’s time on Netflix. (Though rumors continue to circulate that a poorly kept “secret” installment called “Bandersnatch” may appear on the service before the year is out.) Such specials tend to be more substantial than the standard Christmas episodes of many an American sitcom, either advancing the plot, filling in backstory, or staging a more ambitious experiment than usual—like, say, decking everyone out in expensive period costume.
The formal influence of this school of holiday programming is most clearly felt on Sabrina, whose “Solstice Special” follows up on several cliffhangers set up by its first season finale. How has its title character’s everyday life changed now that she’s signed her name over to the Dark Lord? (Not much, but she seems more confident.) Is Aunt Zelda gonna raise that baby she kidnapped on her own? (No, she’ll hand her over to another witch for safety.) Do we still have to spend time with Sabrina’s dopey boyfriend Harvey now that they’re no longer together? (Yes, unfortunately, but possibly as an antagonist, which has promise.) The episode is less of a disposable romp and more of a check-in between Sabrina’s initial volume and its second, set to come out in April.
As its acquisition of shows like Bodyguard and Terrace House goes to show, Netflix isn’t especially interested in distinguishing between American audiences and international ones. If a mainstream hit abroad becomes a niche one in the States, or vice versa, so much the better. While not as blatant a cross-pollination as cooking competition The Final Table or addictive spectacle Made in Mexico, adapting the Christmas special for many different series is just one more example of Netflix subtly blurring the lines between its various subscriber bases. What’s true for brick-and-mortar stores is also true for upstart tech companies: Christmas may be good for the soul, but it’s even better for business.