‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“And then a thought popped into his head / A thought full of evil, and malice, and dread.”
“I’ll teach them a lesson. Oh yes–”
“…the evil Finch ranted / This is one Finch who would not be taken for granted / He asked for a yard, and they gave him an inch / So this year, Christmas would be stolen by a Finch!”
Just Shoot Me hardly broke the mold for sitcoms, but it was still a strong presence on NBC for much longer than most comedies have had the privilege. The workplace sitcom saw itself following the antics of the employees at Blush Magazine, and was setup to be a starring vehicle of sorts for David Spade, who had recently left Saturday Night Live. In a lot of ways these elements felt somewhat reminiscent of NewsRadio’s history on the network, with Just Shoot Me never quite hitting the same heights.
The holidays are often a good time for shows to try something different, using the spirit of the season to try something new, or send up classic stories. In that sense, what Just Shoot Me accomplishes with “How the Finch Stole Christmas” completely succeeds in honoring this tradition. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it does hit some impressive heights (upon re-watching this I had also completely forgotten about the series’ magazine cover transition devices between scenes, which, other than Frasier’s title cards, I cannot think of another sitcom that uses a stylistic aid like that) while delivering something that feels different and properly infects you (and its characters) with the spirit of the season.
The main idea is that the show has undergone transformation into a Christmas carol of sorts. A pitch-perfect Grinch parody goes on as the episode explores indulging in Christmas-style storytelling. What this largely means is that the episode adopts a rhyming narration device (with Kelsey Grammer providing the dulcet tones of the narrator, no less) to not only inform viewers of its new “carol-like” structure, but also mine a lot of its humor from it. The narrator breaks the fourth wall, makes jokes, and even completes characters’ sentences. The narrator also deals with the act breaks, introducing and closing out the episode, keeping this format ever-present through the duration. It’s not just something that props up the beginning and the end of the entry – it’s meticulously woven throughout acting as a consistent presence.
A lot is taken from this rhyming structure (which is arguably a precursor for what shows like How I Met Your Mother would do a decade later) using the narrator’s diction to create humor in a very specific, gentle manner that is different than the show’s usable sensibility. “Finch” works especially hard to feel “classical” and unique, and while arguably it’s still structured like a normal episode and full of the typical trappings of a sitcom, a lot of effort is taken to restructure how you watch this thing as well as the feeling that you arrive to from it.
The plot here isn’t overly complicated and is mostly concerned with David Spade’s snide Dennis Finch thinking he’s going to get shoddy presents from his friends and so appropriately schemes revenge. The most impressive thing about this is the episode not just using classic Christmas storytelling in its rhyming, but also in how it replicates the structure of Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. “Finch” follows the exact same trajectory and effectively acts as a remake or modern retelling of Seuss’ classic story.
Finch takes all of these people’s gifts, swaps them out for his own mischievous needs, and his heart even grows by the end of it all (or turns from black to gold, rather). Lessons are learned left and right, with the idea of faith put on the table constantly. Even the whole “There is no J. Crew” storyline operates as a beautiful “Santa isn’t real” parallel that makes sense within this show’s universe that revolves around all things fashion. Even the resolution of this sees diffusion in typical Just Shoot Me irony. Nina shares her epiphany with Maya, “Yes Maya, there is a J. Crew! And he helped me discover the spirit of casual wear… J. Crew does exist in each and every one of us.” The twist at the end that this person is just a creep who lied to get laid is the icing on the fruitcake.
The other stories in the episode also carry the same theme of morals and being just over the holidays. Jack learns how to be charitable, Nina opens her heart (and her legs) and dresses down, Elliot’s story is also an impeccable Charlie Brown parody, being a visual gag out of the likes of Arrested Development. It’s kind of unreal to see a live-action version of A Charlie Brown Christmas playing out with such visual accuracy. As a companion piece to the Grinch, it’s very fitting and feels appropriate.
The crown jewel of all of this is the sequence where Finch pulls off his heist, with Kelsey Grammer actually singing his own rendition of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” It’s a beautiful scene that completes the parody perfectly, with the sequence even shot like the one out of the Grinch cartoon from 1966. Reality is even broken as Finch wields giant magnets and other ridiculous props to service the joke. It’s an absolute triumph where everyone is just having so much fun.
The episode ends with justice more or less being had, and the episode’s Grinch approximate managing to learn a lesson, too. Just Shoot Me would continue to experiment with form and structure in small doses through their run (it’s not surprising that Steven Levitan was the creative voice responsible), but this touching, atypical Christmas outing is perhaps the departure that sticks out the most for audiences. And now you know why.