TV networks present bounty of holiday specials

Paul Shaffer, George Clooney and Bill Murray, from left, ham it up in A Very Murray Christmas.
Paul Shaffer, George Clooney and Bill Murray, from left, ham it up in A Very Murray Christmas. Netflix

This is the year that Wild Bill Murray, Cookie and Lucious Lyon, and Survivor-style Santas save Christmas television.

While most of the season’s holiday programming sticks to tried-and-true formulas, these adventurous few are serving up something different in an effort to shake us out of our routine.

For the next four weeks, the TV airwaves are bursting with new Christmas-themed movies, specials and TV episodes. Many of these programs, unfortunately, have a been-there, done-that quality.

So as we showcase the ’tis-the-season TV highlights, we give special shout-outs to A Very Murray Christmas on Netflix, Taraji and Terrence’s White Hot Holidays on Fox and Santas in the Barn on TruTV.

Murray Christmas, everyone!

Available Friday on Netflix

Bill Murray is a merry old soul. For proof, look no further than the 1988 movie Scrooged, the Christmas Carol remake that was subversive yet sweet.

Now, in A Very Murray Christmas, Murray has teamed up with director Sofia Coppola (a Lost in Translation reunion) and writer Mitch Glazer (who co-wrote Scrooged) to create an all-star variety show that feels like a loving throwback to the days of Dean Martin’s old holiday specials.

It’s set in New York City’s iconic Carlyle hotel, with Murray preparing to host a live Christmas broadcast when a blizzard shuts down the production. Making the best of the situation, Bill proceeds to sing and celebrate with friends, hotel employees and anyone else who drops by.

“I like when Bill shows his crooner side,” Coppola says. “He has a little Dean Martin vibe.”

Guests include George Clooney, Chris Rock, Amy Poehler, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Shaffer, Maya Rudolph and Miley Cyrus. “It was really familial,” Glazer says, “as a Christmas special should be.”

An ‘Empire’ Christmas

Premieres at 8 p.m. Dec. 9 on Fox

Empire fanatics will soon be suffering from Cookie and Lucious withdrawal.

After the fall finale airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Fox’s hit primetime soap goes on a three-month hiatus. It will be a long wait for the return episode March 30.

But the network is softening the blow by giving Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, Empire’s dynamic duo, their very own Christmas variety special, Taraji and Terrence’s White Hot Holidays.

Mary J. Blige, John Legend and Jamie Foxx will perform new twists on holiday classics in ‘White Hot Holidays.’

Given Empire’s music-industry-driven storylines, it’s a natural for Howard (who stars as Lucious Lyon, the king of hip-hop and the man who built Empire Entertainment) and Henson (aka Cookie, his power-hungry ex-wife and an all-around troublemaker) to host this type of program.

White Hot Holidays will feature such entertainment superstars as Mary J. Blige, John Legend and Jamie Foxx putting modern twists on classic holiday songs. The hosts also will team up for a special duet.

Santas, Santas everywhere

Premieres 8 p.m. Wednesday on truTV

Ten Kris Kringles, including one from North Texas, are in the running for the title of America’s Best Santa Claus in Santas in the Barn, a kooky Christmas competition show.

The eight-episode series, airing twice a week (8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays), gathers an eclectic selection of jolly ones. Some, like Karl Ward of Dallas, are vintage Santas. But there are also two female Santas, a beefcake fireman Santa and a Santa who’s not even a Santa — he’s an Elf on the Shelf.

Competitor Karl Ward works as the Santa at the Half Price Books Flagship Store in Dallas.

The gang will be put through a series of challenges, from gift-wrapping and gingerbread-house building to sled racing and chimney climbing. The winner will be announced in the Christmas Eve finale.

Ward, our local favorite, works as the Santa at the Half Price Books flagship store (5803 E. Northwest Highway in Dallas). He turned the producers’ heads by giving the holiday hero a unique twist: He’s a pirate Santa. “My catchphrase,” he says, “is ‘Yo ho ho ho and a stocking of rum.’ 

December movie magic

More than a dozen original Christmas movies premiere in December on Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, UP tv and other cable networks, but four in particular stand out because of the names attached.

▪ Mariah Carey makes her directing debut in Hallmark’s A Christmas Melody, at 7 p.m. Dec. 19. Carey, whose 1994 hit song All I Want for Christmas Is You is a holiday staple, also plays a music teacher who helps a stressed-out girl write a song for the town’s holiday variety show.

▪ Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, who played husband and wife in the classic sitcom Family Ties, are reunited in Lifetime’s Becoming Santa — and this time they’re Santa and Mrs. Claus. Their future son-in-law is in for quite a surprise when he meets them. It premieres 7 p.m. Dec. 12.

▪ Two other upcoming movies are based on Christmas novels by authors so beloved that their names are in the titles: Karen Kingsbury’s The Bridge (premiering 7 p.m. Sunday on Hallmark) and Debbie Macomber’s Dashing Through the Snow (8 p.m. Dec. 13 on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries).

Isn’t that special?

▪ New York celebrates the lighting of the world’s most famous Christmas tree for the 83rd time in NBC’s Christmas in Rockefeller Center (7 p.m. Wednesday). Today anchors Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker and Natalie Morales host the live broadcast, which includes musical performances from Sting, Mary J. Blige, Pentatonix, Andrea Bocelli, the Band Perry, Carly Rae Jepsen and James Taylor.

Arlington-based a cappella group Pentatonix will perform on NBC’s ‘Christmas in Rockefeller Center’ on Wednesday.

▪ Some of biggest stars in country music come together to celebrate the holidays in ABC’s CMA Country Christmas (8 p.m. Thursday). The two-hour special will be hosted for the sixth year by Jennifer Nettles. Performers include Jewel, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Darius Rucker and Kelsea Ballerini.

▪ Michael Bublé returns to NBC for his fifth annual holiday special, Michael Bublé’s Christmas in Hollywood (7 p.m. Dec. 10). This year’s performers include Celine Dion, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Tori Kelly. Guests include Jay Leno, Kylie Jenner, Eva Longoria and William Shatner.

▪ ABC celebrates the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas with a music-filled retrospective called It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown. The special, hosted by Kristen Bell, airs at 7 p.m. Monday, to be followed by the cherished Peanuts cartoon.

▪ Nickelodeon’s Ho Ho Holiday Special (7 p.m. Saturday) is a one-hour variety show featuring musical numbers, comedy sketches and appearances by a legion of young Nickelodeon stars.

Series showdowns

Leave it to reality TV to turn Christmas cheer into a fierce competition.

▪ ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight showcases families that decorate their homes to the extreme, with displays that would make Clark Griswold envious. The three-week season premieres 7 p.m. Dec. 7, with new celebrity judges: HGTV’s Carter Oosterhouse and Taniya Nayak. The winning family in each episode pockets $50,000, which will help pay the exorbitant electricity bills.

▪ ABC’s The Great Holiday Baking Show, premiering 9 p.m. Dec. 7, pits six talented amateur bakers against one another in a cakes-cookies-pies-and-pastries throwdown. The four-week series is hosted by My Big Fat Greek Wedding star Nia Vardalos and husband Ian Gomez.

More holiday movies

  • Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Just in Time for Christmas (7 p.m. Saturday, Hallmark)
  • Merry Kissmas (8 p.m. Saturday, ION)
  • The Flight Before Christmas (7 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime)
  • Royal Family Christmas (7 p.m. Saturday, TV One)
  • Magic Stocking (8 p.m. Sunday, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries)
  • How Sarah Got Her Wings (8 p.m. Sunday, ION)
  • Last Chance for Christmas (8 p.m. Sunday, Lifetime)
  • Beverly Hills Christmas (6 p.m. Sunday, UP tv)
  • On the Twelfth Day of Christmas (7 p.m. Dec. 12, Hallmark)
  • A Christmas Truce (8 p.m. Dec. 12, ION)
  • A Christmas Reunion (8 p.m. Dec. 13, ION)
  • Wish Upon a Christmas (8 p.m. Dec. 13, Lifetime)
  • A Baby for Christmas (6 p.m. Dec. 13, UP tv)
  • The Spirit of Christmas (7 p.m. Dec. 19, Lifetime)
  • Christmas Land (7 p.m. Dec. 20, Hallmark)
  • Santa’s Little Helper (7 p.m. Dec. 20, USA)

New holiday episodes

  • The Last Man on Earth (8:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox)
  • The Muppets (7 p.m. Dec. 8, ABC)
  • Fresh Off the Boat (7:30 p.m. Dec. 8, ABC)
  • The Middle (7 p.m. Dec. 9, ABC)
  • The Goldbergs (7:30 p.m. Dec. 9, ABC)
  • Modern Family (8 p.m. Dec. 9, ABC)
  • Black-ish (8:30 p.m. Dec. 9, ABC)
  • Last Man Standing (7 p.m. Dec. 11, ABC)
  • Dr. Ken (7:30 p.m. Dec. 11, ABC)
  • America’s Funniest Home Videos (6 p.m. Dec. 13, ABC)
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine (7:30 p.m. Dec. 13, Fox)
  • The Last Man on Earth (8:30 p.m. Dec. 13, Fox)
  • Scorpion (8 p.m. Dec. 14, CBS)
  • NCIS: Los Angeles (9 p.m. Dec. 14, CBS)
  • NCIS: New Orleans (8 p.m. Dec. 15, CBS)
  • Life in Pieces (7:30 p.m. Dec. 17, CBS)
  • Mom (8 p.m. Dec. 17, CBS)