Christmas is big business for TV; the content mill of light romantic comedies set around the holidays and celebrity-driven specials has come to make December feel, at moments, like a forced march of glee. In all, though, Christmas entertainment of the Hallmark-movie variety seems intended to bring a smile to the face and lighten the mood — a lovely thing, if saccharine when taken to extremes.

That cloying sweetness around December each year makes “Santa Inc.” seem, in theory, like a corrective. The animated series, created by Alexandra Rushfield and starring Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen, posits a North Pole that’s decidedly not for kids, so much so that the show’s depiction of sex and drugs grows to seem affected. “Santa Inc.” is notionally about Christmas: Silverman voices an ambitious elf who wants to be appointed to take on the role of Santa. (In this world, Santa Claus is real, and a role into which new applicants enter every so often; no woman has ever taken on the gig.) But it also wants to be cooler than the genre of which it’s a part. In elevating itself above its subject matter, “Santa Inc.” ends up feeling dour and heavy, a televised lump of coal.

There’s a germ of an idea here: In trying to break out of the pack and be seen by the incumbent Santa (Rogen) as worthy of being tapped, Silverman’s Candy Smalls sees all the aspects of what goes into making Christmas work for kids worldwide. Her ambition is winsome and is a rare aspect of the show that feels properly pitched at a grown-up audience without losing balance.

Elsewhere, though, the show’s attempted witty touches — making the reindeer, for instance, methamphetamine addicts in order to explain how they travel the globe so rapidly — tend toward the miscalibrated. When the show displays a visual wit or a loopy joy with wordplay, it makes it feel all the more like a waste of energy that it, elsewhere, depicts Mrs. Claus dancing on a candy-cane stripper pole. That doesn’t say anything, really; it just suggests a readiness to provoke. The visual emblems of Christmas as celebrated nowadays are hardly beyond subversion, but just doing so with a story seemingly designed to raise hackles isn’t worthy of the talent that’s clearly on display here. The juxtaposition of the admittedly gaudy trappings of a season of joy and “Santa Inc.’s” calculated raunchiness tend to feel less irreverent than attention-seeking in a way the sheer joke-writing can’t justify.

In fairness, the show may find its way towards something in its back half. When it settled down, its depiction of an alienatingly ambitious woman in a somewhat hostile workplace was engaging, and a spin on a Christmas story that works for adults who see themselves as more urbane, perhaps, than the core audience for holiday movies. In these moments, a certain spirit busts through: Christmas, with its open displays of sentimentality, is inherently un-chill, and that’s okay! Not every topic lends itself to a subversion, or to showing off how little one cares about propriety. But those moments of reduced freneticism felt too infrequent on a show whose interest in its subject matter seemed to extend as far as how to establish a sufficiently cool distance from it.

“Santa Inc.” debuts all episodes on HBO Max Thursday, Dec. 2.

Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman Can’t Save ‘Santa Inc.’ From Misguided Raunchiness: TV Review

HBO Max. Eight episodes (four screened for review).

  • Production: Executive Producers: Alexandra Rushfield, Sarah Silverman, Amy Zvi, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver, Joshua Fagen, Rosa Tran, Seth Green, John Harvatine IV, Matthew Senreich, Eric Towner, and Chris Waters.
  • Cast: Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogen , Leslie Grossman, Gabourey Sidibe, Craig Robinson, Nicholas Braun, Maria Bamford, Joel Kim Booster.