Stop me if you’ve heard the plot of this holiday movie before:
A hard-working professional leaves his/her busy, high-pressured life in the big city to return to his/her quaint hometown just in time for Christmas. In said quaint hometown, their family runs a quaint small business (bakery, local inn, winery etc.) and there is a beloved town property (train station, community center, etc.) that needs to be saved. While home for the holidays, they meet a sexy someone from their past and receive news of a big promotion that will take them far away from their quaint small town and their new romance. In the end, like a Christmas miracle, it all works out. They get love and the job and the small hometown is saved. Candy canes for everyone!
Of course this sounds familiar. It’s the plot of nearly every Lifetime and Hallmark Channel movie that lights up your screen during the holidays. Viewers don’t flock to these movies for daring plot twists and jaw-dropping endings. With their comfortable predictability, these movies wrap viewers in a cozy blanket. It’s the TV movie equivalent of drinking a warm cup of cocoa while nibbling a sugar cookie your beloved Nana made from scratch.
According to Vulture there are 82 (!) new holiday movies premiering this season. But what’s different is whose story they are finally beginning to tell. For years, these moves have featured heterosexual, white couples who exclusively celebrate Christmas. It’s big business. Hallmark has a line of pajamas, drinkware, and home décor devoted to the movies. The movies start appearing in October before Halloween and have become one of the defining marks of the season. But, this year both Hallmark and Lifetime have continued their slightest moves towards diversity.
Hallmark Channel featured its first same sex couple leading the way in The Christmas House, which follows two adult sons returning home to help their parents pull off their annual holiday tradition. Robert Buckley stars as Mike, the TV star awaiting news of his show’s renewal who reconnects with his childhood sweetheart Andi (Ana Ayora). Mike’s brother Brandon (Jonathan Bennett) also comes home with his husband Jake (Brad Harder). The couple is anxious because they are awaiting news of their adoption and have had their hearts broken one too many times before. You don’t need me to tell you that the movie, which debuted on November 22, has a happy ending. The movie truly stands out because Brandon and Jake’s relationship isn’t a plot point. They are gay and married and it’s not a big deal. This is a marked improvement from the channel, which pulled an ad for the wedding website Zola last year because it featured a same-sex couple. Although the network quickly reversed its decision, the lingering effects of its swift homophobic response was not forgotten.
Lifetime is premiering over 30 new movies this season, with A Sugar & Spice Holiday (premiering December 13) representing the first time a Lifetime holiday movie has featured a Chinese American lead. Jacky Lai stars as Suzy, an architect who heads home for the holidays where she enters a baking contest to save the cherished community center. The movie makes a slight nod to the genre’s homogenous roots, with a greater nod to racism that can come up around the holidays. “I didn’t know if Christmas was a big deal where you are from,” a co-worker says to Suzy. “I’m from Maine,” she deadpans.
Real-life married couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee play Hugo and Patrick in Lifetime’s A Christmas Setup (premiering December 12). Hugo returns home (where gay icon Fran Drescher plays his mom, naturally) and meets old high school friend Patrick who works at his family’s Christmas tree farm (of course). It’s the first time a same sex couple has been the central romance or “A plot,” as it’s known in the business, of a Lifetime or Hallmark holiday movie. Executive producer Larry Grimaldi and director Pat Mills loved the novelty of creating a movie that was drama and trauma free. It wasn’t about coming out or parents who didn’t accept them. “We want to see the LGBTQ community be part of the cocoa-drinking, snowball-throwing type of tropes because that’s what we really deserve,” Grimaldi said during a recent conference call with reporters.
Interestingly, it’s the non-TV movie that fell back on the coming out cliché this season. Twitter was bursting this weekend with opinions about Hulu’s Happiest Season, which debuted on November 25. Harper (Mackenzie Davis) brings her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) home for Christmas. The only problem? Harper’s family doesn’t know she’s gay. Your mileage may definitely vary on the various hijinks that then ensue. Harper is afraid her wealthy parents, who are obsessed with their image, will reject her if they know the truth about her life. So she goes out with her old high school boyfriend while leaving Abby home alone and allows her whole family to think Abby is only there because she has no place else to go. The movie’s climactic scene plays directly into what Grimaldi is talking about. When confronted, Harper denies she is gay as a tearful Abby looks on.
Twitter still went wild, though social media’s biggest takeaway was that Abby really should have ended up with Harper’s ex, Riley (Aubrey Plaza). The movie, originally slated to premiere in theaters before landing at Hulu due to the pandemic, clearly hit upon an untapped market: According to Variety, Happiest Season had the best opening weekend of any movie to premiere on Hulu. Clearly something is working.
Movies aimed at children are also expanding their narrow view of the holiday. Just how many versions of A Christmas Carol or The Night Before Christmas do we need? As Phylicia Rashad says at the beginning of Netflix’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, “I think it’s time for a new story.” In the movie, which features original songs by John Legend, a toymaker (Forest Whitaker) and his granddaughter (Madalen Mills) invent magical toys and ward off nefarious people who want to steal their inventions. The somewhat elaborate plot is not what makes the movie so great. The plot almost doesn’t matter. The predominantly Black cast sings and dances with infectious delight: There’s no way to watch the movie without singing and dancing along. Set in Victorian England (or something approximating that), the costumes and hairstyles are authentic to Black people of that era. Jingle Jangle, which boast Legend and writer/director David E. Talbert as executive producers, is a celebration of Black culture but the movie isn’t about being Black. It’s a movie that seems destined to become an annual holiday viewing tradition for young and old alike.
On the more traditional side of things, Rashad’s sister—renowned dancer, choreographer and actress Debbie Allen—puts on her own version of The Nutcracker every year. Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, a documentary which chronicles this annual performance from auditions to rehearsal to the stage, is also bolstering Netflix’s diverse slate of holiday fare. It’s Allen’s take on the Christmas classic and it is fabulous.
Of course these are all just small steps towards progress. The holiday movie genre remains predominantly heteronormative, white and Christian. We still need more movies about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. We need multiple movies about same sex couples. We need to see more cultural awareness in casting. But, while far too late, this is a start. Film should reflect the world we live in and the vibrant diversity of our collective experiences. At their best, movies (especially soft, comforting holiday movies) can reflect the world we want to live in. And, given all that we’ve been through in 2020, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate the holiday movies who have been very, very good this year.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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