Sunday, November 26, 2017

(TL;DR) The Whitest Christmas of All: Hallmark Christmas Movies

Hollywood is Weird

I am 90% positive I've previously mentioned my fascination with basic-cable Christmas movies.  I'm not talking about the endless rerunning of Elf, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, or other films that had a theatrical life before finding a permanent second life as seasonal programming somewhere on the basic-cable dial.  I'm talking about the made-for-TV 2 hour films that appear on The Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, Lifetime and the Up Network, running in an endless loop, 24-hours-per day, starting this year a few days before Halloween.

Look, I'm not against Christmas.  But, as Jamie wisely pointed out to me, if you're starting your Christmas movies October 20-something, that makes Christmas last fully 1/6th of the year, and that's insane.  And, it bulldozes two fairly major holidays inbetween.

What's fascinating is that this model must be wildly profitable for Hallmark and the other networks for Hallmark to start running these channels as 24-hours-per day holiday movies so early.  These movies have their own little pocket of stars, the top of the heap features former Full House co-star Candice Cameron Bure and former Party of Five sib Lacey Chabert.  Others flirt with the stardom.  Alicia Witt's in a few of these, Lori Loughlin (also Full House), and you'll see a few other actors pulling double or triple duty as stars, but you can guarantee at least one or two new movies per year from Chabert and CCB.

You'll get name actors showing up for a quick paycheck on a few days work.  We're really talking former TV stars who are now doing mostly guest shots here and there.  Heck, the seemingly ageless Wendy Malick is in the one on my TV right now.  And last year I died a little inside when Vivica A. Fox showed up not as the star of one of these films, but as a supporting player (more on this later).

Mostly these "movies" are shot in the manner of most single-camera TV.  No big set-ups.  No big whoop.  It's somewhere around the style of prime-time soaps.  I expect they're mostly cranked out in about 2-3 weeks.

Occasionally a movie would have an elf or Santa in it, and it'd have some special effects, but for 4-out-of-5 movies, the biggest effect was trying to cover up the fact they were shooting in Not-December (sometimes in clearly LA) and trying to make it look cold out.  These days I am unsure if they built a set they use as Smalltown USA or they just re-use the same homey looking Main Street somewhere.  But even the special-FX movies or movies featuring anything extra like music, etc.. are starting to dry up in favor of more new movies per year at a lower budget.

And if you're wondering:  Do you really watch that many of these?  The answer is:  oh, boy howdy, do I.

I started watching these movies a while back when I saw a pretty terrible movie called Crazy for Christmas, which I stopped on in the wee hours because it starred WKRP in Cincinnati alum Howard Hesseman, and I was curious what he was now up to.   But this was way, way back in 2005.

I stuck around for a few reasons:  (1) I like noise on at night when I'm writing a blog post.  Weirdly, not usually music.  Just chattering from the TV, and so little happens in these movies you can follow them without watching them.  (2) And that's because they're mostly conflict free.  The world is never at stake.  No crime is being solved.  It's usually about someone finding the Christmas spirit they lost at some point.  (3) And, while less so these days, the movies used to feature actors I was familiar with who had disappeared off the radar or were in the process of doing so.  Jenny McCarthy.  Tiffani Theissen.  Those mentioned above.

Mostly, these days, I watch the movies on, specifically, The Hallmark Channel.  It has less to do with any actual preference and more of my running inquiry into how they make these movies.  There's definitely a formula, which - of course, everything on TV has a formula.  But there's a certain way to crack this formula and the appeal of these bland, conflict free pieces of fluff that are making someone a lot of money, that I think tells us a whole lot about the audience and maybe reflects back on us a curious vision of not just the holiday of Christmas, but may go right to explaining America to itself.

I have no idea which movie is which and will watch about 5-10 minutes of a movie before I can figure out if I've seen it.  If I haven't, I can usually figure out the entire plot within another 2 minutes.  And you can, too.  That's the point.

The Rules

Now, when I post the rules of these movies below, it's a rule of thumb.  There are a lot of movies that don't follow these rules, and if any single movie followed all the rules, you'd fill up your Hallmark movie bingo card and get to claim a prize, I guess.  But there are patterns to how these flicks work, so let's take a look and you people tell me what I missed in the comment section.

Rule 1)  The city is a place for lying liars who lie.  All they care about is money and their duplicity knows no bounds.  Everyone in small towns is honest and knows what really matters.

Rule 2)  The star is always female

Rule 3)  She is often a Career Minded City Gal.  This means she has forgotten "what really matters" as she pursues dollars.  This usually means she is single with no time for a man or dating someone wrong for her.  She is childless.  It will be implied, if not stated:  she is incomplete.  Also: 9 out of 10 times, she has forgotten "The Meaning of Christmas".

Rule 4)  If she is dating anyone at the start of the movie, he will be a blow-dried corporate guy whom she must break from for middle portion of movie as she ventures to Middle America.

Rule 5)  She will (re)meet down-to-Earth guy with more blue-collar job.  Often that job is directly or indirectly extremely helpful to townsfolk.

Rule 6)  She will leave the city.  These movies hate the city and love small towns.  Often this is where our hero is from or where they visited their grandparents every Christmas as a child.  These small towns are pristine and well decorated.  And, in more recent movies, snowy.

Rule 7)  Around the turn to the third act, someone will talk about how the town/ a location within the town/ a town festival, etc...  will make you see Christmas how you remember it as a kid.  Enjoying Christmas as you did before puberty is the perfect state of being.

Rule 8)  Business that is not a Mom and Pop business like a bookstore, hotel or bakery is inherently suspicious.

Rule 9)  And major Hollywood movies do this, too, which I've never understood:  life-or-death business deals will be conducted late on Christmas Eve.  Honestly - I buy that there are Rock Biters living among us before I buy that anyone is working on December 24th.

Rule 10)  It is acceptable for our hero to have a corporate job that is something like advertising that can play up the false belief that anybody can do whatever is a high-paying successful corporate job - if they just applied to those jobs.  Also - jobs involving crafting are @#$%ing HUGE (baking, shitty painting, etc...)

Rule 11)  You see fewer stories about divorcees the past two years, but for a while, that was big (and meant Mom was actually staying put for the duration of the movie).  But I think someone realized kids are a drag on these romances just by implication of the baggage.  Nonetheless, the kids were used as a prop for a few years there to show how Mom had lost her Christmas spirit and how that was hurting Junior - invariably a precocious moppet who would only appear as needed for the plot to advance and otherwise disappear into pixie dust whenever the A plot was moving forward.  But, oh my god, are these kids full of cheer and blind faith in Christmas.  And do they ever suck.  11 year olds should not still be waiting for Santa.  (late edit:  kids are also deeply invested in pairing their parents with the random blue-collar guy.  I have not been a single parent, but this seems... off.)

Rule 12)  Christmas is a secular holiday.  Church may get a mention, but no one will go to church of Christmas except to see a secular play or performance.  The actual Biblical basis for Christmas is mostly off limits, and imagery of the season is about snow, holly, Santa and other non-birth-of-Son-of-God stuff.

Rule 13)  Christmas is not about giving except presents to immediate family (ie: no charities).  Scrooge is invoked only in the context of "isn't Scrooge mean?", not in a "and he learned the value of benefiting his fellow man" sort of way.

Rule 14)  Because there is no traditional Christian discussion in these movies: Christmas is about a feeling.  This feeling is never entirely defined except as "magical".  This is loosely tied to a lot of ambiguity about "The meaning of Christmas" and what the protagonist forgot and is just now learning or re-learning thanks to the blue-collar guy she's temporarily alienated in the 3rd act.

Rule 15)  Lots of romance, no sex.  This isn't a beef.  It'd be weird to see these light fluff-ball movies turn into Skinemax (although, arguably, there's a market for that.  Rule 34, people).  But: Hallmark romance suuuuuuuucks.  It's like awkward first-date small talk played up as hugely meaningful connection.  Which makes one very sad for those who do find it romantic.  What is happening in your life?

Rule 16)  Cookies. So many cookie competitions.  Either in the background or key to the plot.  Are cookie competitions a thing in real life?

Rule 17)  Non-white people are background characters.  This is mostly specific to Hallmark movies.  I've seen movies starring non-White people on other networks (look, when Vanessa Williams turns up, I'm at least going to give the movie a shot), and I'm pretty sure the Up Network (which I no longer have) was definitely not all-White.  But when you see Vivica A. Fox playing a landlord in a movie...  man...  You booked Vivica Fox and that's what you did with her time?

Rule 18)  There are occasionally by-inference gay people, but any gay characters are part of the protagonist's city-life so mostly disappear after the initial set-up of the story.

Rule 19)  Wisdom from a parental figure.  Invariably, as the protagonist is in crisis - usually about their desire to return to their job and boyfriend of four days prior - a widowed member of the family will come along and sit them (often outside in the snow, but always in soft light) and talk to them in sentences ending in ellipses all about the past.  Somehow this will settle for the hero that she has to give up a 6-figure job to live in Smalltown, USA and experience the wonder of Christmas year round.

Honestly, there are probably 20 more rules, but I assume I'll wear you guys out.*

What I find interesting is the dovetailing of recent political discourse and the comforting messages of these movies.  Ie:  Real people who really understand what's important are not from the city.  They live in small towns and reject cosmopolitanism.  The cities are full of liars who will screw you over.  If people are being honest with themselves, what they would really do is abandon the city and realize what they need is a blue-collar guy who will keep things simple.

And, of course, it's okay to *see* people who aren't White, and you can expect to work in an office or wherever alongside all sorts of people, but when it comes to friends, family and romance, we're staying pretty White.

If you want to get all Film School 101, there's a message here.  Christmas is about recapturing nostalgia and bringing a shared memory into the present.  And that, in itself, isn't diabolical.  But it's not like we haven't heard plenty about the future is the past from a certain political narrative, coupled with plenty of outright racist rhetoric and fear of anything that isn't WASP-centric (and we destroy that which we fear).   For those living outside of cities (the economic engine of the US) and their happy, non-citified ways, we don't need to deal with POC.  We don't need to acknowledge the LGBQT community except as background characters.

Tokenism is it's own weird business on TV, and certainly these movies dabble in making sure there's a Black Mayor, or some other POC scattered in background scenes, but the sheer volume of these movies would suggest the possibility for diversity.  But that's not what Hallmark Channel, at any rate, is cranking out.

I'm not an overly religious guy, but I was raised in the Lutheran Church.  I absolutely get that there are at least two parallel tracks for Christmas - the Bing Crosby nostalgia trip and the celebration of the birth of the Son of God and all that that implies.  That these movies ignore any religious elements isn't entirely shocking - bringing sex and/ or religion into any conversation immediately makes for awkward pauses.  But Christmas in particular in the church tends to be a time of charity and goodwill toward all people.  This is when, as a middle-school kid you sucked it up and went to the Old Folks' home and sang carols or in high school helped load cars full of Christmas dinners for families in need.  I'm way worse about this stuff the past few years than I used to be, but Christmas - expensive as it is - is also a time for looking out for other folks.  That's what that dude ringing the bell standing next to a red pot in front of the grocery store is all about. 

This stuff does not make it into these movies.  I get that they're romantic fantasies, but it's kind of weird that they tend to boil down to buying presents and picking a sex partner.  And chasing your bliss.  Over and over and over.

It's not my intention to shout at the Hallmark Channel.  There's a market for these movies, and it says something about us that so many networks shut down their regular programming in favor of these movies.  What's curious is - as the formula gets refined over the course of years, it becomes clearer and clearer what fantasies trigger the most ratings as the movies close in on certain themes and patterns.

Nor do I want to insist to anyone that I am keeper of Christmas.  It's a tough, long holiday, and what it means from year to year depends on your place in life.  I get that.

Instead, what I invite you to do is turn all of this into a drinking game or other fun activity.  You people left me all alone to ponder the career trajectory of Candice Cameron-Bure and Basic Bitch white bread fantasies, all of which take place against an obscene backdrop of Christmas decorations in every shot.

*There are also variations on the formula, including recently the rise of the "smalltown girl gets whisked off to somehow be a governess for a monarch's children"


mcsteans said...

You and I have discussed this topic at length, so I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. I think another reason the single mom trope was 86ed was that the kids were always waaaaay too invested in their mother hooking up for the holidays. Not only has a child never done that in real life, it's also SUPER creepy.

Another rule of these movies is that, unless they are a known star, they choose the most generic looking actors you've ever seen. Like, to the point where if I'm not paying attention (most of the time), I mix up current/corporate boyfriend and future love interest because they look EXACTLY the same. I feel like I have face blindness sometimes watching these things. They are so generic in fact that I don't even find them attractive, which is strange because you'd think that would be a selling point for movies mainly (I'm guessing) aimed at straight women. I'm assuming they're going for non-threatening, but it often results in absolutely chemistry-free romances that are supposed to be the support beam for these movies.

I'm totally going to make a Hallmark movie bingo card if anyone else wants to play along. Scared to make it into a drinking game because I don't want alcohol poisoning.

Stuart said...

To my knowledge I've never seen a single one of these things, but I find the topic kind of fascinating. Thanks for the front line reporting!

The League said...

They're like Christmas sugar cookies. You say "oh, just the one" and then it's one in the morning, you feel sick and guilty because the whole plate is gone, and you have no idea what happened, but Candice Cameron-Bure found romance, so it can't be all bad.

The League said...

Currently airing "Love You Like Christmas" (2016). Description: A high-powered executive reconsiders her priorities when car trouble leads her to Christmas Valley, a town in love with Christmas.

Jake Shore said...

I think they read your blog ....

The League said...

Oh my. That was pretty awesome. You know, it's funny. Something cracked this year, because I have seen a lot of articles and whatnot saying "what the hell is going on with these Hallmark movies?". Everyone's kind of had their own take on it, but it's been kind of funny to see people acknowledging: yeah, we all watch these things