The money quote arrives late in the premiere of The Great Christmas Light Fight. Faced with the task of doling out $50,000 to the family with the most impressive display of glittering bulbs and molded plastic crèches, host Michael Moloney demures. “How can you judge Christmas?” he rhetorically asks, articulating the question that hangs above each of the four stops on his cross-country decoration tour.
That’s the biggest obstacle facing The Great Christmas Light Fight, an otherwise innocuous seasonal fill-in for the defunct Extreme Home Makeover: Home Edition. The show is the unseen “spectacular, super colossal lights and display contest” from A Charlie Brown Christmas writ large—though calling it a contest is a stretch, considering that the competitors are separated by hundreds of miles and hardly acknowledge one another’s existence. Further lowering the stakes: The money, money, money goes to the family that best meets the wildly arbitrary criteria of use of lights, Christmas spirit, and overall design. Sure, every televised design challenge hinges on subjective intangibles, but shouldn’t a competitor’s Christmas spirit score max out through the mere act of affixing thousands of colored lights to his home?
In the premiere episode, at least, the true measure of Christmas spirit is summarized by a notion from the holiday’s source material: the Biblical maxim that it’s better to give than to receive. From New York to Virginia, from Georgia to California, each display in the episode is framed as a gift to the neighborhood surrounding it. That altruistic angle glosses over the fact that it can’t be easy living next door to the gleaming gingerbread house constructed by the Lynches of Whitestone—nor would you want to put the little ones to bed in Laguna Hills while the sound of an original Christmas carol wafts over from the Blount residence. The Great Christmas Light Fight pushes off such niggling thoughts with a few tricks from the Extreme Makeover book, gathering crowds of onlookers who give each unveiling the feel of a miniature Christmas At Rockefeller Center. Still, there must be some sort of backroom negotiation with the neighborhood association that allows Allen and Cattina Holt to coat the streets of Cheasepeake in fake snow at random intervals—where’s that part of the narrative?
No amount of pre-lighting anxiety gins up the tension The Great Christmas Light Fight wants to map onto a family tradition taken to the extreme. ADR and talking heads flail at giving the displays meaning—for example, papa Lynch is a retired New York firefighter whose 2001 display restored normalcy to the neighborhood after the terrorist attacks of September 11—but these folks would be doing this even if 50 grand wasn’t on the line. The Goff family must be paying somewhere close to that in order to illuminate multiple acres of its Georgia farm, but such nitty gritty details are eschewed for human-interest stories. The Great Christmas Light Fight aims to dazzle, but undercuts that aim by refusing to show its work.
Ambitions are inherently low for a competition series like this, a feel-good distraction whose true community service is in the holiday break it provides ABC and its programmers. The star attractions of The Great Christmas Light Fight can be seen on YouTube without any of the competition rigamarole—those depictions lack only for professional camera equipment, flashy editing, and the sunshiny presence of Moloney and co-host Sabrina Soto. If, as suggested late in the premiere, these families’ decorations are “for everybody,” the show does that sentiment a disservice by putting the four families at odds. There’s more drama in untangling a strand of lights than in The Great Christmas Light Fight’s first hour—but even for seasonal comfort food, that’s pretty bland.
Executive producers: Brady Connell, Max Swedlow, Thom Beers, and Jennifer Mullin
Debuts: Monday, December 9 at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Hour-long reality competition
One episode watched for review