With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
My fondest memory from this Thanksgiving was the night my mom and I tried to piece together the plot of a Hallmark Christmas movie we’d come into midway through and then only half-watched. It involved a guy who got amnesia while staying at a friend’s empty house and therefore thought he was the friend, which kept him apart from his love interest because their lifestyles seemed too different. Then there was the big reveal and a fake-out twist with a wife and daughter who turned out to be a sister and niece, and a big romantic reunion at a struggling bookstore miraculously saved on Christmas Eve. It was utterly ridiculous and we absolutely loved trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Then before we could even double check what the movie was called, the next one started playing. “It’s Nana!” my mom yelled. This was the start of the movie we’d watched the last 20 minutes of the night before, which ended with a woman inheriting her dead grandmother’s beloved Christmas tree star.
I have to imagine this is how a lot of people watch Hallmark Christmas movies—as equal parts B-movies to be mocked and bizarre curios to be marveled at. Even the most earnest of Hallmark Channel fans would likely admit that these movies are “cheesy.” And that’s kind of the point. Hallmark Christmas movies are like PBR or Taco Bell: It’s not that you don’t know there are better, higher quality options out there. It’s that you’re craving the specific taste (not to mention the cheap convenience) of a familiar favorite. And good god do they go down even easier than a Crunchwrap Supreme served with an ice cold beer.
If you happen to flip on the Hallmark Channel at any point between late October and early January, you’ll be transported to an alternate dimension that looks vaguely like our own but where the teeth are whiter, the snow is faker, and the unbridled passion for Christmas is frighteningly forceful. No one in a Hallmark Christmas movie can just casually enjoy the holiday season—they must either have a manic enthusiasm for Christmas or their lack of zeal must be a major plot point to be resolved. To gently suggest someone might be of a religious faith that doesn’t celebrate Christmas would surely cause a glitch in the Hallmark Christmas movie matrix.
In a Hallmark Christmas movie, cookies are never just “cookies,” but always “Christmas cookies.” Hot chocolate is exclusively referred to as “hot cocoa.” Mistletoe is taken deadly seriously. If any of the actors involved have even the faintest ability to ice skate, you better believe there’s going to be a scene set at an ice rink. Optional components of a Hallmark Christmas movie include cute kids, cute old people, cute animals, and literal magic. One of the most delightful details I found while researching this piece is that Hallmark schedules production of its movies—most of which film over the summer in the Vancouver area—so that the more high-profile ones film later in the year and can feature real snow.
As Gwen Ihnat explained in her own deep dive into the Hallmark original movie phenomenon, these films usually follow roughly the same template: A career-minded woman—“the Hallmark girl,” as frequent star Ashley Williams calls the archetype—has her heart in the right place but is missing something in her life. That something is love, which she unexpectedly finds when she leaves the soulless Big City to visit her Small Hometown.
The plots of this year’s slate of new films range from a successful workaholic planning a Christmas charity event with a hot chef (Lacey Chabert’s Pride, Prejudice, And Mistletoe) to a successful workaholic planning a Christmas charity event with a hot firefighter (Candace Cameron Bure’s A Shoe Addict’s Christmas). Christmas At Graceland, meanwhile, is about a successful workaholic (American Idol’s Kellie Pickler) singing at a Christmas concert with a hot music promoter. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you whether the concert is for charity or not because I spent most of the movie Googling the average amount of snowfall in Memphis to confirm it couldn’t possibly be as much as this movie suggests it is. (It isn’t.)
Though Hallmark started producing Christmas-themed original movies around the time the channel launched in 2001, its official—and now much-hyped—Countdown To Christmas programming started in 2009. The channel reached a real milestone when its 2014 movie Christmas Under Wraps averaged about 5.8 million viewers, making it Hallmark’s most-watched telecast ever and the second most-watched original cable movie of the year, just behind Lifetime’s Flowers In The Attic remake. Since then, Hallmark has continued to be an absolute ratings juggernaut during the holiday season, particularly among women 18-54. Other channels are now trying to replicate Hallmark’s success with their own wholesome holiday fare. Even Netflix hopped on board the trend with cheesy original films like A Christmas Prince (which got a sequel this year) and The Princess Switch.
But despite the competition, Countdown To Christmas remains an unbeatable holiday institution. During this year’s big five-night premiere event over Thanksgiving, host/reigning Hallmark Queen Candace Cameron Bure regularly reminded us to download Hallmark’s official checklist app to make sure we don’t miss any of the 22 new original movies premiering this year. (I’ve only got five of them checked off so far, but it’s still early.) Meanwhile, Duchess of Hallmark Lacey Chabert appeared in a commercial explaining that in addition to the lighthearted Christmas rom-coms airing on Hallmark Channel proper, there are also 15 new Christmas melodramas debuting on its sister channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. To convey these different tones, Chabert changes from an elegant evening gown to bright party dress. This commercial is better than half of the Hallmark Christmas movies I’ve watched.
Since no one in a Hallmark Christmas movie is allowed to start flawed enough to have an actual character arc, these movies are mostly about watching mildly pleasant people spend time doing Christmas activities together until they realize they’re in love and chastely kiss. That makes Hallmark movies a bit of a Rorschach test when it comes to their messaging. They definitely have a socially conservative, “traditional values” ethos to them, even if their level of explicit religiousness varies. Many of these films are what you could charitably call “problematic” when it comes to gender roles. To its credit, however, Hallmark has gotten better at positioning career and family as things that can co-exist for its leading ladies, not just two things they have to pick between. (So long as they move their big city jobs to a quaint small town setting, of course.) On the other hand, in an attempt to show women in more high-powered careers, Hallmark has also really doubled down on humanizing investment bankers and corporate lawyers this year. You win some, you lose some, I guess.
In addition to appealing to people looking for “wholesome” entertainment (or just stuff they can watch with family members of all ages), Hallmark movies are also aimed at fans of the romance novels that often provide their source material, general rom-com enthusiasts, and people who love to see their favorite ’90s sitcom stars flourish in a new environment. Hallmark has found huge success in maintaining a studio-system-style stable of famous women (and to a lesser extent men) who pop up in a new Christmas movie each season. Whereas viewers originally tuned in to watch Lacey Chabert in a Hallmark Christmas movie, they now tune in to watch A Lacey Chabert Hallmark Christmas movie. That’s also true of regular players like Alicia Witt, Erin Krakow, and Danica McKellar (who told The West Wing Weekly podcast that besides The Wonder Years, the thing fans most often want to talk to her about are her Hallmark movies). In my opinion, however, it’s Lori Loughlin who’s the real gem of the Hallmark family—the Hallmark Christmas Empress, if you will. She makes fewer films but brings real dignity to the ones she stars in. If you see a Lori Loughlin Hallmark Christmas movie on the schedule, it’s definitely time to break out the hot cocoa. (Her latest, Homegrown Christmas, premieres December 8.)
This is also a game-changing year for Hallmark in terms of finally bringing some much-needed diversity to its lineup. Before 2018, Hallmark had never made a Christmas movie featuring a black lead. This year, it’s releasing four, including its prestigious Hallmark Hall Of Fame broadcast Christmas Everlasting, which stars Tatyana Ali, Dondre Whitfield, Dennis Haysbert, and Patti LaBelle.
While I don’t want to overpraise Hallmark for something it should’ve done a long time ago, it’s honestly way more of an effort than I ever expected the channel to put forth. And Hallmark enthusiasts will be pleased to hear that Christmas Everlasting—which is half weepie, half rom-com—hits all the familiar beats. It features a ’90s sitcom star (Ali played Ashley Banks on The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air) portraying a New York City corporate lawyer who returns to her Wisconsin hometown after her sister dies. Soon enough, she’s recapturing her Christmas spirit while ice skating, falling in love, and grappling with a fairly bonkers last-minute twist. Sister, Sister’s Tia Mowry-Hardrict and Grey’s Anatomy’s Jerrika Hinton are some of the other women of color heading up Hallmark movies this year.
If Hallmark still has some work to do when it comes to embracing a full spectrum of racial diversity, there’s at least one area in which the channel is unexpectedly (and arguably inadvertently) progressive. Because Hallmark prioritizes nostalgia and familiarity, it’s ended up with a slate of movies featuring actresses in their late 30s, 40s, and even 50s (Lori Loughlin is 54!) acting out effervescent rom-com storylines in which their age is a total non-issue. There’s no handwringing about biological clocks or panicking about never finding the right partner. Hallmark Christmas movies are like the cosmic answer to the David O. Russell films that keep casting twentysomething Jennifer Lawrence as middle-aged women. That Hallmark reportedly treats its stars really well behind the scenes is genuinely nice to hear given what a minefield the entertainment industry can be for women.
Perhaps the single biggest thing that makes Hallmark Christmas movies so addictive is the rare glimmers of quality that do shine through. There are just enough halfway decent Hallmark Christmas movies that you’re tempted to keep watching the 24/7 broadcast just in hopes of stumbling upon a good one. And when you do, it’s better than Christmas morning! In any other context, I probably would’ve considered Chad Michael Murray’s Road To Christmas to be a fairly dull rom-com, but sandwiched between lackluster Hallmark fare it played like When Harry Met Sally. Murray and Jessy Schram star as oil-and-water TV producers who take a winding road trip on their way to produce a live Christmas Eve broadcast of a Martha Stewart-esque special. Murray is also the Martha Stewart character’s son, and along the way they try to convince his adopted brothers to join them and heal a Christmas family rift.
There’s plenty of dumb stuff to laugh at in Road To Christmas, like the fact that Murray plays a documentary filmmaker who is baffled by the idea that you could film a documentary segment without an on-camera host speaking directly to the audience. But Murray and Schram do a surprisingly great job elevating the stronger-than-usual material while developing actual chemistry with one another. One of the brothers is ever so lightly coded as potentially being gay, which is more LGBT representation than I’ve ever seen in a Hallmark movie. The other is played by Asian-Canadian actor Cardi Wong. The film’s ultimate thesis is that Martha Stewart provides an invaluable good to society and that men should be more empathetic toward their high-powered, career-minded mothers. I wrote, “This movie is AMAZING!” three times in my notes and immediately texted my mom to tell her we must watch it when I’m home for Christmas. If this is Hallmark Christmas movie Stockholm syndrome, well, I’m not sure I ever want to leave.
Next time: Love Actually is the best-worst thing to happen to romantic comedies.