You don’t have to actively hate Christmas to be a Scrooge in a Lifetime movie. All you have to say is, “It’s not my favorite holiday,” or even, “A full 12 days of celebrations? Doesn’t anyone have to go to work in this town?”, and suddenly an entire idyllic village’s worth of passive-aggressive cheer will be aimed in your direction. Tins of Christmas cookies will surreptitiously appear on your kitchen counter. Carolers will arrive on your doorstep each evening at 7 p.m. sharp. Every surface in your home will be draped in fresh pine boughs and twinkling lights. Ice skating rinks full of people will part, ensuring that you bodyslam into that cute local whose monologues about revitalizing downtown (or coaching at-risk youth, or supporting local artisans) fade into background noise when you stare into their soft brown eyes. You may even find yourself inheriting a charmingly rundown bed and breakfast from a long-lost aunt. But you’ll make it through, because in this scenario, you are the protagonist of a Lifetime Christmas movie, and the worst thing that can happen is that you will be forced to choose between your current, “cool” job and an even more glamorous position far away.
And although their plots can sound like a fevered hallucination when you repeat them out loud—“no, see, it’s a paper that only reports on Christmas news”—the appeal of holiday TV movies is precisely how low stakes they are. If Lifetime’s slate of 30 new holiday films for 2020 is “about” anything, it’s about aesthetics, and decor, and having an “eye” for design that will help save the local toy shop or Candy Cane Lane from un-festive destruction. It’s also about the “magic” of the season, a non-denominational dodge of the holiday’s religious origins that manifests as good-natured warmth and chaste, TV-G rated romance. (In its attempts to ride this line, Lifetime ironically ends up landing on something akin to Christmas in Japan, where it’s a date-night holiday celebrated mostly by young couples.) But below all that runs a deeper, more nostalgic need that speaks to millennial audiences: The desire for a home.
Lifetime Christmas movies hit differently in a year where the shift to working from home has led white-collar workers to publicly question whether the big city rents are worth it. They’ve always appeared to reinforce the decision-making of small-town residents who didn’t flee to the big city at the first opportunity. Being overly focused on one’s career is a pathology in search of a peppermint-candy cure in these films, after all. But now, as the temperatures drop and the loneliness and isolation of the pandemic are really beginning to sink in, old feelings of guilt about leaving family behind to pursue a career are resurfacing among the transplant class of coastal creatives.
And many Lifetime protagonists do work in careers that are concentrated on the coasts, or at least in big cities. A number of them work in digital media, like the protagonists of The Christmas Edition and The Christmas Yule Blog. (The former features Marie Osmond as a cutthroat VC mogul, which is pretty great.) The heroine of Christmas Unwrapped is lucky enough to still have steady work at a print newspaper, while Homemade Christmas is steeped in the language of influencers and branding. They’re all driven, accomplished, and have can-do attitudes and great hair, but they all feel like something is missing from their lives. If you see yourself in Anne Helen Peterson’s work on millennial burnout, where a generation of people sold on the concept of passion for one’s work as a catchall solution for a meaningful life still find themselves empty and directionless, then a Lifetime ending may seem like a warm place to burrow into for a couple of hours. It’s like scrolling through Zillow and fantasizing about buying a house in the middle of nowhere, but with a plot.
This ache manifests rather poignantly in The Christmas Setup (December 12), one of Lifetime’s marquee films for the season and its first to feature a gay romance. The story, in which successful lawyer Hugo (Ben Lewis) is torn between a life close to his mom Kate (Fran Drescher) back home in Milwaukee and a promotion that would send him to London, gains emotional weight simply by placing a gay man in the lead role. For Hugo, escaping the Midwest for the friendlier confines of New York City is an issue of survival as well as ambition. And when he’s reunited with Patrick (Blake Lee), an acquaintance from high school who already gave up a profitable career to move back home, their connection isn’t just about finding a boyfriend. It’s also about acceptance, and permission to begin healing the fractious divisions between upbringing and identity to become whole again.
Unabashedly cheesy holiday movies full of hot cocoa and sweaters are an unlikely site for a cultural reset, to be sure. But one year after Lifetime’s chief rival Hallmark Channel pulled an ad for wedding planning company Zola that featured a lesbian couple kissing, for both networks to debut films featuring gay male leads this season is a dramatic change of direction. (Some Christmas movie connoisseurs say that the Hallmark ones are better, but for the purposes of this column, we’re sticking with Lifetime.) And the fact that The Christmas Setup is perfectly generic in every way except for its leads’ sexual orientation sends a non-threatening message to the network’s more conservative audiences. Queer people also like Christmas trains, and tree-lighting parties, and holding hands in the snow. They want to belong, just like anyone. And who could turn down such a meaningful request at Christmas? Assimilation is not the goal for all LGBTQ+ people, but for those who do feel that way, a movie like The Christmas Setup is a big deal.
In fact, the interchangeability of Lifetime Christmas movies may end up being what keeps them relevant. Most of Lifetime’s 2020 Christmas lineup still features white, heterosexual couples that would be difficult for all but the most devoted viewers to pick out of a lineup. But as America is dragged kicking and screaming into making its melting-pot rhetoric a reality, Lifetime movies are slowly shifting as well. The channel’s first-ever Christmas sequel, A Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding, stars Kelly Rowland, making it one of eight movies this year led by women of color. 2020 will also mark the debut of A Sugar & Spice Holiday (December 13), Lifetime’s first-ever Christmas movie centered on a Chinese-American family. And while it’s not the first Lifetime Christmas movie with a Latinx lead, the Mario Lopez vehicle Feliz NaviDAD incorporates cozy depictions of a Nochebuena celebration and a family making tamales together for Christmas. As for the rest of that film—well, it’s as awkward as its punny title. But it warms your heart anyway.
And that’s the thing about these movies. They practically invite you to heap scorn upon them, what with their chirpy leads, cookie-cutter plots, and earnest excitement for a season of corny family togetherness—earnestness, of course, being the quality that snark both hates and fears the most. But although I snorted at many hackneyed line readings and hokey montages over a long weekend spent watching nothing but Lifetime Christmas movies, I can’t deny that something strange started to happen. I kept coming up with excuses why I needed to watch the ending of a movie, even though I knew exactly what was going to happen. My mood was noticeably lifted after a day or two. The Christmas Setup even make me cry a little. “It’s just so nice,” I said out loud, to no one in particular.
Now, keep in mind that these effects were observed after concentrated dosages of these films. The fantasy they’re selling may be potent, but it takes a few of them before the sheer repetition of scenarios, outcomes, and subliminal desires induces a hypnotic state of comfort and joy. Just one Lifetime Christmas movie isn’t enough to bypass cynical barriers and inject seasonal bliss straight into your frontal lobe, in other words, which is probably why Lifetime runs these movies nonstop from mid-October all the way through Christmas. As far as desperate coping mechanisms for an unprecedented holiday season go, at least this one won’t leave you with a hangover.
The Christmas Setup premieres Saturday, December 12 on Lifetime, followed by A Sugar & Spice Christmas on Sunday, December 13.
Re-air dates for the remainder of this year’s films can be found here.