Holiday television is all about the marathon—perhaps Star Trek or Westworld stacked end to end, a daylong loop of It’s a Wonderful Life or Mommie Dearest. But the most over-the-top is the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas, an endless parade of themed TV-movies, each swathed in enough red and green to choke an entire Macy’s wrapping department and tepid as yesterday’s leftover hot chocolate.
Romance is always a major component of the channel’s holiday flicks—the kind of romance that appeals to those who found Maid in Manhattan too edgy and ethnic and think that Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers musicals are downbeat realism. Every woman has long, wavy hair and a size 4, cardigan-based wardrobe—in A Cookie Cutter Christmas, I couldn’t distinguish between the two elementary school teachers fighting to win the local bake-off and the love of the new hunky single dad in town. They were virtually identical, from the toes of their sensible-yet-pretty shoes to the tips of their French-manicured nails to the comfortingly finite limits of their perky personalities—and the hunky single dads with gleaming teeth and zip-neck sweaters are just as indistinguishable.
One phrase you’ll always hear in these programs—usually around 45 minutes in, give or take a commercial—is “We got off on the wrong foot.” Broadcasting Christmas is a veritable wrong-foot waltz starring Dean Cain and Melissa Joan Hart, the Superman and Sabrina the Teenage Witch of the ’90s. (Don’t say they look older—so do you, pal, and worse.) The two play exes fighting for a spot hosting a morning show but, as in every one of these movies, those crazy kids are just one heart-to-heart conversation (and several deus ex machinas) away from a lifetime of perfect, paired-off bliss.
But in Countdown to Christmas, a job is always a bad thing and a career is worse. It is a rule that the more successful and wealthy you are, the unhappier you are, and one’s human decency is in inverse proportion to one’s ambition. A Heavenly Christmas stars Kristin Davis as a workaholic finance type—her refrigerator is empty! Her picture frames still have the photos they came with! She dies young and becomes a Christmas angel under the tutelage of a relentlessly soft-focused Shirley MacLaine, charged with the task of reigniting the Christmas spirit in the hunky single uncle (played by Eric McCormack) who is raising his orphaned niece. (Yes, you may have been edgy in the aughts with Sex and the City and Will & Grace, but once 40 is in the rear-view mirror, it’s all dull butter knives. Also, MacLaine in the afterlife? What about reincarnation, Shirley? What about Atlantis and the Turkish harem, Shirley? What the fuck?!)
“You came here to find your Christmas spirit,” some rosy-cheeked townie tells Lori Loughlin (representing the ’80s, Full House-style) in Every Christmas Has a Story. And it is always Christmas on Hallmark: No one celebrates Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus. (Which at least means they won’t have to scrap any of the lineup next December, when President Trump declares all non-Christmas holidays illegal.)
Interestingly, if you go to the Hallmark aisle in your local drugstore, you’ll see more complex sentiment, humor and diversity than in two days of the Hallmark Channel. Where’s the movie directed at the sender of the card with a sparkly stiletto shoe on the front, or with a joke about life’s good things coming “by the case” inside? Why not a movie for the recipient of the birthday greeting featuring inappropriate balloon animals, or the wedding card with L’chaim on it?
All of the movies eventually blur together, the identical leading ladies and uniform plots morphing into one, endless, poinsettia-festooned, vaguely unwelcome hug. To try to actually sit down and focus undivided attention on one is rather like being beaten to death by sloths. But I suppose they’re not meant to be watched that way. It’s supposed to be background noise, holiday muzak for when you’re bustling around the house in your apron, wrapping cookies and baking gifts, decorating guests and greeting trees …