It’s the holidays, and an attractive young woman (or sometimes a guy) is having a hard time in the big city.
She has to head to her hometown, or to another small town, for some reason — the details don’t matter, just the size of the area. Perhaps it was a fish out of water, with its high heels in the deep snow. But in the end, a strong handsome man will come out of the wood and sweep her off her feet. You will learn the true meaning of Christmas. or Hanukkah. or New Year’s Eve. or the general “holiday season”. (Maybe Christmas, though). Then a big kiss, usually in front of a wreath or tree. Credits roll.
You probably recognize this formula, as it’s at the heart of nearly every holiday movie, including this year’s “The Noel Diary,” starring Netflix’s Justin Hartley, or Hallmark “A Fabled Holiday,” “The Holiday Sitter” or “Undercover Holiday.” Or any of the dozens of seasonal movies offered by TV networks and streaming services this year. And now there’s a new network, Great American Family, arguably trying to cash in on Christmas cheer, plus movies on Amazon FreeVee, BET+, Discovery+, CBS, and nearly every other provider of televised content you can name.
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Yes, TV Christmas (rarely other holidays) is everywhere this year. With such a huge amount of fun movies out there, could any of them be really high quality?
There are some who would argue that close to zero percent of made-for-television holiday movies can actually be good, but for audiences that love them enough to create this big of a market, there are differences to be distinguished between satisfying, heartwarming, and sleazy-awkward. Many people unaccustomed to this type of film may think that it is easy to create a Christmas movie that is cheerful, bright, romantic and icy enough, but a good movie requires a delicate balance of cheesiness and heart, a familiarity with turning the difference, something simple, without being boring.
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There must be something more than a “vacation home” to drive the movie. For Lindsay Lohan’s Falling for Christmas (Netflix), it’s a gimmick: amnesia. Lohan plays an heiress who loses her memory, but not her flair for the subtler things, after a skiing accident/proposal gone wrong and has to be nursed back to health by a local inn owner. It’s a bit too much, even for a Christmas movie.
But plot twists like these make the inherently silly genre all the more clever. The “hook” of a good Christmas movie doesn’t have to be complicated. She could be a pop star looking for her next big hit, like in Netflix’s “Christmas With You,” starring Freddie Prinze Jr. (he’s not a pop star). It could be something far-fetched but undeniably enticing, like Netflix’s “Christmas Prince” trilogy, about a journalist who marries a prince, at Christmas. Or it could be a landmark, like the Jonathan Bennett-starring Hallmark hit “The Holiday Sitter” (Sunday 8 EST/PT), the first from that network to feature a gay couple as the protagonists. Others beat out the Hallmark there, including Netflix’s Single All the Way in 2021, even though Great American Family actively dismisses LGBTQ love stories.
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After a satisfying plot point for hanging up his Santa hat, a really good Christmas movie needs the right script and cast. If the actors don’t all get involved, or if the scripts don’t strike the right balance of liveliness, the magic spell that the best Christmas movies can deliver will be broken.
And when these movies flop, they flop hard.
The 2021 Netflix movie “A Castle for Christmas” with Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes was pretty harsh at its low points and not joyful enough on its emotional highs. It left a tart aftertaste where viewers wanted candy canes. Hulu snapped Kristen Stewart into its “happiest season” in 2020, but the ending of the movie — which felt more like a theatrical holiday movie a la “Love Actually” than a made-for-TV movie — offered an unearned happy ending for the lead couple (Stewart and the “Station Eleven” actress). Mackenzie Davis).
Just like a preschooler wants to read their favorite book over and over again, we love the convenience and consistency. Yes, these movies tell a very similar story on repeat, but there’s a reason the formula works. The best holiday TV movies sell—of course they do, this is a great holiday commercial, after all—the simple but sweet point: love always wins, the season is happy, and if there are any bad guys, they get their score.
These are adult tales, only with more puffy jackets and stilettos. And yes, some of them are actually very good.
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