I try my best not to judge movies before I watch them, but it’s pretty hard to avoid when I know exactly what I’m getting into. In the case of the made-for-television holiday movie it’s always the same formula with tiny alterations: an unexpected couple, one of whom is overworked or perhaps a single parent, is brought together through the glittering magic of the holiday season. Sprinkle this with some common tropes and cliches and top it all off with a big helping of bad acting, nonsensical plots and small details that are downright strange. I mean, come on, who could forget the classic sprinkle fight in Christmas Mail complete with inexplicably and obviously CGI sprinkles?
Moreover, whether you celebrate Christmas — the central theme of most of these films (although, fear not as Hallmark, ruler of bad holiday movie territory, has begun to make Hanukkah films as well) — or not, they’ve become an inescapable December staple. Once a Hallmark specialty, now even Netflix has begun stocking up on holiday films.
So, what is it about these paint-by-number, low-effort and, honestly, downright bad films that keeps the people coming back? Am I missing something enticing about the identical red-and-green film posters featuring conventionally attractive white couples? Do people really just love Gretchen from Mean Girls, who stars in just about all of them, that much? There has to be something, considering money keeps being poured into them and roughly 30-or-so of these films (at Hallmark alone!) are churned out year after year.
And, of course, all of these films are virtually identical, save for some changes when they need to spice it up: you’ve watched DJ from Full House fall in love at Christmas a hundred times before, but get ready for Switched for Christmas, where she plays twins and falls in love twice in one film!
There’s just something special about these films. Not special in the sense that you’ll never have another cinematic experience like it (you’ll have plenty if you keep Lifetime running in the background throughout December), but in the sense that the writers of these films are commonly asked to rewrite them to make them more festive and jolly. An anonymous Hallmark writer once told Entertainment Weekly that his script where the main problem was that there was no snow on Christmas was rejected — they could not not have snow. It may have been the first unique idea Hallmark’s ever seen, seeing the way that all the other films blend together, but it was rejected. There absolutely just had to be snow. It’s these qualities that make these films so special — that’s not an insistence that someone at Paramount would ever make.
There’s just something comforting about sitting down and watching a bad holiday movie. You come in with expectations of the formula. If they’re exceeded, you’re pleasantly surprised and enjoy it; if it’s worse than you thought, it always manages to be so-bad-it’s-good, something worth watching if only to make fun of it. All of this is embroiled in a magical winter wonderland stretching far beyond what your mother annually attempts to transform the house into.
They are formulaic and downright ridiculous, but quite frankly, I think they’re worth an occasional holiday watch, as you can’t deny that they do what they set out to do: they’re inoffensive, apolitical, the white bread of television, but they’re festive and uplifting. They always end on a warm, happy note. You’re always given exactly what it is you sign up for with a made-for-TV holiday movie, whether that be the perfect background noise for the holiday season or an escape from the sometimes harsh realities of life. The bad holiday movie is all-ethical, all-cheerful, all the time and it always leads to a happy ending. There’s a reason that Gretchen and DJ keep coming back – we could all benefit from living our lives in the way a terrible Hallmark movie would want.