November 21, 2013

How to Pick a Made-for-TV Christmas Movie

I refuse to apologize for the fact that I absolutely adore made-for-TV Christmas movies. While I may have high standards for regular movies, I lower them considerably for this special film genre. Call it my holiday spirit.

Every year, both the Hallmark Channel and ABC Family run a Christmas movie marathon for the six weeks leading up to Christmas. During this time, Hallmark also debuts brand new Christmas movies every Saturday and Sunday night. (That's 12 brand new movies made just to let struggling actors renew their SAG cards, folks.) If you're worried about your social life cramping your ability to bask in the warmth of all this cheesy goodness, just make sure you set your DVR and watch them later, after all your friends have abandoned you because you can't stop talking about made-for-TV movies.

With so many options, how do you allocate your precious time between the movies?

The first thing you need to know is that all the movies include the following must-haves:
  1. A 90's B-List star or vaguely familiar looking famous-ish person (though a C or D-Lister from the 80's isn't out of the question in lean years). For example, I just watched a triple header of movies starring Elizabeth Berkley, Dean Cain and the chick who played Amber in Clueless. Watch enough of these, and you'll start to recognize actors just from other Christmas movies. As in, 'Oh that's the guy from that one movie where he was a rancher and fell in love with the woman whose car broke down on his property and just happened to know how to save his favorite horse, who is dying.'
  2. At least several references to "the magic of Christmas."
  3. Snow. Even if they are in the desert, there will be snow. Someone will create fake snow, if need be. There is always snow on Christmas in a TV movie. This may tie into the "magic of Christmas" point above.
  4. A miracle of some sort. It could be on a small scale, but there is always a miracle. Oftentimes they will even explicitly use the word "miracle." 
  5. And it always happens on Christmas Eve.
I've been doing this marathon for a few years now, and I have yet to see an example deviate from those points above. If all those things sound good to you, we can move onto the next step.

Despite the commonalities between them, the vast majority of Christmas made-for-TV movies follow four distinct plots:
  1. Romance. These are my personal favorite, since they combine the corny warm fuzzy feelings of the romantic comedy with some kind of melodramatic back story. Think: single moms, widowers, or people in unhappy relationships that don't realize it until they meet someone who is perfect from them mere days before Christmas. Then they confess their love and seal it with a kiss on Christmas Eve.
  2. Fixing past mistakes. These movies just copy other stories and stick Christmas in the title and theme. A Christmas Story with the three ghosts, reliving the same day over and over again like Groundhog's Day, or literally going back in time. Occasionally this theme combines with romance to have a character repeat a day until they realize they are in love with someone. And of course, correct it on Christmas Eve.
  3. Santa, his descendants, and saving Christmas. Christmas is somehow in jeopardy and it's up to either Santa's black sheep son/daughter or an unrelated child to save Christmas. Occasionally amnesia is involved (on the part of Santa, not the children). These movies tend to be heavy on must-haves #2 & #4 - Spoken references to both "the magic of Christmas" and Christmas miracles.
  4. Bringing joy to the holidays. This category may seem too general, because all the movies are in some way about bringing happiness to the holidays, but this involves plot lines like adopting orphans, helping scrooges re-discover the joy of Christmas, and really poor people coming into money that magically (again, must-have #4) solves all their problems. I don't know if the networks assume only poor people stay in on weekend nights to watch TV movies, but showcasing poor people coming into money seems to be a pretty popular theme.
So simply choose what appeals to you. Personally, I can only handle so many movies about orphans before I become hardened and insensitive to their plight. The three ghosts thing copies a story no one even really likes (but scared of looking like a jerk for disliking a story that features a poor, crippled kid) and come on, copying a movie made about the year's lamest holiday (with the exception of Flag Day and Bosses Day)? If reliving the same day is hell for the person in the movie, what makes them think we want to relive it with them??

With all this information in mind, go comb your TV listings, make a cup of cocoa (with mini marshmallows, of course, unless you're some kind of savage) and indulge in some guilty pleasure TV watching for the holidays. And if your significant other tells you they will leave you if they have to sit through another holiday screening of Love Actually, just make them sit through one of these movies and they will be begging you for Colin Firth and that absurdly hot guy who inexplicably hooks up with Laura Linney.

Final word: Watching made-for-TV Christmas movies is trendier and more enjoyable than going to an ugly Christmas sweater party.

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