The sheer brilliance of Hallmark's corny Christmas movies

How cheap, earnest, made-for-TV movies are thriving in the golden age of television

Sappy Hallmark movies are a staple of Christmas.
(Image credit: Courtesy of Hallmark Channel)

It's Christmastime, and a woman — invariably pretty, invariably in her thirties, invariably played by an actress you kind of remember from something — has a problem. Maybe she's engaged to an uptight, work-obsessed "catch" with a Bluetooth permanently screwed into one ear. Maybe she's spent much of her adult life avoiding home, and the mother who constantly reminds her "it's time she found a man." Maybe she was just fired from a job she didn't really like anyway.

But don't worry. She'll be fine. She's going to meet the man of her dreams. You'll know it's him as soon as he arrives, because he's handsome, and he listens to her, and he's not wearing a Bluetooth. If she's really lucky, Santa, an elf, or an angel may even pop up to guide her down the path to happiness in time for Christmas Eve.

What is this cheery alternate universe? It's the Hallmark Channel's annual Countdown to Christmas — as fantastically impossible a world as Westeros (but not nearly as bloody). Ticking down like an advent calendar filled with "hey, it's that guy from that thing" actors, Hallmark produced no fewer than 21 new Christmas films this year — little bits of sugar with titles like North Pole: Open For Christmas and Merry Matrimony and ‘Tis the Season For Love. Next year they plan to produce 29.

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When it comes to cheerful, cookie-cutter holiday TV movies, there's no one who does it better — or faster — than Hallmark. The brand might be best known for greeting cards, but the Hallmark Channel is a factory designed to pump out this kind of holiday film fare. This is Bollywood with elves — an industry designed to produce a very specific kind of product for a very specific kind of viewer: someone who believes in true love and Christmas cheer, and wants a movie that affirms both in a brisk, clean package.

The recent increase in the output of Hallmark's Santa workshop can be traced to one woman: Michelle Vicary, the executive vice president for programming and network publicity. Vicary devotes a whopping 30 percent of the channel's overall production budget to Christmas movies, and lands major advertising campaigns from retailers, telecommunications companies, and automobiles in the trade. The Countdown to Christmas is the network's flagship — a steady stream of programs engineered to capture the hearts of families at a time when families tend to spend an inordinate amount of time together.

In an era when many of TV's buzziest shows are designed to push boundaries, watching a Hallmark Christmas movie feels like drinking hot chocolate on your couch while wrapped in your favorite blanket (which, of course, is how many of these movies are watched anyway). It's basically impossible to imagine anyone, ever, objecting to the content of a Hallmark Christmas movie. You can watch them with the kids, because the romances are chaste and sweet. You can watch them with grandma, because they're so old-fashioned that they could have been produced half a century ago.

And while none of these movies attracts any attention from critics, Hallmark has found its niche in the family programming long abandoned by the big networks. People may love The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, but neither is likely to bring the whole family to the TV.

As a bonus, Hallmark films are much, much cheaper than something like Game of Thrones' $6 million-an-episode budget. Short shooting schedules enable sort-of familiar actors to drop in for a lark and a paycheck. Take Candace Cameron Bure — a staple of the Hallmark Channel, having just hosted 5 Days of Thanksgiving as a kind of warm-up for the season proper. If you remember Candace Cameron Bure, it's likely from her days as DJ Tanner on Full House — a corny, family-friendly show that lives on in the hazy glow of nostalgia. Hallmark consciously resurrects that feeling, casting the Full House star in a distinctly Full House­-esque narrative like this year's A Christmas Detour. Other stars in the Hallmark universe include Danica McKellar (The Wonder Years), Sarah Lancaster (Saved by the Bell: The New Class), and Lori Loughlin, another Full House alum.

In each of these movies, love and Christmas magic go hand in hand. The protagonists are almost always female. A never-ending parade of cute, ambitious, and rich men bump into these women and make their dreams come true. It's pure, corny wish fulfillment. But if you're willing to stop rolling your eyes and engage with a Hallmark movie, they're also uniquely appealing. Hallmark gives us a parallel world, in which fate and goodness are looking out for you, and your best life is just around the corner, if you only just believe. I wouldn't want to watch one every week, but giving in to the fantasy every once in a while? Hey, 'tis the season.

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