Why Can't I Stop Watching Hallmark Christmas Movies?

An ode to the perennial ratings juggernaut.

Look, I am aware that this is a somewhat risky proposition for an article. Will you respect my taste after this is over? Maybe not! For one thing, as Vogue’s digital Culture Editor, I am supposed to spend my time seeking out the best of the best in order to, I don’t know, winnow out the junk and show you the good stuff? But here I am, like anybody, sunk into my couch, delving so very far into the junk that I can’t even see how I got in in the first place. And what I mean, of course, is that I am kind of addicted to Hallmark’s holiday content. (I have dabbled in Lifetime—Pointsettias for Christmas, anyone?—and some peculiar additions from UpTV that I stumbled across recently, but for me, and the majority of American viewers in certain demographics from November to December, it's all about Hallmark.) I meant to write this story a week ago. Part of the reason it took me so long is that I spent most of the time that I should have been writing watching Hallmark Christmas movies. (This of course started out as “research.") Do you see what I'm saying? And there’s a lot to watch!

Crown Family Media Networks' Bill Abbott (whom The Hollywood Reporter merrily dubbed “Santa Claus in a C-suite”) unveiled a whopping 37 new Hallmark channel holiday movies this year alone: 22 on Hallmark Channel and 15 on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. This is in addition to their existing stable of holiday content, meaning that during advent and a few weeks before it is possible to watch Hallmark Christmas movies 24/7, or until someone throws you (or the television) out of the house. (If you are allergic to this proposition already, seek comfort here, we haven't completely lost our minds.)

“Our focus is in creating an experience where you can turn the TV on, feel comfortable and cook, decorate or do something holiday-related and that puts you in the spirit” Abbott said, and he’s right: there is a sort of flow state accessible after one or two or three of these made for TV productions. The sameness of the settings (Fictional Smalltown, USA, but very clearly shot in Canada), characters (typically marketing executives, real estate developers, bakers, with the odd errant fictional royal thrown in) and plots (a failing family business, a dead or otherwise departed spouse, a smattering of tried and true rom-com scenarios, or when all else fails, heavy lifting from A Christmas Carol) and even the titles (just add “Christmas ____” or “A ___ for Christmas” and go) begin to bleed together: all TV hair and bright eyes for women, and shawl collared sweaters and lantern jaws for men, and nobody ever really wears a warm enough coat, even when the fake snow is falling. I even became uncomfortably familiar with the channel’s advertising, which I realized is partly because of my own largely streaming and on demand habits I rarely see this kind of primetime advertising anymore: Crohn’s disease medication, endometriosis medication, online universities, Apple, various sports utility vehicles slaloming down snowy roads to get home in time for the holidays.

If this were a scene in Hallmark movie—and Hallmark, if you're listening, I'm available to write the adaptation (Christmas and KPIs? Christmas in the Fashion Closet?)—this is when the 90’s child star playing me (an overworked, very stressed editor besieged by a nonstop news cycle, with an adorable dog) would be sitting at her laptop (branding carefully obscured), surrounded by cabinets inexplicably tied up with bows and countertops festooned with evergreen branches and assaulted by expertly iced gingerbread men, and sighing aloud: “Come on Alessandra—how are you ever going to finish this article before Christmas?” And then the generously chinned male lead would enter with a bushel of pinecones or the baking ingredients “I” needed, or his adorable motherless child, or something, and inspiration would strike, or the real estate developer would leave, or Santa Claus would give me a spine, etcetera, cue music, and scene. That’s the beauty of Hallmark.

But this is not a Hallmark Christmas movie, and I began to forget, as I watched, and watched, and my (appropriately, handsomely chinned) partner put in his earphones and began watching something else on his iPad, that I was the only one in on the joke, adding Wendy Williams acting opposite Lori Loughlin in a scene from Homegrown Christmas to one of my Instagram stories. (Williams plays herself, Loughlin plays a shoe mogul who having found professional success discovers personal fulfillment back in her small hometown with a maker of bespoke miniature Christmas villages.) “You have a problem” one of my coworkers wrote back. But look, the other day, I watched one starring the actress formerly known as Winnie Cooper, and presently known as Danica McKellar. She's in a few this year, I think, in between writing best selling math books for middle schoolers (go Danica!) but in this one she was playing a hardscrabble New York hotel maid who rams the monarch of a fictional minor european country with her towel cart and ends up hired as his child’s governess and then, yes, of course, falling in love. (Television movies will introduce you to a really uncanny number of single 30-something princes, it must be said.) The character she was playing was supposed to be 31 years old. Danica McKellar is 43. Where else does this happen on television? Reader, it doesn’t. I would be willing to bet that the average age for actresses on Hallmark is significantly higher than anywhere else on TV. (That said, Hallmark does also host an alarming amount of actresses playing elderly parents who are only 5-6 years older than their “children”, which is not great, though I’m sure that as actresses in their 40s, they’re also happy for the work.)

“What other time of year is as magical as this?” Lacey Chabert’s character asks in Hallmark's A Wish for Christmas, in which Santa Claus has given her 48 hours worth of the ability to stick up for herself, and which she is partly using to promote an insane marketing idea called “Christmas 365” that seems to completely forget the fact that there are many non-Christians also living in America who might be interested in what she’s selling: “Why can’t we all feel a little love 365 days a year?” It's a fair question. Kristoffer Polaha, who has appeared in five Hallmark films, including this year's Small Town Christmas and one opposite the Duchess of Sussex, wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter this November on this very topic, called "Why I Love Doing Hallmark Movies, An Actor's Confession." He writes: "Love is the theme of every Hallmark movie. The leads fall in love every time, whether over baking, on a book tour, ice-skating, tree lighting, protecting old traditions and old homes or while on safari. The audience knows what’s going to happen, and yet, it’s that familiarity that’s drawing them in." The future is bright for Hallmark, Polaha furthers: "The Hallmark channels, all three of them, are beginning to swell and the massive cultural wave that’s forming is just beginning. These Hallmark channels will continue to captivate our attention. Their movies will adapt, too: They will evolve and one day they will offer classes at NYU to discuss whether the early era of Hallmark films were better than the slicker, later-evolved films, dissecting merit, but by then we will come to depend on these channels being there, every season. We will have our favorites."

People will tell you that we are in the age of prestige television—I am often one of those people—and yet it's true that rather than this auteur-led chewier stuff the most watched shows on streaming networks continue to be feel-good easily digested fare like Friends and Grey's Anatomy. Which leads me to wonder: Are we actually in the age of Hallmark? I feel inundated by things I should be watching and forming opinions about, new content to consume and process and sharpen into some sort of clarifying "take", and yet for the past few weeks every time I have the opportunity I end up defecting to something that asks so very little of me instead. As my colleague Michelle Ruiz recently said of reality TV, it utterly resists the "take"; it's take-proof! (I maintain that reality TV has too much shouting to be properly relaxing.) I have a friend who is a former Navy SEAL; even he referred to Hallmark’s christmas movies as “a kind of drug”. He meant it in a good way. So do I!

So yes, I’ve succumbed to the icing-drenched embrace of Hallmark’s Christmas countdown, where the only pressure is something to do with baking, or ice skating, or protecting a fictional American small town from interloping developers, or fitting in with a new royal family in a country you've never heard of, and where the right answer is always both clear and very close at hand. In a rapidly changing world, there’s a sameness to these stories that’s echoed by the sameness of the holiday they support, whose traditions are comforting because they encourage us to suspend reality for a minute, and all pretend together that change isn't our one constant: There will always be décor, there will always be dinner, there will always be family, and at least on Hallmark, there will always be a happy ending. There are no politics. Ever. At all. Very intentionally! There is really nothing to get mad at, except the really insane lack of diversity, and they say they’re working on it. The lack of complications is sort of the point. “It’s really about celebrating the holiday, not just making it a backdrop,” Michelle Vicary, Hallmark’s head of programming recently told Forbes. “This is the time of year when people really want to feel good, feel like part of a community and part of the holiday season. When you spend two hours with us and watch an original movie, when you’re done, you feel better about yourself and the world.”

So yes, Hallmark movies are pretty ridiculous. They are silly, they are cheesy, they are mostly vapid. But they’re also nice. And I don't know how much attention you've been paying to the news lately, but "nice" it ain't. And it must be said that despite working within an industry where most major female characters continue to be utterly devoid of agency, Hallmark’s heroines usually have jobs, and lives, and families, and sure, a really unhealthy fixation on the holidays, like to a really pretty weird extent, but that’s okay! (I am probably weirdly fixated on my dog, you're probably weirdly fixated on your job, or your wellness routine, or your shoe collection, and you know what, there's actually a Hallmark movie for that last one.) Each year, the channel’s ratings skyrocket—No. 1 with a bullet on cable among the major adult demographics and all the female demographics on Saturdays and Sundays in November and December—around this time of year. The future of Hallmark holds Valentine's Day countdowns, and something about a July Keepsake Christmas Week, so either they’re doing something right, or the rest of us are doing something very wrong. “I had to rethink the definition of [cheesy],” Vicary recently told IndieWire. "I don’t think it’s a negative; it’s the positivity and the fun. We’re not shy about it and we embrace it … because people want more of it." Add me to the list.

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