The holiday season is upon us, traditionally a time for Christmas trees and gift-giving and Elves on Shelves or whatever. In the past few years, though, the season has come to mean something a lot more “made-for-TV.” The holiday-themed TV movie business has become a cutthroat arms race, with more and more networks competing each year to churn out as many cheaply produced small-screen delights as possible. (Can you buy fake snow in bulk?) Hallmark and Lifetime are the go-tos at this point—but there are new players on the scene as well, trying to win over their own share of eggnog-addled viewers. Can these upstarts scrounge up enough C-list talent to compete with the old guard?
Below, we handicap each one’s offerings—and crown the true king of Christmas, at least this year.
A Ring for Christmas
Courtesy of UpTV.
There are two things you need to know about UPtv to understand its entire vibe. The first is that the “Up” in its name stands for “Uplifting.” The second is that this network is relatively new; it was founded as the Gospel Music Channel in 2004, and didn’t rebrand to UPtv until 2013.
UP is more openly committed to promoting traditional family values than its competitors, and features an especially baffling lineup of anchor celebrities in its relatively small 2020 lineup of five original Christmas movies. Because when you’re competing with old pros like Hallmark and Lifetime, the only names left in the casting jar might be Lorraine Bracco, Lindsey Wagner, and Deana Carter. The fledgling network is so traditional, in fact, that it hasn’t yet launched a way to stream titles online. Instead, holiday-hungry viewers are prompted to download an app that merely sends reminders when the network’s next great Christmas movie is about to air live on their TV.
Its most notable 2020 premiere: A Ring for Christmas, starring Liliana Tandon, Dean Geyer, Charles Hittinger, and Bracco. UPtv hasn’t got much in terms of stars quite yet, but the Sopranos alum appears in this tale about a spoiled rich girl who has to marry by Christmas in order to get her trust fund.
Our verdict: When it comes to quantity and quality, UPtv is all about modesty. They don’t seem to have any interest in winning the holiday movie battle; they’re just thrilled to participate.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square
Courtesy of Netflix.
And now we come to one of the most popular streaming services in the world: Netflix. As every subscriber knows, Netflix is a seemingly infinite grab bag of unpredictable content. You like some of it; you hate some of it; you’ve never heard of most of it; and the bulk of what you watch was chosen for you by a mysterious, all-knowing algorithm. Its Christmas content is no exception. Sure, Netflix’s animated original Klaus was nominated for an Oscar, and this year’s Jingle Jangle is receiving the kind of critical acclaim most Christmas movies never dream of—but those movies are served to audiences right alongside the sort of titles you’d expect to see on network television five years ago.
As with the rest of its original content, Netflix’s holiday releases rely on a handful of prestige-adjacent tentpoles (such as, let’s say, Jingle Jangle, starring Forest Whitaker and Keegan-Michael Key) to convince you that everything alongside them (such as, let’s say, The Princess Switch: Switched Again, starring Vanessa Hudgens, Vanessa Hudgens, and Vanessa Hudgens) is just as good. Its most notable 2020 premieres include:
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, starring Dolly Parton, Christine Baranski, Jenifer Lewis, and Treat Williams
A full-on Dolly Parton–penned musical adapted from a real-life stage show that involves Dolly floating on a cloud and the horror of gentrification.
The Christmas Chronicles 2, starring Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Darby Camp, and Tyrese Gibson
Goldie Hawn IS Mrs. Claus. That’s all you need to know.
Operation Christmas Drop, starring Kat Graham and Alexander Ludwig
One of the first movies filmed in Guam to receive wide distribution, a congressional aide and army captain clash over a plan to airlift a gift to the citizens of Guam for Christmas.
Our verdict: Slightly bigger names may give off the aura of something more prestigious than Hallmark, Lifetime, and UPtv, but really, Netflix’s movies are just covered in nicer wrapping paper.
We move now to the network that started it all. When it comes to made-for-TV Christmas movies, Hallmark shall be called their wonderful counselor; their mighty, everlasting father; their king of kings. Hallmark built the template for the contemporary Christmas movie, which tends to revolve around single 30- to 40-something professionals who live somewhere in America’s northern middle. (These towns aren’t quite the Midwest, and not quite the Northeast; there’s just snow-covered hamlets with robust economies, where newspapers thrive and all businesses are family owned.) They’re religious in that these characters would never say “Happy Holidays,” and tend to discuss the “magic” and/or “spirit” of Christmas as more of an aphrodisiac than a force inspiring generosity.
With the exception of The Christmas House, Hallmark’s highly publicized first attempt at an LGBTQ romance (in this instance, between two white gay men), these movies are about straight couples played by a troupe of mostly white actors who are either veteran TV stars or merely look like they could have been. And if Hallmark is king, Candace Cameron Bure, the former child star who rode the network to even greater heights of stardom as an adult, is its self-described queen. In If I Only Had Christmas, we open on Cameron Bure waking up in a candy cane-covered onesie and immediately telling her dog how excited she is to attend her office’s Christmas party. What follows is a Wizard of Oz–inspired journey that leads her into the arms of Kansas City’s biggest grinch.
Hallmark’s notable 2020 premieres include:
A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado, starring Rochelle Aytes and Mark Taylor
Practically every movie on the Hallmark rundown involves some sort of adversarial relationship that will eventually melt into romance—like this one, where he’s a firefighter and she’s just trying to, you know, borrow a tree from his property to drum up some tourism for her small Colorado town.
If I Only Had Christmas, starring Candace Cameron Bure and Warren Christie
It’s not Christmas if Candace Cameron Bure isn’t involved—and this year, in her ninth Hallmark Christmas movie, she’s…a “bright and cheery publicist” who has to manage a “Scrooge-like” businessman and his team to save Christmas. If you’re wondering what the title means, it’s paying homage to The Wizard of Oz. As Cameron Bure herself tweeted in August: “If I only had… a brain, a heart, a home, the nerve, … but rather, Christmas.”
Love, Lights, and Hanukkah!, starring Mia Kirshner, Ben Savage, and Marilu Henner
Finally, the long-awaited Jewish Christmas movie is here. We’ve got Mia Kirshner from The L Word, Ben Savage from Boy Meets World, and…Marilu Henner! You’d think a movie with Hanukkah in the title would be more focused on the holiday, but this is the log line: after a DNA test informs Christina (Kirshner) that she’s actually Jewish, her whole world is “shook.” Even funnier, Hallmark had to shift the movie’s air date back to December 12, so it could premiere before Hanukkah ended. Oops!
Our verdict: Were it not for a groundbreaking late-aughts decision to saturate the Hallmark Channel in low-budget holiday cheer from Thanksgiving to Christmas every year, it’s hard to imagine television’s Christmas Industrial Complex looking anything like it does today. Still, the network may be bested at its own game by…
The Christmas Setup
By Albert Camicioli/Lifetime.
At first glance, Lifetime’s lineup reads like a carbon copy of Hallmark’s winning formula. But upon closer inspection, you’ll notice a slightly more diverse lineup of lead actors, as well as anchor stars of slightly more renown. On Hallmark’s Christmas slate, the biggest names you’ll find are Rachael Leigh Cook or Wynonna Judd. Over on Lifetime, the level of prestige is two to three notches higher: think My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Nia Vardalos and The Farewell’s Tzi Ma.
Of the 30 films on their 2020 Christmas slate, more than 10 feature nonwhite actors in the lead roles–including Kelly Rowland’s “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” debut, Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding. In Christmas Ever After, an innkeeper falls in love with his latest guest, a romance novelist played by Ali Stroker—the first Tony-winning actor to ever use a wheelchair for mobility.
Lifetime’s notable 2020 premieres include:
Feliz NaviDAD, starring Mario Lopez
Mario Lopez is a dad…on Christmas! Get it? The title of this movie does all the work—along with his iconic dimples, of course.
Dear Christmas, starring Melissa Joan Hart and Jason Priestley
You’re telling me that we’re making Christmas movies about podcast hosts already?
The Christmas Setup, starring Fran Drescher, Ben Lewis, and Blake Lee
Even Lifetime’s highly publicized “first” LGBTQ story, The Christmas Setup, trumps Hallmark’s The Christmas House with regards to representation. Plus, Fran Drescher!
Our verdict: Lifetime wins the holiday movie arms race, but only by Rudolph’s nose. It took a formula pioneered by Hallmark and tweaked it just enough to feel a little more special. It’s no surprise that this network would take a slightly more progressive approach to Christmas programming, given its recent pivot into quasi-prestige TV—thanks to the success of UnReal, You (which has since moved to Netflix), and the ongoing documentary series Surviving. These are still cookie-cutter entries in the genre; they just happen to have more brightly colored sprinkles.
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