In Defense of Sentimental Schlock: A Taxonomy of Made-for-Television Holiday Films
by Elisabeth Geier
Say you’re home for the holidays, at your parents’ house in the town where you grew up. Say there’s not much for you to do during the day. Say the one or two friends from high school who you might actually want to see didn’t come home this year. Say you’re wary of going to the movies in town because the other people from high school—the ones you never want to see again in your life—are likely lurking in line at the concession stand, or waiting just inside the door of the restroom, to assault you with awkward hello’s and how-are-you’s and did-you-hear-about-my-wedding/baby/novel/successful start-up/multiple advanced degrees?
Say you’d rather stay in, on your parent’s comfortable couch, so much more comfortable than any couch you can presently afford, and watch movies on their enormous new flatscreen TV, so much more enormous and flat than any television you can presently get away with hanging on your bare, rented walls.
Say that despite your hometown agoraphobia, and the shroud of sadness and shame that inevitably descends after a few days in your parents’ house, you are still all about the holidays, all about the fantasy of the hap-happiest season of all. Say you love Christmas, truly; the candy-coated, pine-scented, make-believedness of it all. It’s fantasy. It’s escape. You yearn for impossible scenarios with impossibly happy endings, poorly-scripted and cheaply-produced, preferably involving film and television stars in some kind of career shame-spiral, just to remind you that hard times hit us all. You yearn for things corny and colorful, because it’s the holiday season, and during the holiday season you’re allowed to go all-out, cheese-balls-to-the-wall sentimental.
Here, then. Add a little egg nog to your rum. Settle in to your corner of the couch. Turn on the flatscreen. Refer yourself to the following, a guide to made-for-television holiday films—with a guarantee that you will find at least one example from each genre on cable at any given time during these last few days leading up to surrounding Christmas—and then…give yourself over to the schmaltz.
THE FAITH-BASED FANTASY
Characterized by: tragedy and redemption; Scrooge-like characters rediscovering the meaning of Christmas; third-act shifts into Christian morality play.
See: The Christmas Shoes (2002) based on the popular-among-Christian-moms, offensive-to-everyone-else song “The Christmas Shoes.” In the film, Rob Lowe plays Robert, an attorney whose work keeps him from engaging with his wife and daughter. Kimberly Williams is Maggie, an elementary school music teacher with a mechanic husband (complete with a working-class New England accent, the only accent in the film) and a sensitive son. Watch as Kimberly Williams develops a mysterious, fatal heart condition, which she faces with dignity and grace! Watch as her precocious, sensitive son sets out on a quest to buy her the perfect, final gift: a pair of Christmas shoes! Watch as Rob Lowe gives a master class on face-acting for television film: a closed mouth means disappointment, an open mouth means surprise! If you’ve heard the song, you know the ending, but this movie is still worth watching for the climactic, slow-motion race to get the shoes to mama before she meets Jesus tonight.
See also: The Christmas Blessing (2005), a sequel starring Neil Patrick Harris as the grown-up version of the boy from part one. I don’t want to give everything away, but let’s just say there is an amazing surprise-organ-donation resolution. And again, Rob Lowe’s face.
Palate cleanser: Patton Oswalt’s angry, hilarious dissection (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iq10bz3PxyY) of the song on which the film is based.
THE DRAMATIC ROMANCE
Characterized by: The country mouse/city mouse paradigm; redemption via charitable acts; middle-aged men and women finding love.
Network: The Hallmark Channel
See: A Holiday to Remember (1995), starring Connie Selleca and country music star Randy Travis. Divorced businesswoman Carolyn (Selleca) leaves New York City for her South Carolina hometown, precocious pre-teen daughter in tow. She reconnects with her high-school sweetheart/former-fiancee (Travis), who is now the town sheriff. This is embarrassing to admit, but I think Randy Travis is a dreamboat. A wooden actor with terrible enunciation, but a dreamboat, nonetheless. And yes, he does sing in the film. There is caroling. There is a runaway orphan with a shaggy dog. There is a climactic birthing scene. As a bonus, Rue McClanahan (may she rest in peace) guest-stars as a meddling but well-meaning aunt.
See also: On the Second Day of Christmas (1997). Pre-fame Mark Ruffalo as a mall security guard who has a Christmas Eve run-in with a beautiful shoplifter (Mary Stuart Masterson, forever Joon in our hearts) and her precocious, pickpocket niece.
Palate cleanser: “The Christmas Song” by Weezer. Because in real life, Christmas romance sometimes means waiting beside the tree, all by yourself.
THE MAGICAL ROMANCE
Characterized by: Modern variations on A Christmas Carol; Santa in trouble; Santa in love; Santa in a skirt.
Network: ABC Family
See: Snow (2005). Tom Cavanaugh (television’s Ed; dreamboaty in his own right) is Nick Snowden, aka Santa Claus, Jr. Santa’s sleigh is grounded when one of his reindeer, Buddy, is captured by a big-game bounty hunter. Because the sleigh won’t fly with only seven reindeer, Nick has to use his magical mirror to transport back and forth between the North Pole and Southern California, where Buddy is being held captive in a zoo. But guess what: the zookeeper is a pretty lady with a tragic past and a big heart, and she loves Christmas! Bobb’e Jaques Thompson, of Role Models fame, co-stars as the requisite precocious kid, and helps Santa spring the reindeer and get the girl. The best thing about Snow is that all the performers appear to be having a genuinely good time, especially when pretending to jump into a mirror, or holding a one-sided conversation with a reindeer. The worst thing about Snow is that all the kissing is close-mouthed. Can’t a Santa get some tongue?
See also: Christmas Do-Over, aka Christmas Groundhog Day, in which comedian Jay Mohr is the poor man’s Bill Murray, re-living December 25th again and again until he gets it right. This movie is B-A-D, but worth it for the schadenfreude of watching Mohr sing and dance to win Daphne Zuniga’s heart.
Palate cleanser: Are you joking?! The magical romance made-for-television Christmas movie is the best made-for-television Christmas movie of them all. No palate cleanser needed, if you ask me. I suppose Bad Santa is an option, if you prefer your St. Nick stand-ins more salty than sweet.
To quote Dino and the Chairman of the Board, it’s a marshmallow world in the winter. Marshmallows are fluffy, confectionary fun. They’re also full of ground-up pig skin and bovine bones. There’s something disgusting about the holidays, something sad, something lurking under the sweetness to bring you down. But that’s what the couch and television are for. Why not save your cynicism for other months, tell your refined taste to stuff it, and let yourself sink into the sweet, pillowy, air-puffed nothingness of made-for-television holiday films. Will it make you feel a little dirty, a little guilty in the pleasure you take from seeing faith, love, and Santa Claus save Christmas over and over again? Probably. But you can always purge the sickly-sweetness in January, when Oscar nominations are announced and you have to rush to see every Important Film you overlooked during the year.
You know Elisabeth Geier loves Christmas. She always will. Her mind’s made up the way that she feels.
Body Swap Week: 13 Going on 30 (2004)
I WANT TO BE THIRTY AND FLIRTY AND THRIVING!
by Andrew Root
In a few weeks, I’ll be turning 30 years old. I can say things like “it’s been seventeen years since I last took a piano lesson.” I’m sure this signifies something.
I was recently asked to take a small, non-singing part in a college musical in which I play a WASPy Harvard University admissions officer who is befuddled – utterly befuddled! – by a young lady who dresses all in pink and, in lieu of a personal essay, applies to the prestigious learning institute via a headshot (can you guess?). The director of the play, a sprightly 23-year-old, said that the part needed a more mature element, and since it didn’t involve singing (actually, it involves looking about bewilderedly, wondering why on earth everyone else is singing), I agreed. At the first read-through of the script, I met the rest of the cast; first year sociology majors arrived in their pyjamas cooing eagerly over how coffee is just the best, while their elders—the wizened third and fourth years—ate apples and bananas and talked about which teacher’s college they were going to apply to. I was asked what my major was, what year I was in. Someone I didn’t know gave me a hug when we were introduced. I began to tilt my head to the side as one might if interacting with an adorable baby goat, and say things like “Oh honey, no. I’m old. I don’t have a major.”
I’m starting to feel my age.
Some of these people were 13 years old only five years ago. Where were they then? At 13 years old, I was most likely devouring Smashing Pumpkins’ Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness in the bedroom that my non-identical twin brother had just vacated, ending our lifetime status as roommates. There was a baseball border running around the ceiling and red, yellow, and blue sponge painting on the walls that my mother refused to let me paint over because she had put so much work into it just three years previous. I was a year away from my first kiss with a girl named “Mickey” who I’d never met before and haven’t seen since. I played baseball twice a week in a church league, and I’d discovered that masturbation was amazing. I’d given up piano lessons and I got straight A’s in school. I would be awarded the “citizenship award” at my grade 8 graduation (though I’m still not quite sure what I did to achieve such a title). I was a good kid, by all accounts.
Around the time you turn 13, you find that you can earn friends by either being nice to certain people or being mean to other people. I chose the former, my brother the latter—and I was his target. He was the picture of a cool kid: tall, athletic, confident with a rebellious streak that got him noticed by all the girls in the class. I was shorter, my hair was fluffy and unruly, and I still wore whatever clothes were bought for me, usually from Zellers. Though I was a natural target, I was strangely removed from the politics of being liked. I had a group of similarly picked-on friends, and who needed everyone else? I realize that this is not the case for everyone.
Jenna Rink, the awkwardly earnest protagonist of 13 Going On 30, wants desperately to be part of the popular clique, and aims to get there via a system of stuffing her bra, dressing in neon, and shunning her Talking Heads-loving best friend, Matt. She’s fully embroiled in the politics of adolescence, all with the goal of being liked in mind. At her 13th birthday party, Jenna is tricked by the improbably named “Tom-Tom”, leader of the “Six Chicks Clique”, into waiting blindfolded in the closet for Chris (the magnificently-coiffed object of her desires). In a total dick move, everyone sneaks out. When Matt appears in the closet instead of her expected beau, Jenna is devastated and curses her one true friend.
Here’s where it gets strange. The magical body change of this movie comes via a conveniently placed cloud of “wishing dust” that falls about Jenna as she brokenheartedly repeats her magazine-inspired manta: “I want to be thirty and flirty and thriving.” In a “presto chango!” that fast forwards her life by seventeen years, the gawky teenager is transformed into Jennifer Garner, and is magically spirited away from her embarrassing suburban house into a sleek Manhattan apartment, complete with a job at a fashion magazine and a hunky professional hockey player for a boyfriend. Even the 30 year-old Tom-Tom (Judy Greer) has become her best friend! Jenna jumps along the timeline from 1987 to 2004, clearing the bog of adolescence and all its trials and embarrassments, and when she comes to, she’s shocked to find what her life has become. You know what they say about being careful what you wish for…
Why 30? Because at 30, you’re supposed to have everything figured out. You’re supposed to have a home and a family and a career. You’re supposed to be set up for the rest of your life. Just writing that sentence made a wave of anxiety wash over me. At thirty, my brother and two older sisters were married, houses and careers secured, little ones either on the way or already arrived. I rent. I have no kids and no plans for kids in the near future. I have two degrees, but have recently made the decision to abandon my career path in favour of I don’t know what. At 30, I’m starting all over again.
Did I do something wrong? Am I a failure? By a lot of people’s standards, yes. Without the traditional benchmarks of success, I wear a target on my back for well-meaning, back-handed comments. When I landed a job working with at-risk teens (a job I am both good at and find incredibly rewarding), the news was superseded by the fact that it only offers part-time hours. “Well, it’s something,” the well-wishers say, with a tight-lipped smile and a hand on my shoulder like I’m a diamond miner who found coal instead. I recently skipped my 10-year high school reunion, in large part because I didn’t want to spend the evening explaining myself and the reasons why things aren’t exactly where I thought they might be.
Like any good Faustian parable, Jenna gets what she wants at the expense of her soul. As the newly-transformed Jenna acclimatizes herself to her new lifestyle, new body, new personal dynamics (just why is everyone afraid of her?), she comes to realize that during that seventeen year lapse, she became kind of a bad person. She’s selling out her coworkers to a rival magazine; she cruelly ditched Matt at that party and never spoke to him again, favouring a Machiavellian rise through the ranks of her high school’s social network; she never sees her family; her boyfriend is a douche. Thirteen-year-old Jenna can’t imagine how she got to this place. By all appearances, she’s everything she wanted to be as a grown-up, but after one week of critical insight into how she got there, the whole thing comes crashing down. Jenna realizes that her rejection of Matt dramatically fractured her one real friendship—and that she’s unable to get him back. Seventeen years of bad blood and hurt feelings have led him into the arms of another woman, and it’s simply too late for her to make sufficient amends. Our hero is long past the time when dancing solves problems.
Jenna, or course, gets to go back. Just when she’s at her lowest, that darn cloud of wishing dust swirls around her and she wakes to find herself back in the closet of her parent’s basement—13 again, with all her choices and mistakes ahead of her. A quick transition to a wedding and a candy-floss pink dream house speak to her better choices the second time around. The film resolves with her on the lawn of her new home, with her old friend/new husband, happy, and very much in love (and by the looks of the house’s size, pretty successful to boot).
And there’s the fiction of it all. I can’t clap my hands and take a year off before going to university to find out what I really want to study instead of just majoring in whichever subject I got the highest marks. I can’t take back those two separate occasions on which I cranked up massive amounts of debt to travel across the Atlantic for two different girls. I should have done more research into just how oversaturated the job market was before I dedicated two years to pursuing a career that maybe I wasn’t very passionate about in the first place. But I can’t do that. And why would I want to?
I like my life. I’ve got good friends, a wonderful family, a caring and supportive partner, and limitless potential. I don’t anticipate having anything figured out as I traverse my thirties, and who’s to say I should? There is no benchmark number. There is no age at which you are supposed to be any one particular thing. I can see the comfort in that way of doing things, but nothing exciting happens when you’re comfortable. That isn’t to say that you should buck tradition for the sake of it. Just know that it’s okay to not have it figured out. You’ve got a friend in me.
But Hollywood gives us happy endings for a reason, and it’s important to keep dreaming. And so, with the help of some conveniently-placed wishing dust, here are a few wishes for my dream life at 30:
- A publishing deal for that children’s book I started writing about the charming neighbours and their whimsical adventures.
- A theatre that could financially support all the theatrical people in my town who have professional-level talent, but not professional-level opportunities.
- The discovery that my dog no longer turns nasty when I try to trim her nails.
- A real New Penzance Island (from Moonrise Kingdom), where I would live in a replica of Suzy Bishop’s house.
- Woodworking skills.
- A local cinema that regularly holds Terrence Malick retrospectives alongside Jim Henson tribute nights.
- Wisdom, satisfaction, a sense of adventure.
Andrew Root wants it known that this is the first movie that Andy Serkis chose to do after Lord of the Rings. He tumbls here.