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A Made-for-Television Christmas Experience

Want a way to get into the festive spirit? How about settling down to a whole host of slushy, sparkly made-for-television movies! Join me as I venture into a realm of low budget, formulaic Christmas films. Warning: Your sanity is not guaranteed.

When you think of your typical Christmas movie selection, you instantly think of the more mainstream titles, like Home Alone and its New York bound sequel (not taking into account any of the Home Alone films that came after 2 – let’s not go there… EVER), or maybe even The Muppets Christmas Carol. The kind of movies that leave an everlasting impact and you can crack out every Christmas without fail and relive the same holiday sentiments year after year.

Well, we’re not here to consider those gems. Blockbuster Hollywood is taking a backseat here. What we are here to consider are those small screen films – the schedule fillers in the TV guide aiming to bring us budgeted festive joy.

Made-for-television movies are a special kind of experience, and when I say special, I don’t necessarily mean in a good way. This is not to say they are all exceptionally awful; there are certainly a few that do their duty to entertain you in a heart-warming way, and I’ll briefly talk about a couple of these and all their watchable simplicity, along witho a few others that will really test a viewer’s resolve.

When you commit yourself to watching a made for television movie, you have to go in with an open mind, and not expect the quality to be especially stellar. The story will most likely be paint by numbers, conventional in its approach and uncomplicated – usually great for easy viewing for audiences of all ages. The acting will vary in quality; a few actors standing out with credible talent against a backdrop of cardboard cut-out performers. Sometimes it’s the fault of some rather odd scripting featuring unnatural dialogue with forced exposition, and other times, the fault lies squarely with the actors themselves. Lastly, they are usually pretty cheesy and lead towards a happy ending – maybe not all the time, but it’s usually the case, even using a deus ex machina device to get there. With all this in mind, lets further delve into the trove of made for TV Christmas movies.

Having got a healthy (or not so healthy) fill of TV Christmas films this holiday season and last, I probably have a fair idea of the typical trends and similarities that shape a lot of these movies.

Let me start you off with a common one: You have a morally guided, festively enthused female lead in her clash with an abrasive or cocky male lead that is always in a position that sharply contrasts against her principles; though he usually conforms by the end of the film to form a romantic pairing that would make Mills and Boon proud.

A couple of films come to mind with this set up. One is Hats off to Christmas (2013) where female lead Mia, the dedicated manager of a Christmas hat shop ends up having to train the bigwig son of the company owner who is to take over a job opening in upper management, which is not so ironically a job she’d had promotion hopes for. With bemusement, she accepts her duty despite not getting on well with the son, Nick, who isn’t particularly enthusiastic about the business at all. Eventually she starts to thaw to him when he resolves to help her wheelchair-bound son carve a pumpkin for a contest.

Let me pause there for a moment. The wheelchair-bound child, or equivocally a child burdened with a terrible illness, popped up quite a bit with many of the made-for-television Christmas films I watched to gain audience sympathy for the lead character – and I am sad to say in most cases it seemed incredibly tacked on. Though saying that, Cancel Christmas (2010) contained an extension of the plot with included a child in a wheelchair, which somewhat worked with the elements of the story where some very unpleasant children were taught to be more charitable in their actions, which ultimately helped the wheelchair-bound child gaining more independence (He was gifted a wheelchair that could climb stairs – it was amazing, it was like a transformer became a wheelchair!). If it works in well as part of the plot and is not just a way to garner sympathy, I’m receptive of its use. A wheelchair should be an extension of a character, and not just a device to gain a reaction. Same could be applied to the child with the illness.

Anyway, I drifted off topic. Back to Hats off to Christmas, ultimately the rest of the movie purposely buts a few bumps on the road of budding love between the two, and Nick unwittingly upsets Mia to cause her to want to quit her job. Needless to say, Nick makes things right in the end, and Mia’s son shows that he can take a few steps, giving us the inclination that the situation that put him in the chair did not make his condition permanent and he might make a full recovery. You can’t get more emotionally gratifying with an ending like that, right?

Another romantic movie that follows a similar set up is Another Christmas Kiss (2014), which has Jenna, an assistant to the boss at a fashion company, sharing a steamy kiss with a handsome stranger in the lift under the mistletoe (they don’t hang about!). To her surprise, she soon discovers that the stranger is her boss’s playboy brother, Cooper, a well renowned heartbreaker. He flirts with her relentlessly, much to her irritation – it just seems like he considers her another challenge, so she rebuffs him at every turn. But along the way, it’s clear something has changed. She has captured his heart, and his advances turn to a genuine pursuit of love, though it will take a lot of convincing to show he’s changed his ways and is set to become a one-woman man. Throw in a catty, pretentious on-off girlfriend with a penchant to cause trouble, and you have an emotional minefield for Jenna as she climbs a slippery slope to believe in Cooper and gain her happy ending. The movie seems to indicate that one kiss at the start of the movie was the catalyst to change a lothario’s ways – take from that what you will. It’s the perfect movie if you like your sentimental slush!

Let’s move on to another common theme – True love forming from a chance encounter over the course of a couple of days – the female lead, already with another boyfriend/fiancé – who’s always a bit of a douchebag (though she is initially blind to this) – meets the perfect, kind and considerate male lead who appreciates who she is and everything she loves, and then the boyfriend turns up, and proves his douchebagness, and she breaks up with him to rush to her newly found true love for her happy ending. You have to suspend disbelief a bit in some cases to justify bringing these characters together.

A Very Merry Mix-Up (2013) has antique shop owner Alice fall into a very far-fetched situation. She is going to meet her soon-to-be in-laws for Christmas, though has to travel alone as her go-getter businessman fiancé, Will, has work and will arrive a few days after. Alice befalls travel woes when she debarks at the airport. Her luggage has become lost in transit and she damages her phone and is unable to contact her fiancé. By coincidence, she meets a man whose surname, Mitchum, happens to be the same as her fiancé’s, and when she mentions Will, he believes that this is his brother, another Will Mitchum. So Matt takes her to other Mitchum family home to wait for Will to turn up.

After meeting the oh-so sweet sugary, happy family and developing a connection with chivalrous Matt, she gets a shock when Will turns up… it’s not her Will! (The audience pretty much knew long before that she was in the wrong house with the wrong people – they were just too nice!) She manages to contact the real Will and begrudgingly leaves, to be introduced to the real in-laws, who are the complete opposite of the family she had just met – stuffy, pompous and emotionally disconnected. Of course, Alice’s Will soon alienates her by wanting to buy (for big bucks!) her precious family antique shop to sell on for redevelopment. She very quickly realises he isn’t the one for her, and rushes back to be reunited with Matt. It was heart-warming in some respects, particularly Matt’s family and all their festive traditions, but completely out there and absurd in others (how Alice even got with her completely shallow fiancé in the first place just beggars belief.)

One Starry Christmas (2014) is another that requires suspension of belief. Astronomer Holly decides instead of being alone for Christmas because her boyfriend, Adam, is going away on business (sensing a bit of a copy/paste theme here…) to travel home last minute to be with her parents. She takes the bus, as it’s a cheap last minute option, which turns out to be a bit of a bad idea… until she meets the charming cowboy (that’s right, a cowboy!), Luke, who shares a penchant for the stars and they hit it off right away. After the bus breaks down and it seems like they’re stranded, Luke hires a car and he offers to take her home as he’s heading in that direction to meet his brother, Bull (Yeah…), for a rodeo (or something of the sort). Who honestly writes this stuff? Why would she get into a car of a man she’d just met? He could be a charming MURDERER! But I digress; anyway, because Holly is as nice as pie, she invites Luke and his brother for Christmas at her parents, who wholeheartedly welcome them (as the father is a cowboy nut, and degenerates into an excited 10 year old). Then Adam turns up, and the testosterone levels go through the roof as he and Luke vie for Holly’s affections. Adam shows a very snide and invidious nature (another prime douchebag!), so it’s quite obvious by the finale of the movie which man she will end up with. Oh yeah, and Luke rides in on a horse at the end, because… he’s a cowboy… (But that doesn’t stop it being quite a sweet movie for what it is!)

So, maybe I’ve concentrated too much on the romantic ones, but they are the more prevalent to turn up on our screens. There were others that bucked the trend to do something different, despite them all being somewhat cheesy and predictable in their approach.

The Tree That Saved Christmas (2014) was one I particularly thought did well by making any romantic elements secondary to the main plot, which sees lead character Molly, with the help of her brother, doing her utmost to try to save her family’s Christmas tree farm from getting bought up and turned into a resort. It focused more on Molly’s own ambitions, her ability as a writer, as well as her connection to her family and the children of her boss. If you don’t mind a little romantic inclination but want more to the story with actual practical drama and family focus, this one is for you!

Christmas at Cartwright’s (2014) has a single mum, Nicky, getting a job as a department store Santa with the help of a discreet angel (played by Wallace Shawn) to help her finances and have a wonderful Christmas with her daughter. Yeah, there is a romantic sub-plot in there, but it’s mostly about Nicky trying to keep her Santa identity under wraps, as well as all the positive things she brings to the store. It’s a little goofy in some areas, but fills the credentials for a jovial, slightly humorous festive film.

The Night Before The Night Before Christmas (2010) sees Santa sets off a day early to fulfil his Christmas duties and ends up crashing into the Fox family house. Unfortunately, his accident gives him amnesia and he loses his sack of presents when it is mistaken for charitable donations. Though dubious at first of who Santa really is, though his identity is eventually confirmed by the arrival of Nigel the elf and they set about helping Santa to recover his memories and find the presents. The Fox family themselves are somewhat broken by the workaholic parents and the two children not always getting along, but when forced to work together to help Santa, they are forced to face up to their problems and learn to reconnect. If you want an absolutely vintage cheese movie, this is it. The special affects alone had me cracking up with laughter.

A couple of famous faces turned up in the movies I watched. Lacey Chabert (Means Girls, The Wild Thornberrys, Family Guy) appeared a number of times as the main leading lady, and even Jane Seymour turned up to play the snobby, meddlesome mother and queen in A Royal Christmas (2014). As mentioned before, Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) appeared as a ‘modern’ angel, a stark contrast to the Vizzini role!

It all comes down to one question now. Why would anyone want to subject themselves to these kinds of films when there are plenty of others out there of a greater all-round quality?

There is a misconception that low budget movies (or just any made for TV films) are always terrible. Okay, so I’ve proved here there are a number that teeter on the borderline, but if you sit down and search hard enough, you will find a few that will surprise you.

They are easy viewing films, the kind you can stick on and play in the background while doing other things, or even just put on to distract the kids as they are generally written where everything is straightforward. If you can get over the cheesiness, you might actually find yourself engaging with the characters and the dramatic situations, no matter what they are. They can be fun, festive and even unintentionally humorous, though that might even make the film all the more entertaining!

So if you’re not in the mood to stick with your usual Christmas film viewing, maybe it might be worth sitting down to one of these made for TV Christmas movies. Maybe you’ll be converted, or maybe you’ll just find another reason to hide in the corner with the eggnog, trying to block it all out for another year!

Image in banner (Hats off to Christmas) © Lighthouse Pictures/Borderline Distribution/The Hallmark Channel

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