Two days ago, I took a stab at writing, or at least sketching out, my own Hallmark Channel Christmas movie. Yes, they’re the kind of movies that feature the same things and themes every time out: Cute girl (played by a “Hey, I know her from somewhere” actress) falls head over heels for handsome man (played by a “Hey, I know him from somewhere” actor). They find that magical Christmas spirit together. And they’re films that are all shot on the same Canadian studio lot that doubles for Anytown, U.S.A. and feature ample amounts of saccharin-sweet goodness.
As you may have judged from my own attempt, Hallmark Channel’s long, long list of identical/interchangeable Christmas movies are ripe for the parody… preferably not by this amateur but by skilled people who can do effective satirical parodies on a routine basis. Well, lo and behold, the people at Saturday Night Live took that ball and ran with it on Thursday. Or, to be more precise, a couple of weeks ago.
As you may have noticed from the video’s title, this Saturday Night Live segment was “cut for time,” meaning it was produced and considered for inclusion the week James Franco guest hosted SNL but was dropped before the live broadcast. SNL has been known to whittle out sketch ideas or filmed segments before going live, and some of what are moved to the wayside are real gems, as evidenced by positive reactions (including here and here) to this parody of Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas movie block.
While audiences will nitpick over which skit should have been dropped in favor of this parody, let’s just enjoy it for what it is: A devastatingly funny send-up of Hallmark’s films that’s been a long time coming. Its trio of parodies feature all the tropes you’d expect: Oh-so inoffensive titles. Gorgeous “where have I seen them before” actors. Characters who ditched big-city life for pleasant careers in small-town wholesomeness. And romance. Oh, and obviously identical lensed-in-Canada settings (as the voiceover clearly admits).
Two things to note as you watch the parody: For one, SNL clearly has fun needling Hallmark over its carbon copy/assembly line approach to Countdown to Christmas (“it’s quantity over quality, people”). My ears, and likely yours as well, perked up when hearing the parts about the films being produced on the same Canadian set, as well as the remark about James Franco’s “Canadian handsome” actor appearing in multiple pics for free(?!).
Speaking of appearing in multiple pics, the second and even more glaring thing of note is Hallmark’s approach to casting lead players in its films. And it’s not just about relying on the same go-to actors, but also utilizing those who have one favorable ethnicity or age demographic. This is self-evident in the second “film” in the SNL parody, which has a token black character in a supporting role “with no backstory” and a readily-made catchphrase he utters multiple times.
That second segment makes obvious Hallmark’s conservative (though not necessarily politically conservative) approach to its holiday films… and its business as a whole. The whole company, from their stores full of “one-sentence greeting cards” to their television networks, caters to a demographic that is primarily white, primarily older, and primarily suburban or rural. In other words, a Red State America that desires wholesome stuff on their TVs and in their world. If one needs any evidence of Hallmark’s desire for clean-cut content, consider the below snippet of their 2017 holiday movie lineup. Yep, all handsome, all gorgeous, all… white. It’s probably a pretty safe bet that the films don’t have much in the way of LGBTQ representation either. *sigh*
To somewhat come to Hallmark’s defense, the network has taken a very tiny step back from its lily white casting tendencies. One of their Countdown to Christmas features that debuted this year is Enchanted Christmas, which features real-life married couple Alexa and Carlos PenaVega heading a family specifically written as Latino. Yes, it may seem like a brief anomaly from the usual Hallmark fare, but at least it’s a start. (Another anomaly about Enchanted Christmas: It was filmed on location in… wait for it… Utah.)
Also in Hallmark’s defense, they are far from the only TV network to make regular rides on the holiday film bandwagon. Netflix is starting to wade into the genre. Lifetime and Ion have been doing it for years. Freeform has been doing it for decades. And countless other outlets have done it to varying degrees. It’s just that they don’t come to mind when you think of “sugary sweet, wholesomely crafted” holiday films like the ones Hallmark has turned into their stock and trade, nor do they usually go all in on the holiday goodness like Hallmark does every November, December… and even July. Yes, Hallmark revels in Christmas in July as well.
But while Hallmark is deservedly an easy target for the criticisms, they are only capitalizing on a feeling that’s universal among folks of all types, be they from Red States or Blue. Kelly Faircloth, in a great essay on the Jezebel website (which I highly recommend you read at this link), notes that holiday movies such as Hallmark’s are attractive to any kind of audience because, well, they are all sugary sweet. They provide, to borrow a quote from Faircloth’s essay, “an escape hatch into a snowglobe world where pain and uncertainty and fear are easily soothed.” That is, if pain and uncertainty and fear, or at least the kind we in the real world experience on an everyday basis, even exist in a Hallmark Channel holiday movie. But in an era of true uncertainty, one in which no one can predict what You Know Who and his henchmen will say or do next, having movies with carbon copy happy endings are like shelter from the storm.
But that’s not to say that Hallmark Channel should be left off the hook here. In that same Jezebel essay, Kelly Faircloth laments the lack of diversity in the network’s holiday fare. As evidenced by that array of movie posters above, only one demographic is seeing themselves in these films, and it’s not a unique one. So, it would be great to see some network — heck, any network — present a Christmas film that has leads of color, or leads who are Latino or Asian, or a same-sex lead couple, or trans leads, or LGBT characters who are not campy comedy relief. Even if the plot has more sugar than a box of Frosted Flakes, movies with such diversity would truly be an inviting refuge.
So, considering all that, when you scroll back up and re-watch that devastatingly funny Saturday Night Live send-up of Countdown to Christmas (and, let’s face it, you know you want to see it again), you’ll realize how on-point the satire is. The films are popular, but they have a sameness and a lack of diversity that’s plain to see. Thanks to SNL, Hallmark is finally getting what’s coming to them.