I really like crap Christmas TV movies. I’m not just talking about Christmas films here, you must understand. I’m not just talking about cheesy Christmas films. I’m talking about the specific, rubbish, trite, shamelessly gooey, made-for-TV type films that appear en masse out of nowhere between November and early January, and then vanish just as quickly for another year. The televisual equivalent of those cheap, pop-up Christmas stores that turn up in empty spaces in shopping centres, seemingly neither owned nor requested by anyone in particular, yet still somehow inevitable. The films whose titles are created by simply adding any noun you like to the phrase “A Christmas…” Complete that equation by sticking your finger in the dictionary blindfolded, type the result into the IMDB, and you’ll likely find 20 different films for each spontaneously made-up title. But you’re onto a real winner if you use the likes of “Dream”, “Wish”, “Homecoming”, or “Puppy”.
And perhaps the worst part is that I’m no longer ashamed of it. Though I did try to resist for a long time. When, just a couple of Decembers ago, I first became consciously aware of the sheer volume of saccharine, sparkling bilge available to gush into my living room via the multitude of low-rent, no-name, free TV channels out there, I was initially unmoved. There may have been some barely perceptible, low-level, film-snob snark on the periphery of my psyche, but hardly enough to move the needle. But somewhere along the line, suddenly, and far too quickly for me to prepare my defences, something changed.
I’m not sure exactly when it started. Perhaps the insidious, joyful seeds were planted on that first, fateful Saturday morning, as I reclined in my customarily decadent, nigh-Roman sense of self-congratulation and embarked upon a really damn serious Christmas holiday breakfast, while casually perusing Dean Cain haphazardly helping some orphans. Cain was certainly there in the early days (as he has been often since), the erstwhile Superman now dedicated to an entirely new, slightly less remarkable, but tenfold schmaltzier brand of heroism – okay, fivefold; I am under no allusions as to the time I wasted with Lois and Clark in the ‘90s. In one of the earlier instances, I recall, he appeared as a hapless everyman forced to embrace his humanity by assisting some cherubic children with something festive. Probably something important and community focused, centred around the bluntly symbolic totem of a Christmas tree.
I italicise those words not just because the shamelessly manipulative plot elements they represent now stick in my Crap Christmas TV Movie experienced mind like furballs in a hacking cat (where once my genre naïveté missed the deliberate nature of their conniving, heart-warming design), but because they, among many other, very specific devices, will become important in a moment. But regardless of the specifics, Crap Christmas TV Movies, under the disarming air of innocuous, weakly-written tosh, got their warm, gooey, relentlessly reassuring tendrils into me faster than I could realise it was happening. And now I am lost. The very least I can do from this fake-snow caked, carol-haunted, Hallmark-binging pit is to explain the methods and DNA of the Crap Christmas TV Movie, so that you might know the true power of its cunning ways and form.
The rules of a brilliantly terrible Christmas
There are, I have discovered along my odyssey into the twee and frosted, precisely eight core plot elements that may appear in a Crap Christmas TV Movie. Every single entry in this nobly awful genre will be made out of these elements.
1. A well-meaning but troubled single parent, usually a dad for some reason, is extra-troubled in the run-up to the holidays.
2. A wholesome, local community institution is under threat.
3. A soulless, corporate city-type is forced into a rural, fish-out-of-water scenario.
4. Unless A Special Thing happens, Christmas will not happen (feared outcome can be scaled from small, local, ‘Things will not be as good this year’ variant to full-blown, ‘Holy crap, Christmas will literally not happen anywhere in the world’).
5. Someone is struggling to get home for the holidays, and/or is unsure where home really is in their heart, but along the way will learn that the journey is as important as the destination, even - in fact especially - if the destination is not where they initially thought it would be. Which it almost invariably isn’t.
6. A cute Elf girl leaves the North Pole to learn Important Life Lessons.
7. Anyone over the age of 60 has an 80% chance of being secretly magical.
8. It’s basically a remake of A Christmas Carol.
Choose any two to three of these elements at random, and you, my friend, have yourself a solid gold, bona fide, 100% authentic, Crap Christmas TV Movie story. And it will be awful. Just unremittingly awful, hackneyed, naïve, clichéd trash. But I will be unable to not watch it in its entirety. Cute Elf girl falls in love with troubled single dad (probably Dean Cain) who is about to make Christmas not happen by marrying the wrong (soulless, corporate) woman? Totally exists. Misguided corporate type visits wholesome rural community her company is buying up and discovers her true home? I’ve seen, like, six versions of that. They’re all terrible, and I will happily watch versions seven, eight, and nine.
There are, however, more complex layers to get right if you’re going to do this cloying, drowning-on-golden-syrup experience properly. Because you might notice that a few of the plot-points I’ve mentioned above can actually be applied to ‘proper’ Christmas films as well. You know, the kind that get released in cinemas, and have recognisable actors (more on this, also, in a moment), and that people actually watch on purpose rather than simply because they can’t peel themselves off the couch, have eaten nothing but chocolate since 9 am, and oh-look-it’s-2:30-the-day-is-basically-over-anyway-just-what’s-the-point-in-even-bothering. Thus, getting a Crap Christmas TV movie right (or at least wrong in the right way), is not as simple as perhaps I’ve made it out to be.
For starters, if you really want to avoid falling into the trap of making thoughtful, well-crafted entertainment – and I strongly advise that you do – you must immediately jettison all hints of irony or self-awareness. This is a Crap Christmas TV movie we’re talking about, and as such, innocence and unremitting niceness are key above all else. To a punishing degree. To the degree of utter, blissful stupidity. To the degree that any expression of being genre savvy, creatively insightful, or possessing of any level of surprising or off-kilter wit is tantamount to the worst kind of bleak, nihilistic cynicism. And you can’t expose the children to that. Just think of the children. The cherubic children. One hint of anything but happily mind-numbing, surface-level pleasantness, and you might as well be the moustache-twirling villain of a Crap Christmas TV Movie of your own.
And speaking of those villains, oh boy, they’d better be cartoonishly one-dimensional. Because we are, at heart, talking here about movies where the True Meaning of Christmas vanquishes any and all blights wholeheartedly, unambiguously, and with zero room for philosophical questioning. And so, to give your bad guy or gal but a dash of nuance or depth is tantamount to admitting that pure niceness may not always be the answer, and that more complex issues might be in play. And that implicitly questions the True Power of the True Meaning of Christmas. And that’s just not cool. Get out of here with that shit.
Naughty or nice. There is no in-between
So the villain will exhibit three superficial characteristics, and these superficial characteristics will be the totality of their identity. They will be materialistic, they will have no care for Christmas – seeing it as silly, inconvenient, and/or childish, but importantly, rarely hating it, as that might imply some manner of depth, via traumatic emotional backstory – and they will be unquestionably, invariably Corporate. Because it is important to remember that there is nought more evil than materialism and profiteering as we lovingly wrap the expensive gifts we smashed that granny for during the Black Friday sales.
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As for the heroes? There are two types. The protagonist will – in accordance with all traditional story structure since the advent of storytelling – be on a voyage of self-discovery. The only differences here are that the discovery will always be “Christmas, fuck yeah”, and that they will attain this wisdom along a path paved with almost zero tension, challenge, or hardship to tangibly overcome via any specific act of agency. They will start out in a bad situation – or at least observing one – and eventually the situation will be good, because Christmas will have made it so.
There are two possible perceptions of this character journey. The first is that, subtextually, this is all as it is in order to reinforce the message that The True Meaning of Christmas is so powerful and all-consuming that nothing can stop it. It will simply erode all barriers in its way. The closer one gets to Christmas (and these films always, always take place in the run-up to Christmas Day), the more potent Christmas’ power becomes, until all are bathed in the invisible, festive Light That Melts All Ills. The second interpretation is that these films are simplistically written with lazy characterisation, and that a lack of real peril makes them easy to sell to pretty much any channel for broadcast at any time of day or night. But I choose the former notion. I am totally right about this.
And as for the secondary characters? Christmas personified, one and all. They will be relentlessly supportive. They will be unquestioning in their understanding of what is right and good. While they may sometimes suffer small set-backs of their own, they will tirelessly power through, because Christmas is coming, and they know that Christmas will fix everything.
Sometimes they will know this unconsciously, and sometimes the majority of their dialogue will involve blanket stating this truth until protagonist and viewer alike absorb it via osmosis. But however they express it, their narrative purpose will be to act as landing lights for Christmas, like the burning fuel on the runway in Die Hard 2, after John McClane murders all of those terrorists in cold blood. They will be just as bright and just as warming, but they will never say “motherfucker”, because no-one in a Crap Christmas TV movie knows anything about swearing, vices that are not cookies, or sex. Any coupling that occurs at the end of the movie – and there will be a lot of it – results simply in cuddling, the only flushed afterglow coming from consuming eggnog in thick Christmas jumpers.
And in terms of casting, while no-one blockbuster-famous will ever appear, actors will frequently look just-perceptibly similar to someone actually famous, like an alternative, off-brand version, or a copy made with the RPG character creation sliders pushed a little too far. Or Dean Cain. I’m digressing here slightly though, and I suspect that this might actually be a factor related to the entire TV Movie ‘star’ ecosystem, and so will explore it in another article if I can get that pitch through. Screw it, this one got greenlit, so why the hell not?
But you know what? As crap, blunt, simplistic, naïve, schlocky, saccharine, and ceaselessly, mercilessly goopy as these films are, I do not feel a damn bit of guilt about ploughing through two or three on the trot at this time of year. Because you know what else? Sometimes we need things to be that simple. Hell, sometimes, regardless of the strife, stumbles, mistakes, and occasional, all-out carnage we tramp through during the rest of the year, regardless of the ups, downs, betrayals and disappointments, regardless of 2016 and 2017 being actual, not-fictional years that actually fricking happened, sometimes things are that simple. And that good. And that easy, if we just stop worrying and let them be.
Because whatever stupid crap might seem important at any given time, it isn't. Ultimately, everything just comes back to good people and good times, at the end of the day, week, month, or year. And whoever your good people are, it’s worth relishing that they’re a thing. And that they’re a simple thing, but a brilliant one. And as rubbish as their writing is, as functional as their production is, as unsophisticated as their expression of every single thing they do is, Crap Christmas TV Movies just get that. They know it really is that simple, and they don’t care about looking simple as they point it out.
So do yourself a favour this year. Kick back at some point, find a naff TV channel you never watch, dig up a Crap Christmas TV Movie, watch the whole damn thing, and give yourself a nourishing couple of hours of simply not worrying whether or not you should like this goofy tosh. It’ll be one of the silliest, most frivolous, and downright emotionally healthiest things you’ll do all year. And ultimately, really, that’s the point of Christmas all over.
Happy holidays to you, your good people, and of course, to Dean Cain.