Ali Stroker in Lifetime’s Christmas Ever After
Janel Parrish and Jeremy Jordan in Hallmark’s Holly & Ivy
Melissa Joan Hart directs Mario Lopez in Lifetime’s Feliz NaviDAD
Hart opposite Jason Priestley in Lifetime’s Dear Christmas
The cable buzz this time of year has traditionally focused on the Christmas- movie contest between Lifetime and Hallmark.
Who is the season's official host? Sure, the rivalry exists, but the story has shifted. Now the question is: who's invited to the party?
Both networks have worked hard to expand the holiday table, and this year, the results are dramatic. Members of the Black, Latinx, Asian, gay and disability communities star in and helm much of the latest batch of feel-good films, which started airing October 23. Ultimately, this is more of a Christmas gift than a holiday tiff.
After months of terrifying health scares and a country on the brink of implosion, scenes of people ice skating, sipping hot cocoa and watching dreams come true may be what everyone needs. These films were major draws last season, bringing 80 million viewers to Lifetime and 85 million to Hallmark.
Given that productions were shut down in the spring because of Covid, and some hadn't even started, many holiday movies were still being shot in September. As of press time, Lifetime planned to air 30 on one network (some of the content created, some acquired), while Hallmark had 40 originals scheduled for its two channels.
"Certainly in media, like every industry, if you don't keep your eye on the competition you are only doing half of your job," says Michelle Vicary, executive vice-president, programming and publicity, at Crown Media Family Networks, Hallmark's parent. "Success breeds competition, but we have a different proposition than our competitors do. They look at gaining market share and creating holiday content. We look at creating a destination, an experience."
In her 20 years at the network, Vicary has overseen more than 300 Christmas movies for Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Many revolve around a blonde career woman who's visiting a small town for the holidays. She meets a humble and handsome man, and after initially resisting her attraction — to the guy and to the holiday — she eventually embraces both. Kiss and fade to The End.
No one is truly evil and nothing terrible happens. These days, that alone is a portal into an alternate, joyful universe.
"Hallmark movies are wonderful," says Amy Winter, executive vice-president and head of programming at Lifetime. "I am not saying anything against the Hallmark movies. They have a formula that works for Hallmark. At Lifetime, we are trying to have a slightly sassier bit of storytelling, a little sugar and spice. And to feel like the romances and relationships are just a little more relatable. We might not wait till the end of the movie for people to admit they like each other — we are trying to feel very contemporary and [portray] what a real romance in real life is."
Real romance, of course, comes in every stripe. This season brings a few firsts for Lifetime, with Christmas movies starring a woman with a disability, a gay couple and an Asian-American woman. Christmas Ever After's pretty blonde is Ali Stroker, an actress who uses a wheelchair. The Project Glee alum — who won a Tony for her Broadway role in Oklahoma! — is thrilled with her first film lead.
She plays a romance novelist with writer's block who goes to a lodge, where she meets a man who looks like one of her characters. The plot is typical of Christmas movies, and that's just what delights Stroker.
"Something really cool about this movie is that this character's disability is not a part of the story," she says. "And that is the progress I want to be a part of. In the industry, if you meet a person with a disability, it does not have to be a part of their conflict or storyline. That is authentic. So many parts of my life have nothing to do with my disability."
In another Lifetime film, The Christmas Setup, a mom plays matchmaker for her gay son.
"It is so important, especially right now," says Blake Lee, whose character's mom (Fran Drescher) sets him up. "The more that is shown, the more the LGBTQ community is represented, the sooner people will accept it."
Lifetime's A Sugar & Spice Holiday features a baking contest, that time- honored Christmas trope, but here a Chinese-American family is whipping up the holiday treats. Jacky Lai (V-Wars, Shadowhunters) plays an architect who visits her grandma and gets pulled into the town's gingerbread competition.
Lai admits she felt some pressure. "Obviously, being the first of anything is kind of a big deal," she says. She appreciates that the film moves past stereotypes and encourages diversity by showing Asian-Americans as people who do more than "just fight or study."
Hallmark is also sensitive to quiet inclusivity. Its tearjerker Holly & Ivy doesn't make an issue of star Janel Parrish being biracial. She is simply Melody, who grew up in foster care and volunteers to raise the daughters of her terminally ill neighbor. Corny? Only if you have a lump of coal for a heart.
"She is extremely independent and resilient, and none of her circumstances have brought her down," Parrish says of her character's hardscrabble upbringing. "That led her to pursue the happiest life she can. All she wants to do is have a family, because she never had one."
By definition, holiday TV movies are family fare. This one is a likely teen magnet, as it will appeal to several devoted fan bases: Parrish's from Pretty Little Liars, Marisol Nichols's from Riverdale and Jeremy Jordan's from Supergirl.
Jordan — a Tony nominee for the musical Newsies — admits he made assumptions about Hallmark Christmas movies. He expected them to be "super cheerful, a little sentimental, very romantic, but also sort of Christmas magic and Christmas miracles. What I liked is that this movie didn't adhere to my preconceived notions."
If anyone knows how to make a Hallmark Christmas movie, it's Ron Oliver, a writer, director, producer and actor whose 11th holiday film, A Timeless Christmas, airs this season. Yuletide movies, he maintains, must "be equal parts sentiment and romance and nostalgia."
Openly gay, Oliver has consistently addressed universal themes through his writing and casting. So, expanding his scope to include Christmas movies was hardly radical. But he sees societal changes since last year's brouhaha when Hallmark aired a commercial featuring a lesbian couple. (Some homophobes protested, and Bill Abbott, the network's longtime CEO, pulled the ad. Soon, he too was gone.)
"I think there was a lot of concern, certainly in Hallmark-land, about the audience having their sensibilities rattled by an interracial couple or a gay couple," Oliver says. "But the audience has grown as the network has grown. America has always been more diverse and inclusive than it was ever aware of. Homogeneity is the mask of the country but not the truth of the country. Diversity is the truth of the country.
"In terms of how I felt as a gay man, maybe they didn't want the headache they would get from the audience," he continues. "But what surprised them was the hate mail from the other side. They'd missed the fact that, since Will & Grace, we have a generation for whom gay is just the same as hair color and eye color. They missed that memo and were surprised to get it."
The network responded. This past August, it aired Wedding Every Weekend, which included a lesbian marriage. More changes are expected under Hallmark's new president-CEO, Wonya Lucas. As of this writing, she was not yet giving interviews. Vicary steered this season's more inclusive slate.
The goal was to "have viewers from every walk of life be able to say they see themselves," Vicary notes. "We want people to be reflected in what they see on Hallmark."
Tanya Lopez says much the same thing. As Lifetime's executive vice-president of movies, series and original movie acquisitions, she states, "We are committed to not just doing the usual, prescribed vision of what the holiday tradition looks like, but one that's as varied as the audience we serve. The holidays are a very emotional season that triggers different things to everybody. We want to present those different sides, so people feel they aren't outliers. This is the world out there, and we are presenting those different circumstances that people celebrate."
Lopez reveals how network brainstorming led to showcasing holiday traditions that represent different cultures.
"It's amazing what happens when you get five people together and say, 'Talk about your holiday experience,'" she recalls. "We sat around and said, 'Let's talk about ourselves. And let's talk about holiday movies. Do you see yourself in the movies?' It seems so simple, and it's just a game-changer and not in a mandated way. We saw much more in the fact that different points of view and different ways of looking at things make us all smarter and more empathetic. Why not have that be our North Star?"
In Lopez's family, making tamales is a Christmas tradition. In Lifetime's Feliz NaviDAD, Mario Lopez plays a widower who brings home a woman who learns to make tamales with his daughter and sister. Christmas-movie staple Melissa Joan Hart directs her pal Lopez.
Hart made her first holiday movie, Christmas Snow, at age 10. At 30, she costarred in Christmas in Handcuffs with Lopez. Just after directing him, she was costarring with Jason Priestley in Dear Christmas. As part of the Christmas-movie cottage industry, Hart knows what's at its essence.
"Everybody wants a safe place to go during the holidays to feel a little joy," she says. "Family and love can be tough for people who lost someone or lost a job. Everyone is thinking about miracles, but it can be a real struggle for a lot of people. These movies give people a place to imagine the holidays the way they want them to be. The bottom line is, it has to have heart. They all have happy endings."
And now they have more inclusive beginnings. Both networks have been working toward diversity in recent years, with a Hanukkah movie here and a Black cast there. But this year, expect far more.
"For me, when you are talking about inclusivity, it is race, it is gender, and the world is constantly changing," says Kelly Rowland (Empire, The Voice), who executive-produces and stars in Lifetime's first Christmas sequel, Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding. "And I think it is very smart of Lifetime to basically be ahead of it and change as fast as they can.
"It is fair for anyone watching to be able to see themselves. I remember watching Shirley Temple [movies] or Home Alone and thinking: 'Where are the Black people? Where are the Latinas?' Everybody celebrates Christmas, not just one race. As an executive producer, it is important for me to make sure that we remain authentic. This pride in Black beauty and our culture and being authentic, that meant a lot to me."
Actress-producer Holly Robinson Peete has spent her career trying to make TV more inclusive. She deflects credit for being Hallmark's first Black star, pointing out that other actors did one-offs, but she was the first to keep returning at the top of the call sheet. Naturally, Peete is aware that Hallmark has been singled out for being very white and very straight, but she sees change.
"I am really hopeful that we can shake that stigma," Peete says. "It is time. We need a much larger percentage of these movies to have way more diversity. I don't just mean skin color, but everybody. Everybody loves Christmas. The more inclusion you have in Christmas movies, the better. If there is competition between these two [networks], that's great. It will push all of them to do what they should be doing in the first place."
The network rivalry may feel like two sisters going at it, so it makes sense that Tamera Mowry-Housley has an acting-producing deal at Hallmark and her twin, Tia Mowry-Hardrict, has one at Lifetime.
"I feel like, divide and conquer," Mowry-Housley says. "You do this side, and I'll do that side. I think it is such a blessing!"
Reviewing the script for Christmas Carnival, in which she stars, Mowry-Housley notes that it hits the expected sentiments. "On Hallmark, in general, there is always going to be a message of love, hope and faith," she says.
People crave those messages, especially when life is grim. A week after quarantines began, Hallmark fans requested television comfort food: Christmas movies. The network responded with a weekend programming stunt called "We Need a Little Christmas." It was so popular, Vicary programmed the last weekend of March with more holiday movies. If ever there were a time for holiday cheer, it's this relentlessly awful year. So, pull out that tacky sweater and pull up a chair.
"People woke up and said, 'Christmas is for everyone,'" Oliver says. "Understanding different Christmas traditions, whatever they are, leads you to a more inclusive table."
For more on this season's movies, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2020