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Grading TV's First True Crop of Gay-Themed Holiday Movies

Lifetime, Hallmark and others are finally telling LGBTQ stories, but there's plenty of room for improvement.
  • Fran Drescher, Ben Lewis and Blake Lee star in The Christmas Setup (Lifetime)
    Fran Drescher, Ben Lewis and Blake Lee star in The Christmas Setup (Lifetime)

    For years now, Lifetime and Hallmark Channel have handed over their end-of-the-year programming slate to a deluge of holiday-themed movies. Clearly it's resonated with viewers, because the two channels find themselves locked in a kind of merriment arms race, and other outlets are getting into the game as well.

    But despite an seemingly unquenchable thirst for romantic holiday movies, it wasn't until just last year that a Lifetime holiday movie — Twinkle All The Way — featured the genre's very first gay kiss. Not to be outdone, Hallmark announced in July that they too would be including "LGBTQ storylines, characters, and actors" in their upcoming holiday fare.

    With the 2020 holiday season now upon us, Hallmark, Lifetime, Hulu and Paramount Network all have gay-centered stories among their Christmas originals, an important step in the fight for representation and inclusion. Then there's the matter of exactly how those gay characters are portrayed. As you'll see below, these films may be first out of the gate, but that doesn't mean they all get points for imagination or transcending norms. Here's an overview:

    The Christmas House (Hallmark)

    Remember when Hallmark took heat last holiday season for pulling a Zola commercial that featured lesbian brides? Consider this their mea culpa, albeit a half-stepping one. The channel championed out actor and Mean Girls star Johnathan Bennett as one of the film's headliners when it debuted last month, but he's more of a supporting character, playing Brandon, a married and accepted gay man in a vest who awaits adoption news with his husband, Jake (Brad Harder).

    The premise of the film sees a family reuniting to honor their tradition of having the most decorated home in town, but along the way secrets will be revealed for each of them. Brandon's brother (Robert Buckley) is an actor hiding the news that his television show Handsome Justice (no, really) has just been canceled. Meanwhile, their parents (Treat Williams and Sharon Lawrence) are contemplating a separation — making this potentially the last Christmas the family will spend together in their storied home.

    Brandon and Jake are the C-plot, with their adoption woes entirely unlikely to upset your homophobic aunt, given how much they're chasing the neutrality of a suburban nuclear unit. More alarming is the fact that Brandon, Jake, and Brandon's brother are all barely distinguishable from one another, making The Christmas House the perfect holiday treat for gay people who want to look exactly like their partner and their sibling.

    Premiered November 22nd. Repeat dates/times:

    • Monday December 14 at 12:00 AM ET
    • Thursday December 17 at 6:00 PM ET
    • Friday December 25 at 9:30 AM ET
    • Thursday December 31 at 12:00 AM ET

    Happiest Season (Hulu)



    This one's a bit of a cheat as it was originally intended for theatrical release before Hulu bought it. As such, it comes with a much higher profile cast than we've grown accustomed to seeing in more traditional made-for-tv holiday fare — one that includes Mackenzie Davis, Kristen Stewart and Aubrey Plaza. As a result, it's already racked up impressive viewership, with Hulu touting it as the platform's most-watched program over its opening weekend.

    Among the other entries in this short list of gay-themed holiday offerings, Happiest Season is the one most willing to grapple with relatable gay themes, even if it does occasionally feel like something from a decade ago. (To be fair, returning home for the holidays for many queer folks is like stepping back in time in terms of how we interact as gay people.) Still, Happiest Season mines some murky territory as it explores the relationships between its central couple, Harper (Davis) and Abby (Stewart), and Harper's ex Riley (Plaza).

    Whereas the gay characters in Hallmark's The Christmas House are blank avatars for viewers to project whatever they wish upon, Happiest Season presents believable (and believably gay) characters in a conceivable gay scenario that viewers may recognize from their own lives.

    Premiered November 25th. Now streaming on Hulu.

    The Christmas Setup (Lifetime)

    Far more jolly, and packed with the kinds of staples we've come to expect from straight made-for-TV holiday movies, the love story in The Christmas Setup (played by actual partners Ben Lewis and Blake Lee) has the casual and earth's-crust-low stakes that is the trademark of Lifetime's holiday originals, yet somehow doesn't feel like it's cutting corners to nullify that they are finally giving you a gay story. And much like Happiest Season, The Christmas Setup features one of the backbones of the queer community: drag queens.

    Premieres Saturday December 12 at 8:00 PM ET on Lifetime.

    Dashing in December (Paramount Network)

    Showcasing a more contentious meet-cute, Dashing in December sees Wyatt (Peter Porte) return home to his family ranch, where at first he bristles at the new horsehand Heath (Juan Pablo Di Pace). Of course it isn't long before sparks fly. Like Happiest Season, Dashing in December features some palpable lust to go with its romance, notably when the two men practically crash into each other clad only in Christmas underwear. Even so, the things most likely to satisfy its gay audience are a line dance set to Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine" and Andie MacDowell playing basically an anthropomorphized Yankee candle costumed like Krisha Fairchild raided a Chico's.

    Premieres Sunday December 13 at 7:00 PM ET on Paramount Network. 

    It's worth noting that whiteness pervades each of the films' depictions of queerness, as does the need to project overt masculinity. These are issues that exist across the made-for-TV holiday movie genre, but with these outlets starting to make a concerted (and welcome) effort at LBGTQ representation, here's hoping their inclusivity will become more holistic in future projects.

    Chris Feil is a freelancer writer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His previous work can be found at Vulture, Vice, Paste, and The Film Experience. Follow him @chrisvfeil on Twitter.

    TOPICS: The Christmas Setup, Hallmark Channel, Hulu, Lifetime, Paramount Network, The Christmas House, Dashing in December, Happiest Season, Andie MacDowell, Aubrey Plaza, Fran Drescher, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Christmas, Holiday Programming, LGBTQ