It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas on TV – and a modern-day Christmas at that.
Cable networks kicked off their holiday-themed romance flicks last month with a slate of movies more diverse than ever. Hallmark's "Countdown to Christmas" and Lifetime's "It's A Wonderful Lifetime" include an LGBTQ couple in a major storyline, a first for both. "A New York Christmas Wedding," which shows central character Jennifer (Nia Fairweather) what her life would've looked like if she had explored her feelings for her closest pal, a woman, is now streaming on Netflix.
For Hallmark, whose winter programming provides a reliable ratings boost, the move comes nearly a year after a call to #BoycottHallmarkChannel over the network's decision to yank ads for a wedding website showing same-sex couples kissing. The decision was later reversed. In August, Hallmark aired its first same-sex union in a TV movie, after pledging the previous month to increase LGBTQ representation.
Jonathan Bennett ("Mean Girls" and "Cake Wars") remembers being stunned when he learned his romantic interest in "The Christmas House" (airing Nov. 22, 8 EST/PST) would be a man. "I asked my agent what girl was gonna play my love interest – who was it gonna be," he says. "They responded, 'Jake' (laughs), and my jaw hit the floor."
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In "The Christmas House," he plays Brandon, who's married to Jake (Brad Harder). While visiting Brandon's parents for the holidays, the couple wait to find out whether they can adopt a child. Treat Williams and Sharon Lawrence play his parents.
Bennett, who's openly gay, took his relationship with former "The Amazing Race" contestant Jaymes Vaughan public in 2017. He says the Hallmark milestone "is really special, because it feels like it’s progress." He envisions what the representation would've meant to his younger self.
"If I saw a movie that had a storyline like this – with a gay couple who are adopting a child and starting their own family with unconditional love – I think I would’ve felt a little less scared at Christmas," he says. His motivation for doing the film is to help viewers "feel a little less scared and a little more seen this Christmas."
Bennett says filming a "big scene" with his on-screen husband proved an emotional moment on set. "Everyone on the crew was crying," he says, "and there were some members of the crew that were gay that came up to us and said, 'Thank you for doing this. You have no idea what this means for us to be a part of the crew that works on the Hallmark movies constantly, and to have this happen, and to get to be a part of it, makes us feel so honored and special that we get to be here.'"
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Whether Bennett and Harder share an on-screen kiss is yet to be seen. "You have to tune in to see," teases Hallmark programming chief Michelle Vicary.
"What we wanted to do and what we’ve endeavored to do this year, in particular, is to really create a more diverse and inclusive holiday offering for all of our viewers and so everyone could see themselves and relate to themselves at the holiday season." ."
Lifetime's "The Christmas Setup" (airing Dec. 12, 8 EST/PST) stars Blake Lee and Ben Lewis, who are married in real life. (The two met at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, and afterward Lee says he told his friend, "I just met the cutest guy in the bathroom. I’m gonna marry him.")
The two married in 2016, but this marks their first time working together. In the movie, Lewis plays Big Apple attorney Hugo, who goes to Milwaukee for the holidays, where he reunites with his high school crush Patrick (Lee), thanks to his matchmaker mom (Fran Drescher). Ellen Wong, who was there the night Lewis and Lee met, also stars. (Director Pat Mills and writer Michael J. Murray are also both gay, as is "Christmas House" director Michael Grossman.)
Other firsts for Lifetime this holiday season include a film with a Chinese-American family at its center ("A Sugar & Spice Holiday"), a movie featuring an actor with a disability in a starring role ("Christmas Ever After") and a feature with a military veteran character as a lead ("A Welcome Home Christmas").
Lewis says the pair didn't truly get a sense of their film's cultural impact until he saw reactions to the announcement of plans for it online.
"I think we realized, first of all, how many people watch these movies and how deeply meaningful it is to so many members of the LGBTQ+ community and their families and allies," he says.
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Lee recalls growing up at a time when many of the storylines for gay characters were "the gay best friend, or the horrible gay coming out story," he says. What he likes about "The Christmas Setup" is that "this family and this community embraces this couple and the LGBTQ community.
"It’s really incredible that, as gay people, that we will have this – that you have this movie that isn’t about, 'Oh my God, my family kicked me out. Of course those stories are real and need to be told, but there’s also these beautiful, fantasy, the world is perfect stories that straight couples have had for years and years."
While Lee and Lewis understand how history-making the film is, they also appreciate how ordinary it feels.
"It’s a gay love story, but it's no different from their other movies," Lee says. "So it fits in with all of their love stories."
Lewis agrees. "I think the fact that like it’s not exceptional is actually a powerful statement in itself," he explains, adding he believes Lifetime is saying "gay people aren’t just family friendly; they are, in fact, your family."
It's Lewis' wish that "The Christmas Setup" leads to even more inclusive Lifetime features.
"It's our hope that this opens the door for more representation, particularly for queer people of color and trans and gender non-binary people," he says. "I feel like that’s hopefully the next step in the terms of representation that we’re seeing in holiday movies."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hallmark, Lifetime Christmas movies: Stars on history-making inclusion