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As the holidays rev into high gear, families everywhere will gather to wrap presents, trim trees, sip eggnog and bathe in the glow of the gift that never stops giving — the made-for-cable Christmas movie.
The annual downpour of peppermint-scented tales starring photogenic low- to mid-level celebrities has become a holiday-themed flood, boosting one of TV's most reliable — and profitable — cottage industries. At least 145 new films are debuting this year on Lifetime, Hallmark, BET+ and numerous other networks.
Most of these titles — "Dancing Through the Snow," "Gingerbread Miracle" and "Nantucket Noel," to name just three — position the enchantment of Christmas as the cure for all ills: grief, depression, financial woes, loneliness and family estrangement. In these alternate realities, romances are chaste, political and racial conflicts are nonexistent, small-town values are sacred and there's no such thing as a pandemic.
But this season, one network is giving the proverbial snow globe a vigorous shake.
Viewers switching the dial might come across a tight group of girlfriends debating the dynamics of "tossing the salad" and the more delicate "eating candy" on their way to a Santa-themed amusement park, where they take Ecstasy and other substances. Or a group of drag queens and proclaimed "sluts" dressed as dominatrixes competing in a Christmas carol competition, singing an X-rated version of "The 12 Days of Christmas." Or a famous survivalist bragging during a talk show about eating "bull testicles" to increase his sexual appetite. Or a young girl spying on a department store Santa having sex with one of his "elves." (After their tryst, "Santa" plugs his sideline job dancing in "The Stocking Stuffers — A Triple XXXmas Spectacular.")
These scenarios and others appear in projects developed by Eva Longoria, Jamie Foxx, Nick Cannon and Kim Fields as they join forces with VH1 for its new "Naughty or Nice" holiday film slate. Spiced with raunchy dialogue, rowdy characters and outrageous shenanigans, the projects bring a sharper edge to the tried-and-true blandness of the Christmas movie genre.
"We wanted to break the mold in a loud way," said Nina L. Diaz, president of content for MTV Entertainment Group, which is producing the films. "Christmas movies usually offer comfort food, which is great. But Christmas films that are disruptive, edgy and more diverse are long overdue. We wanted to have a modern, naughty-or-nice take on the classic genre. We also wanted to open doors to fresh voices and have a more inclusive slate of movies that you haven't seen before."
An undercurrent of sexual tension simmers between a workaholic talk show host and a famous outdoorsman in "Adventures in Christmasing" (Nov. 29). RuPaul and 20 drag queens from his "RuPaul's Drag Race" reality-competition series provide mischievous mayhem in "The Bitch Who Stole Christmas," set in a Christmas-obsessed small town (Dec. 2). Foxx is an executive producer of "Hip Hop Family Christmas, in which a prominent family of hip-hop musicians tries to reverse its scandalous image by participating in a live Christmas special (Dec. 6).
In "Let's Get Merried" (Dec. 13), a heartbroken Christmas hater vows to get married during a bachelorette party at Santa's Hamlet, where she and her posse talk about graphic sex and get high. And a gangsta rapper tries to turn his life around in "Miracles Above 125th Street" (Dec. 20).
Fields, Longoria and others participating in the VH1 films say they are unabashed fans of the traditional Christmas movie. "It's one reason why I keep doing them," said Fields, who reunited with her "Facts of Life" castmates for 2019's "You Light Up My Christmas." "These movies are feel-good magic. Our industry is notorious — in a good way — for providing that kind of experience."
Added Longoria: "Thematically, they're about bringing family together, whether it's your chosen family or your born family. They're about coming together and about love. I like movies that make you feel good and remind you what the Christmas spirit is about, but more so what humanity is about."
However, they agreed that the genre was due for a holiday makeover.
"I enjoy the genre, but I especially enjoy pushing the envelope in the genre," said Fields, who stars in and executive produced "Adventures in Christmasing."
"The holiday movies are often overly magical or overly staged," said Longoria, an executive producer of "Let's Get Merried." "Our movie is raunchy as hell and hilarious, but it's also down-to-Earth, closer to real life. These are real women with really complicated relationships and in different stages of their lives. I just love that it all takes place in a Christmas world."
Much of the strategy behind "Naughty or Nice" is to bring more multicultural flavor to the genre, which has been criticized for spotlighting predominantly white casts. Hallmark and Lifetime have responded in recent years, and the casts for their films have become more inclusive.
Tia Mowry, Kelly Rowland, Tatyana Ali, Roselyn Sanchez and Rekha Sharma are among the stars featured in this season's "It's a Wonderful Lifetime" schedule on the cable channel, for instance, where many of the films' romances are interracial. The network is also promoting its first lesbian romance holiday movie, "Under The Christmas Tree."
But Longoria says the networks have a lot of catching up to do. "You can't just check the box and throw the Black or brown person up on a poster," she said. "There has to be representation behind the camera as well."
The VH1 film taking the most pointed jab at the tropes of the traditional cable yule movie is "The Bitch Who Stole Christmas," which appears to be a spoof on Lifetime's 2020 "A Very Charming Christmas Town." In that film, a cynical journalist visits Solvang ("the most Christmas-y town in the U.S.A.”) to expose the "true story" but winds up falling in love after being breathlessly overcome by its holiday charm.
"The Bitch Who Stole Christmas" stars Krysta Rodriguez ("Smash") as magazine reporter Olivia Lapelle, dispatched by heartless editor Hannah Contour (RuPaul) to get the "real dirt" on Tuckahoe, "the most Christmasiest town in America."
Moments after she arrives, the townspeople erupt into an elaborate production number, "It's a Tuckahoe Christmas." Mayor Coont (Anna Maria Horsford) oversees the Winter Ball. The town's head of security, Big Russ (Andy Ridings), keeps taking his shirt off, exposing his toned body and washboard abs. His flirtation with Olivia is messy, because he can't stop talking about his dead wife.
The script is crammed with double-entendres ("If by construction you mean handling heavy pipes with my hands, then yeah, I do construction.") The ensemble includes longtime "Drag Race" judges Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley and Ross Mathews.
"I'm a sucker for Christmas movies — the cheesier the better. But we've had enough of that regular, boring formula," Visage said in a phone interview. "This movie has the most drag queens ever, and they're doing what they do — bringing the fun. It's a Christmas miracle, and so much fun to watch. "
Cannon ("The Masked Singer") has a different agenda with the rowdy musical "Miracles Above 125th Street." The film stars Cannon as a former gangsta rapper seeking redemption as he returns from rehab to help out his father's struggling church.
Said Cannon: "I wanted to do the story of the Prodigal Son as a musical. The movie embodies hip-hop culture — the good and the bad. It shows the journey of an individual who really is looking for peace, family and love. I think everyone can relate to that."
Cannon wrote, directed, executive produced and composed original music for the film: "I saw a real void. As a musician, I wanted to bring gospel music to the forefront. Those early morning Christmas services are really what Christmas is all about for my family."
Diaz said the network will continue to produce offbeat and diverse movies to take on other holidays, such as Valentine's Day and Halloween. "We want to keep doing movies that are unexpected and disruptive and have a unique spin on those timeless events."
Ho ho ho.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.