It's the holidays, and an attractive young woman (or occasionally a man) is having a rough time in the big city.
She has to head to her home town, or some other small town, for some reason – the details don't matter, just the size of the locale. Maybe she's a fish out of water, with her high heels in the deep snow. But eventually, a ruggedly handsome gentleman will come out of the woodwork and sweep her off her feet. She'll learn the true meaning of Christmas. Or Hanukkah. Or New Year's. Or the general "holiday season." (Probably Christmas, though.) Then a big kiss, usually in front of a wreath or a tree. Credits roll.
You probably recognize that formula, as it's at the heart of nearly every made-for-TV holiday movie, including this year's "The Noel Diary," starring Justin Hartley on Netflix, or Hallmark's "A Fabled Holiday" or "The Holiday Sitter" or "Undercover Holiday" or any of the dozens of seasonal films TV networks and streaming services offer this year. And now there's a new network, Great American Family, controversially trying to cash in on the Christmas cheer, plus films on Amazon FreeVee, BET+, Discovery+, CBS and nearly every other provider of televised content you can name.
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Yes, TV Christmas (rarely other holidays) is all over the place this year. With such a huge quantity of these merry films, could any of them actually be high quality?
There are some who would argue that approximately zero percent of made-for-TV holiday movies could truly be good, but for the audience that loves them enough to create this big of a market, there are distinctions to be made between satisfying and heartwarming, and embarrassing schlock. Many people unfamiliar with the genre might think it's easy to create a merry, bright, romantic and sufficiently snowy Christmas movie, But a good one requires a delicate balance of cheese with heart, familiarity with diverting difference, something simple, without being dull.
There's got to be something more than just "home for the holidays" to propel the film. For Lindsay Lohan's "Falling for Christmas" (Netflix), it's a gimmick: amnesia. Lohan plays an heiress who loses her memory, but not her taste for the finer things, after an errant skiing/proposal incident and must be nursed back to health by a local lodge owner. It's a bit much, even for a Christmas movie.
But such soap-opera plot twists just make an inherently silly genre even sillier. The "hook" of a good Christmas movie doesn't have to be complicated. It can be a pop star looking for her next big hit, as in Netflix's "Christmas With You," starring Freddie Prinze Jr. (he's not the pop star). It can be something far-fetched but undeniably alluring, like Netflix's "Christmas Prince" trilogy, about a journalist who marries a prince, at Christmas. Or it can be a milestone, like Jonathan Bennett starring in Hallmark's "The Holiday Sitter" (Sunday, 8 EST/PST), the first from that network to feature a gay couple as protagonists. Others beat Hallmark there, including Netflix's "Single All the Way" in 2021, although Great American Family is actively rejecting LGBTQ love stories.
After a satisfying plot point to hang its Santa hat on, a good Christmas movie really needs the right script and actors. If the actors aren't all in, or if the scripts don't strike the right balance of hokiness, the magic spell that the best Christmas movies can cast is broken.
And when these films flop, they flop hard.
Netflix's 2021 film "A Castle for Christmas," with Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes, was too dour at its low points and not joyful enough at its emotional highs. It left a sour taste where viewers wanted candy canes. Hulu nabbed Kristen Stewart for "Happiest Season" in 2020, but the ending of the movie – which looked far more like a theatrical holiday film along the lines of "Love Actually" than made-for-TV fare – offered an unearned happy ending for the central couple (Stewart and "Station Eleven" actress Mackenzie Davis).
Just like a preschooler wants their favorite book read to them over and over again, we like comfort and consistency. Yes, these movies tell a very similar story repeate, but there's a reason the formula works. The best TV holiday movies are selling – of course they're selling, this is a fine commercial holiday, after all – the simple but sweet point: Love always wins, the season is a happy one, and if there any bad guys, they get their comeuppance.
These are adult fairy tales, just with more puffer jackets and high-heeled boots. And yes, some of them are actually very good.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: TV Christmas movies like 'The Noel Diary' can be good. Here's how.