The Christmas House (2020)

2020 was the year studios and TV networks simultaneously decided to acknowledge the existence of same-sex couples in Christmas romcoms. The highest profile example was of course Happiest Season (still great). That year also saw the release of Lifetime's first holiday romcom with gay leads, The Christmas Setup. Around the same time, Hallmark released The Christmas House, their first Christmas movie with.... er... This is actually a bit complicated.

The Christmas House is not centered around a same-sex couple, though the movie includes one in a significant supporting role. To put this in perspective, this is one of three couples the movie showcases, and they're given the least plot. Just so we're clear on how small a step forward this actually represents for Hallmark.

That's not to say the gay characters in The Christmas House are bad. Brandon and Jake are given some good lines and some fun moments, and the movie does a decent job avoiding cliches and stereotypes.

It actually lampshades one of these cleverly when the couple is introduced on the way to Brandon's parents' house for the holidays: they're discussing whether or not it's time to tell the family about something they've been keeping secret. You could read this as implying they're closeted - the dialogue seems structured to lead you that way - until they specify they're trying to adopt and are reluctant to discuss it until they know if it's going through. But of course, their relationship isn't a secret, nor is it presented as being in any way objectionable. The script of this movie understands this shouldn't be an issue - or really even remarkable - in 2020, even if Hallmark doesn't.

The downside here is the adoption thing is more or less the sum total of their arc. Later in the movie they're briefly stressed about it, even going so far as to be slightly grumpy before making up. Then, towards the end, the adoption goes through, and everyone's happy.

The other two couples get more story, though not much more drama. Our main character is Mike, Brandon's straight brother. He's a TV star working in LA coming home for Christmas in upstate New York, and his secret (everyone gets one) is that his lawyer show is in danger of being canceled. Andi, the girl he had a crush on when he was in high school is around, too, in case you were wondering when we'd get to the requisite love interest. When they were young, Mike and Andi performed a magic act together and almost got together romantically. I'm going to gloss over the backstory about a necklace Mike almost gave her, a misunderstanding under the mistletoe, and the missed connection, because it's really dumb and we flashback to it from different angles numerous times. At any rate, Andi's now divorced and has a kid named Noah who takes to Mike instantly and wants to learn magic. Mike takes him under his wing and - despite his initial reluctance - begins getting closer to Andi again, too.

Our third couple are really the protagonists, from a structural point of view. Mike and Brandon's parents own the titular "Christmas House," though their secret (actually the first of two secrets) is they're planning to sell it. The Christmas House, in this context, is a house they used to decorate extensively, both inside and out, for the holidays. They'd then open it up to the public, functioning as a sort of yuletide equivalent to a haunted house.

Only things aren't entirely jolly in the household. Phyllis has just retired, while her husband, Bill, has been out of the workforce for a while. Because of this, Bill has friends, hobbies, and more, leaving Phyllis feeling out of sync. To be clear, these are more or less the exact words she uses. She wants a change, and she's decided the first step is to move, and the second step is to separate.

I want to be clear, there's no actual rationale behind them splitting up. They both love each other, neither is angry about anything, and no one's having an affair (I'm honestly unclear whether sex exists in this universe). They're planning to split up, because Phyllis wants a change and because feels left out of Bill's more established life.

Of course, everything comes to a head on Christmas Eve. Mike is depressed at the thought of losing his childhood home, and he's torn between his interest in Andi and the show filming across the country. Compounding matters is his agent needs him to take a bus into Manhattan for the afternoon in an attempt to save the show. He promises to be back in time for Noah's magic act at the Christmas House. Meanwhile, the owner of a local magic shop is interested in buying the house (also, he's Santa Claus or Father Christmas or something - don't ask).

As for Brandon and Jake's adoption, that was resolved with a phone call the night before, so I guess not everything is left for Christmas Eve.

At any rate, Mike goes to the meeting but quickly realizes it's going to run late. He spends a few seconds wistfully considering his priorities and excuses himself. He makes it back just in time.

Bill and Phyllis decide to stay together, move into a fixer-upper, and work on that together. If you're wondering why it took them a movie to come up with a sane solution to a trivial problem, it's because the writers wanted to milk every drop of melodrama out of this thing. Mike's show is conveniently moving to New York (well, technically he's doing a spin-off in New York: I'm pretty sure everyone employed on the LA production is out of a job on Christmas Eve, but we never mention that). Regardless, Mike is free to buy the Christmas House and start up a G-rated relationship with Andi. And Brandon and Jake are still good. No real issues there. Basically just checking off that "gay representation box," so Hallmark executives can claim to give a damn.

All right, that's the synopsis. Let's talk about quality, because I'm betting you'll be surprised to hear this... really isn't at all bad? At least relative to what it is, this is decent, in spite of all the cheesy, predictable story beats and bland premise.

On some level, the problem here is this is bad, but only so far as the genre of Hallmark (and related) TV productions are inherently kind of bad. This is a genre built on the premise that nothing should actually challenge, offend, or even concern the viewer. The characters can't overcome real problems, because real problems aren't permitted to exist here.

That means nothing in these movies can ever be any better than the jokes or characters. So, if we're being fair, that's the metric we'd want to use. And this does pretty well, overall. There are some genuinely funny moments, starting with the movie's false opening and going all the way to a clever closing callback. Mike and Brandon have a loving rivalry that permits some good zingers. Likewise, Andi gets some wonderful jokes at the expense of Mike's ego. This isn't brilliant dialogue, but it's certainly better than I expect from Hallmark.

It's also worth noting this feels a tad less formulaic than I expected. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm more familiar with Hallmark from a decade ago than more recent entries, so maybe I'm just out of the loop, but this felt less tethered to the usual tropes. There are still plenty of cliches, mind you (starting with an insistence on showing holiday decorations in virtually every shot), but focusing on three couples helped them subvert a few expectations.

On the other hand, there are many, many missed opportunities, such as actually having the magic shop owner's role make sense. The movie wants to imply he's sort of a magical manipulator, a catalyst who pushes people at the right moments to make the right decisions. Only that doesn't actually happen. I think they must have cut a scene or two, because there's something missing here.

Likewise, I want to reiterate that, while including a same-sex couple in a supporting role in one of dozens of movies made this year, it's a long way from progressive. This is the sort of thing Hallmark should have been doing decades ago. Hell, I don't think anyone should be impressed with Lifetime, and at least The Christmas Setup was built around a gay couple.

All that being said, if Hallmark was going to do the least they possibly could have done from a premise standpoint, I appreciate them actually putting some effort into the product. They got a decent director (Michael Grossman, who in addition to a solid television resume, was the assistant director of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle three decades earlier), a solid cast, and passable writing. No one who isn't already of fan of this genre should rush to watch this, but those who are will find a great deal to enjoy.