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Boy meets boy: Gay variations on a Hallmark theme

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Dashing in December — Photo courtesy of Paramount
Dashing in December — Photo courtesy of Paramount

Picture this: Ambitious, big-city young professional returns to quaint hometown for the holidays; meets-cute with charming, devastatingly beautiful local; endures endearing/hilarious Christmas-related event/farce; faces serious reckoning of life-changing choices. Fairy-tale ending concludes under mistletoe/being whisked away in sleigh ride into snowy, love-fulfilled future, which pans out accompanied by blaring, up-tempo version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Roll end credits.

The fact this never happens in real life is part of the attraction of the hometown holiday romance, a particular genre of made-for-TV romantic comedy spearheaded by the Hallmark Channel that has become one of the enduring cultural phenomena of the last 20 years.

Does true love exist? This is the question that has plagued humankind since time immemorial, and launched a successful industry that tugs on people's heartstrings and services their mortal need to say and hear "I love you." That the format has evolved from delivering printed ephemera through the post office to streaming video on your smart device is no surprise.

Since its inception in the early aughts, the central character of a "Hallmark movie" has always been a cisgender female. Former teen queens like Party of Five's Lacey Chabert and Full House's Candace Cameron Buré dominate the genre due to the winning combination of nostalgia about their past fame and their general likeable and transferable qualities as contemporary figures. Though the typical storytelling style is inherently gendered and binary (which invites deserved criticism), the beauty of this landscape is that it is a fully contained, sterile, insular space. Within the bubble, these characters are safe from harm. Anything is possible. Especially love.

And this safety is precisely why LGBTQ+ people were an untapped market for this genre. Queering the trope is now the new challenge for networks and filmmakers. Centering the story on a Gay protagonist seemed to be the next logical step. As unrealistic the circumstances may be, and though full representation of all Queer and cultural experiences may never be scripted, it is an opportunity to escape the cinematic realism of recent mainstream Queer storytelling centered around adversity by eliminating well-trodden obstacles completely. No one has to overcome coming out or face a tragic death? Here we can fall in love and live happily ever after? Yes, please.

The Christmas House 2: Deck Those Halls — Photo courtesy of Hallmark  

The Gay brother
Although the Hallmark Channel's first Christmas movie centering a Gay couple, The Holiday Sitter (which debuts on December 11), will be a historic moment on this canonically conservative channel, it dipped its toes into Gay waters only just a couple years ago with The Christmas House (2020). That centered on straight, cisgender Mike (a charming Robert Buckley) returning to his hometown in upstate New York, where his parents Phyllis and Bill (sweetly played by Sharon Lawrence and Treat Williams) and his Gay brother Brandon (a sharply humorous Jonathan Bennett) come together to decorate their childhood home in their family's trademark fantastic, over-the-top style before the house is sold.

Brandon is a supporting character, whose moments in the film along with husband Jake (a nondescript Brad Harder) revolve around their private journey of adopting a child. While commendable in featuring a story that many same-sex couples experience, there is no explicit language about the couple's Gay life, although there is a momentary scene where Brandon and Jake quietly resign themselves to their lament. The effort here is to show no difference between the two brothers and their respective relationships, perhaps softening the edges to endear straight audiences. But the moment between Brandon and Jake is so shrouded in whispers and ellipses that it left me underwhelmed. Here I am in 2022, shouting into the void that was 2020: "Just say Gay!"

The film is poorly drawn compared to its sequel, The Christmas House 2: Deck Those Halls (2021), which is much more lighthearted and quippy in pace and dialogue, giving a bit more Modern Family and Schitt's Creek vibes. The sequel brings the brothers back together for a home-decorating duel on a reality TV competition. Bennett gets a lot more scenery to chew and brings a nice energy and charisma that elevates Buckley's performance.

A still underutilized Harder is a bland, supportive partner, but he has some nice moments as the solid pragmatist in contrast to Brandon's wild antics. But the big moment is between the rival siblings, where queerness is still only obliquely referenced, although there is a tongue-in-cheek button to the scene that allows for forgiveness. One thing the movie does well, though clumsily, is dropping real family issues (like co-parenting, work-life balance, aging, and blended family) among the spirited holiday fun.

The Christmas Setup — Photo courtesy of Lifetime  

Boy meets boy
Although The Christmas House series jump-started the Gay Hallmark holiday-movie canon, neither film is very romantic. For this I turned to The Christmas Setup (2020) on Lifetime. New York City lawyer Hugo (an amiable Ben Lewis) returns to his hometown of Milwaukee with his bestie Maddie (a delightful Ellen Wong) to celebrate the holiday with his empty-nest mom Kate (a winning Fran Drescher) and embarks upon a whirlwind romance with high school crush Patrick Ryan (a handsome Blake Lee).

I liked how ordinary these two characters are: though one has a skyrocketing big-city career and the other is a retired-young app developer, the two are still the boys they once were in high school. In a bit of tribute to Sixteen Candles (hello, Jake Ryan, my high school movie character crush!), Patrick, like Jake, is handsome and confident, popular and aloof, yet much deeper than his good looks. There is a shy awkwardness between them, from both getting to know someone you've pined for and the anxiety of reconciling that to the image you've held in your memory. Though there is not much to this love story with one too many plot points (including a long digression to save an old train station), the tenderness of the courtship was most affecting.

I appreciated the casting of a non-white person as the best friend; Wong shines, bringing a contemporary lightness to the movie without being inauthentic. But the real pro here is Drescher, dashing in and out of scenes with aplomb. Her familiar signature voice may grate to new ears, but Queer kids from the '90s who wished to have a fabulous caretaker like her Fran Fine character from The Nanny will feel comforted.

From the title of the movie, you might think it telegraphs Kate as the typical meddling mother. But the elegance of this film is that all her matchmaking skills are done outside the frame. Kate even sets up Maddie with her other son, Air Force member Aiden (a milquetoast Chad Connell), which seems like an afterthought. Although manipulating the marriages of your children can be interpreted as sinister, it brings a bit of innocent, Puck-like energy to these romantic proceedings.

Though what works best is the two leads, real-life Gay couple Lewis and Lee. You feel at ease when the two are on screen together. There's no friction here. Heat? Not so much. Call it a "network note." But casting two Gay actors releases the viewer from having to make a leap of imagination and, overall, it works well.

Dashing in December — Photo courtesy of Paramount  

The Gay cowboy Christmas movie
Yet still, I was searching for some romance. Maybe even a little sex appeal? For this, I looked to Dashing in December (2020). An interesting cinematic blend of the Western terrain of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and the provincial quirk of Amy Sherman-Palladino's Gilmore Girls, Dashing brings both the romance and the heat to hit that sweet spot. The spare guitar and tinkling piano score sets the mood for love.

Recently single hotshot financier Wyatt (a chiseled Peter Porte) returns to his childhood home in Colorado, where his widowed mom Deb (a delicate Andie McDowell) runs the family horse ranch with the help of sweet-natured stable hand Heath (an effortless Juan Pablo Di Pace).

Wyatt's high-school girlfriend Blake (a solid Caroline Harris) and his mom both know Wyatt and Heath are Gay but decide not to tell either, at first. Not quite like Setup, this plot device allows the men to make their own choices about each other. Though personality differences between the two divide them early on, they are still immediately attracted to each other and, over time, discover they are more similar than they thought. They are both uptight and reserved, cheerful and charming. Decidedly dashing. And everyone around them loves them individually, but especially together.

Being released through Paramount gave this production a little more runway to push the envelope. There is a lot more room for character development and dramatic intensity. The courtship is given time to ignite, breathe, and solidify. The scenes flow nicely between intimate, two-character scenes and exuberant, holiday-themed sequences. A Shania Twain needle drop at the local honky-tonk with an impeccably choreographed line dance transported me to another astral plane.

And I got the heat I was looking for when the camera unashamedly swings on Porte's ample anatomy in tight underwear (from front to back) before Wyatt innocently bumps into Heath, who is also in his underwear. You won't see that on Hallmark.

Beyond the skin, there is a romantic moment when Wyatt unexpectedly is swept off his feet. He is surprised and enchanted, which leads to the sweetly anticipated first kiss. But as the plot unfolds, the uncomfortable power dynamics at play eventually unravel the romance to devastating effect. It's not satisfactorily solved, but it does end happily (of course).

But what stands out about this film is that it feels wholly sophisticated and contemporary: the complicated bonds between all characters, the way the holiday is woven throughout the narrative and art direction, and of course, the sweeping, cinematic landscapes. Although it's a movie with so many cups of hot cocoa, I can report there were absolutely no liquids in them.

Aside from that atrocity, the film's real strength is the casting. Once again, we have two Gay actors in Porte and Di Pace. Porte's hunky allure is evenly matched by Di Pace's easy sensuality. But it is Di Pace's sensitive portrayal in a series of monologues about his family and romantic history that is the film's emotional center. The ranch is a token of what Wyatt left behind, but what has saved Heath's life.

The diversity of the cast brings a modernity to the film; having thoughtful and three-dimensional characters played by people of color like Harris and Di Pace breaks the stereotype that only white people can come from these kinds of places, and ultimately, play these kinds of roles.

And lastly, Andie MacDowell is a Queer icon, obviously through her outrageous cameo in Magic Mike XXL but also with Dashing, adding another jewel to her crown.

For a Queer viewer of a certain age, the hometown holiday romance is a chance to go back in time and experience a first love, to replay lost youth, now as adults. It's an opportunity to escape into the fantasy. And there's the trick: for so long we were never included in these kinds of stories, and now that these films now gaining traction, it's a joy that Queer people can finally participate in this holiday tradition. Some may cringe watching, but most will dream.

Christmas House and Dashing in December are available on Amazon Prime, as is Christmas House 2, which will also be shown on the Hallmark Channel on Nov. 21. The Christmas Setup can be seen online on Lifetime, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.