Anatomy of a Made-for-TV Christmas Movie

Amy Smart and Mark-Paul Gosselaar star in '12 Dates of Christmas.' ABC Family

I know good movies from bad. But like even the most hardened movie buff, I have an Achilles heel: low-budget Christmas movies on Netflix.

Of course, a lot of people like good Christmas movies. Home Alone. A Christmas Story. Miracle on 34th Street. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ones starring Kevin Sorbo or Dean Cain or that guy from Melrose Place. The ones most people skip over without thinking twice. 100% pure cornball.

The sane part of me knows these are terrible movies, films with production values (and plots) on par with Paul from the Diamond Center commercials. But another part of me just friggin' loves them. That so many exist leads me to believe (hope?) I’m not the only one who eats this slop up with a fork and spoon.

So, why? What is it about these movies? Over the past week, I streamed six made-for-TV holiday flicks and (in between bouts of extreme self-loathing) made a few conclusions about what these films have in common, how they draw suckers in.

Sharpen up your scalpels, we’re about to dissect the bad Christmas movie and find the features they have in common.

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LONELY PROTAGONIST

The first and perhaps most obvious trait these flicks share is a lonely main character. Somebody with a lot of love to give, but nobody to give it to, or at least nobody who appreciates them. The main character (more often than not a woman) is nearly perfect, but with a few quirky faults like, say, a maddening inability to see this perfection.

This was true in 12 Dates of Christmas starring Amy Smart as a career-savvy but unlucky-in-love woman who finds herself in a Groundhog Day-like scenario in which she has to relive Christmas Eve over and over until she gets it right.

Successful movies (I use that term loosely) want the audience to relate. Because most people see themselves as unappreciated (God knows I do), it’s a vital ingredient of the Christmas movie plot.

Christmas Town
Christmas Town

OLD-FASHIONED WINS

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching made-for-TV Christmas movies, it’s that characters with old-fashioned values and mannerisms are always right.

What does that mean? Everything from the physical to the philosophical. People with the right values hold their hot chocolate with two hands. They talk (sagely) about the “meaning of Christmas.” And they realize that the guy who turned his back on a high-octane career to make furniture has the right idea. Oh, and they wear flannel.

If you’re feeling brave (like Navy SEAL level brave), check out Christmas Town, a movie about a realtor who moves to an unintentionally creepy town where everybody is ever so cheerful, for an example. It takes the “old-fashioned is best” idea and beats the viewer over the head with it. (Note to the film’s producers: feel free to use that quote on the DVD cover).

MOVING ON

It runs a bit contrary to the worship of all things nostalgic, but the idea of moving on is in just about every Christmas movie.

It can mean forgiving past slights, finally getting over your ex, coming to terms with the death of a loved one, whatever. All I Want for Christmas, a doozy of a film about a boy who solicits a toy company to help find his mom a husband, is a prime example of stressing the importance of letting go of the past. Ditto for just about every other movie I watched.

FAMILY

In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In Christmas movies, it’s family, family, family. Never mind the fact that many people find their families a bit difficult to be around. In made-for-TV Christmas movies, the word “family” is always uttered with profound reverence.

In Coming Home for Christmas, two sisters have a falling out but come back together and make amends when their parents’ marriage hits the rocks. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think that the mom and dad really should get a divorce.

Someday I’m going to make my own Christmas movie.

NO SURPRISES ALLOWED

Save the twists for Hitchcock. In bad Christmas movies, the viewer should be able to predict what’s going to happen 30 minutes before it happens. Part of the fun is feeling a lot smarter than the clueless characters, oblivious to the fact that the perfect person lives right across the hall and doesn't use hair gel.

END ON CHRISTMAS EVE

Few Christmas movies can resist fading to black as the main characters kiss on Christmas Eve. Why not end on Christmas day? Because on Christmas Eve, the best -- one hopes -- is yet to come. There's excitement and possibility, even if we, the audience, know there's no way Gail O'Grady's character is going to be happy with that newspaper reporter. No. Way.

Add those things together – a lonely and under-appreciated protagonist, the slow realization that the old way of doing things is best, a theme about moving on, the mention of the word “family” every 37 seconds, a complete lack of suspense, and end it on Christmas Eve – and you’ll have yourself a made-for-TV Christmas movie worthy of Mario Lopez. One that I’ll watch, anyway.

Or maybe not. After watching six of these things in a little more than four days, I can safely say I don’t like bad Christmas movies nearly as much as I thought. It’s a realization worthy of any holiday movie. If only I’d come to it on Christmas Eve, surrounded by family, in a charming barn, after deciding to make a very important life change...

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