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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Watch out for mistletoe and snowballs: Navigating this year’s crop of holiday romance TV movies

Watch out for mistletoe and snowballs: Navigating this year’s crop of holiday romance TV movies

Photo: The Princess Switch (Netflix), A Shoe Addict’s Christmas (Steven Ackerman/Hallmark Channel/2018 Crown Media United States LLC), No Sleep ’Til Christmas (Freeform/John Medland), The Holiday Calendar (Netflix)

If you love to head out to the theater to catch a holiday-themed rom-com, you’re out of luck this movie season, unless you consider your love for Viola Davis in Widows a rom-com. On the small or streaming screen, though, there are a multitude of options to put on in the background whilst wrapping presents or gnashing your teeth over increasingly mounting holiday bills. The Hallmark Channel is still the champ in this regard, offering a month’s-plus worth of holiday-themed romances. Close behind is Lifetime, taking a break from its usual true-life dramas to offer a slate of perfectionist businesswomen getting swept off their feet by hunky small-town old flames.

But there are a few newer players in the game: After Netflix’s success with A Christmas Prince in 2017, this year the streaming service not only offers a sequel to that movie (A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding), but a few more options, continuing the momentum of its run of popular summer rom-coms. And Freeform has also added some seasonal love flicks. Cue the multitudes of opportunistically placed mistletoe, impromptu flirty snowball fights, adorable moppets that would put Tiny Tim to shame, magically timed snowfalls, and enough prominent holiday decorations to flood the entire HGTV channel.

The good news: Once the almost exclusive province of lily-white small towns, the 2018 holiday movies fortunately see more casts featuring people of color—including as leads, not just delegated to best-friend roles—finding love over the holidays. At this point, there are so many of these films that even Hallmark has had to somewhat evolve its “harried professional leaves the big city for the holidays, where she finds romance with a lost love” formula—although, make no mistake, these still exist. We tried to wade through as many of these as possible (although there was no way to get through all of them—we’re not viewing robots) to find the 2018 stand-outs, as well as the definitely skippable options for your winter break rom-com viewing. Just watch out for mistletoe, apparently it’s hanging everywhere.

Hallmark Channel

Don’t miss: A Shoe Addict’s Christmas

Illustration for article titled Watch out for mistletoe and snowballs: Navigating this year’s crop of holiday romance TV movies
Photo: Steven Ackerman (Hallmark Channel/2018 Crown Media United States LLC)

Sure, it’s a bizarre title that would embarrass even the pinkest, gaudiest “chick-lit” volume. But never underestimate the holiday romance power of Candace Cameron Bure. The Fuller House cast member can make anything work, Christmas-wise, with her combo of charming self-deprecation and willingness to dive completely into the little-resemblance-to-actual-reality Hallmark world. The veteran of films like A Christmas Detour and Switched For Christmas gamely pulls off this ridiculous premise, in which our heroine, Noelle (these movies are not subtle), travels to different Christmases of her life by putting on different pairs of shoes. She is aided in this magical effort by guardian angel Jean Smart, who brings a lot to the role that could be termed “the Clarence.” Luke Macfarlane from Brothers & Sisters is pleasant enough as the love interest, but he doesn’t much matter, because Cameron Bure, and her stylish footwear, easily carry the holiday.

Big-city professional heads home for the holidays and hooks up with an old flame? Not this time—another thing this movie has in its favor.

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: HR manager for a department store who wants to be a photographer.

Adorable moppet? Thankfully no.

Strategic mistletoe placement? Yes.

Impromptu flirty snowball fight? Yes.

Watch: Monday, December 24, 8 p.m. Eastern on Hallmark Channel

Has redeeming factors: Christmas At Graceland

American Idol’s Kellie Pickler tries hard to pull off her first Hallmark Christmas movie as Laurel, a single mom and financier from Chicago who heads back to her hometown, Memphis, to clinch a deal. There, she runs into her old singing partner/boyfriend (Wes Brown), who coaxes her into a holiday concert. It doesn’t take much arm-twisting. Basically, the whole film functions as an infomercial for a wintertime getaway to the titular rock landmark: It was filmed on location at the Presley estate, Laurel and her young daughter, Emma (Claire Elizabeth Green), stay in a suite in Elvis’ guest house-turned-hotel, and they even get a private holiday tour of the King’s former home. (Naturally, Graceland is offering a tie-in accommodations package.) Pickler’s acting skills aren’t really there yet (her southern twang covers up a lot of flaws), but the movie wisely gives her a lot of chances to sing, which helps smooth over those rough spots—like the fact that Christmas At Graceland probably features more snow than Memphis has ever seen in real life.

Big-city professional heads home for the holidays and hooks up with an old flame? Yes, although fortunately in this case, that setting also has a Jungle Room.

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: Financial something or other.

Adorable moppet? Pickler routinely gets out-acted by Green.

Impromptu flirty snowball fight? Yes. In Memphis.

Watch: on Amazon Prime

Skip: Pride, Prejudice, And Mistletoe 

Hallmark, of all places, should know better than to tack Jane Austen’s famous title onto something that reads like the screenwriter barely glanced at the Pride And Prejudice Cliff Notes. Hallmark vet Lacey Chabert (who’s right up there on the channel’s Christmas movie Mount Rushmore with Cameron Bure) is Darcy Fitzwilliam (ha), a workaholic who flirts with her high school rival when she comes home for the holidays. Merely tossing around cringeworthy names like Pemberley High does little to evoke the chemistry of Austen’s original; what’s worse, not only is Brendan Penny’s Luke Bennett a snoozy love interest unfit to dip his toe into Mr. Darcy’s magnificent pond, his bland blondeness makes him look almost exactly like Darcy’s ex and her brother—none of these guys are memorable enough to tell apart. And this isn’t even Hallmark’s only Jane Austen bastardization this year: There’s also Christmas At Pemberley Manor, where the clashing couple are just straight-up named Elizabeth Bennet and William Darcy.

Big-city professional heads home for the holidays and hooks up with an old flame? Yep, that’s the whole movie.

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: Financial something or other.

Adorable moppet? A whole bunch get drafted to serve at the family charity Christmas ball, because that makes sense.

Impromptu flirty snowball fight? Yes.

Strategic mistletoe placement? Yes.

Watch: Saturday, December 22, 10 p.m. Eastern on Hallmark Channel


Don’t miss: Christmas Pen Pals

Bringing the vast relationship experience of someone who’s worked at Seattle Grace is Grey’s Anatomy’s Sarah Drew, starring as Hannah, creator of a dating app that needs to ditch the algorithms and figure out what makes a couple really spark. Fortunately, Hannah’s cozy hometown is hosting a “Christmas Cupid” event—wherein the local postmaster fixes the townsfolk up anonymously with various letter writers—all while Hannah spends her time sparring with her high-school boyfriend, Sam. Christmas Pen Pals gets a lot of marks for this inventive twist on the “prodigal child heads home” premise (from Seattle, even), and also for Drew’s performance as a grieving daughter who’s given up on Christmas. The holidays can still bring up tough memories even years after the loss of a parent or loved one; Christmas Pen Pals portrays this pain poignantly and accurately, offering a different perspective from the postcard-perfect view of many holiday movies.

Big-city professional heads home for the holidays and hooks up with an old flame? Yes.

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: Dating app creator.

Adorable moppet? Hannah’s middle-school nephew, who gets a romantic pen pal of his own.

Strategic mistletoe placement? Yes.

Watch: on Amazon Prime

Definitely don’t miss if you were a One Tree Hill fan: The Christmas Contract

A can’t-miss ploy by Lifetime here: Getting the old One Tree Hill gang back together for a holiday romance. Sadly, Chad Michael Murray is over on Hallmark’s Road To Christmas, but The Christmas Contract still has Hilarie Burton and Robert Buckley as its leads, along with Danneel Ackles, Antwon Tanner, and a special song by Tyler Hilton. Jordan Ladd, Cheryl Ladd, Bruce Boxleitner, and Jason London round out the cast. Burton’s Jolie heads out of NYC (does anyone stick around the city for the holidays?) for her former home of Lafayette, Louisiana, where she faces a moved-on ex. She contracts her best friend’s brother (Buckley) to act as her boyfriend on the trip, and you’ll never in a million years guess what happens next. The movie also gets some digs in at the genre’s homogeneity by making Jack a writer who’s drafted to write a romance novel, and receives an outline list of necessary clichés. Further props for the southern setting, which frees us from the annoying danger of impromptu snowball fights. Can a Lifetime holiday movie featuring the cast of Everwood be next?

Big-city professional heads home for the holidays and hooks up with an old flame? Almost, but ignites with a new one instead.

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: UX web designer.

Adorable moppet? Jolie’s niece Maxie.

Watch: Saturday, December 22, 4 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime

Skip: The Christmas Pact

Lifetime clearly has an interest in pulling on the nostalgia strings (see above), but not even the opportunity to see Dwayne and Whitley from A Different World as the protagonist’s parents can save this one. Childhood best friends Sadie (Kyla Pratt) and Ben (Jarod Joseph) make a pact to meet every year at the same tree to make a Christmas wish until life changes start getting in the way. Still, since the only relationship obstacle here seems to be the passage of time, this doesn’t make for the most compelling narrative.

Big-city professional heads home for the holidays and hooks up with an old flame? Yes, eventually.

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: Another photographer.

Adorable moppet? Yes, if you count the childhood versions of the two leads.

Impromptu flirty snowball fight? Yes.

Strategic mistletoe placement? Yes.

Watch: on Amazon Prime


Don’t miss: The Princess Switch

Yes, this is basically The Prince And The Pauper with a little of the Lindsay Lohan Parent Trap remake tossed in. The Princess Switch offers the chance to marvel at the acting skills of another Disney Channel vet, as Vanessa Hudgens portrays Chicago baker Stacy (you know she’s from Chicago because that’s what it says on her rakish baseball cap) as well as Duchess Margaret. The lookalikes cross paths at a baking competition in the fictional country of Belgravia, and decide to swap places, offering Hudgens the acting challenge of portraying the snooty character trying to pass as a laid-back person and vice versa. Nashville’s Sam Palladio finally gets to use his own British accent as the lofty Prince Edward (and adds some songs to the soundtrack, along with Hudgens), and Hudgens has fizzy chemistry both with him and Nick Sagar, who plays Stacy’s longtime best friend, Kevin. Fairly dumb but also extremely fun, capitalizing on the holiday/romance/royalty combo that made A Christmas Prince (the movie that Margaret-as-Stacy and Kevin curl up on a couch and watch in a cozy cabin) such a success.

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: Award-winning baker from Chicago.

Adorable moppet? Alexa Adeosun as Kevin’s daughter, Olivia, who of course clues into the lookalike swap almost instantly.

Impromptu flirty snowball fight? Yes.

Strategic mistletoe placement? Yes.

Watch: on Netflix

Has redeeming factors: The Holiday Calendar

When aspiring photographer Abby (Kat Graham) receives an antique advent calendar from her grandfather (Ron Cephas Jones), she’s a little freaked out when the figurines contained within appear to predict her future. They steer her life toward a romantic relationship with her best friend, Josh (Quincy Brown), as well as a job more meaningful than snapping shots of kids with Santa. At the head of an almost impossibly attractive cast, Brown and Graham have a cozy chemistry perfect for the season as friends who gradually turn into something more. And someone should actually mass-produce that dollhouse-like calendar ASAP—it’s adorable.

Big-city professional heads home for the holidays and hooks up with an old flame? Actually, she still lives there.

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: Female photographers are apparently to holiday rom-com heroines what male architects used to be to traditional rom-coms.

Adorable moppet? None except for the line of kids headed for Santa’s lap.

Impromptu flirty snowball fight? Yes.

Watch: on Netflix

Skip: Christmas With A View

After some solid summer hits like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Set It Up, Netflix fell a bit short in the rom-com department this holiday season. Worst of the lot is this acquisition—an actual Harlequin romance come to life, with all the depth that implies. Restaurant manager/Nutcracker reference Clara (Kaitlyn Leeb) and celebrity chef Shane (Scott Cavalheiro) hook up, the only hindrance to their destined romance some momentary miscommunication about a new lodge development. You would think that the celebrity chef would be loaded with some sort of personality, but you would be wrong. Vivica A. Fox is wasted in her role as Clara’s mother, and soap vets Patrick Duffy and Jess Walton seem to have no idea what they’re doing there, either.

Big-city professional heads home for the holidays and hooks up with an old flame? New flame, actually.

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: Restaurant manager.

Impromptu flirty snowball fight? Yes.

Watch: on Netflix


Don’t miss: No Sleep ’Til Christmas

Another ridiculous premise (two strangers discover that they are only able to fall asleep when they’re in one another’s presence) is helped along by the chemistry of real-life husband and wife Dave and Odette Annable. The workaholic bride-to-be and laidback bar owner turn to each other more and more as their togetherness cures their mutual insomnia—and their cute banter turns to love because they’re soulmates, of course. (Maybe we have a soft spot for this pair because they actually deign to spend their holidays in Chicago, like we are.)

Perfectionist female lead’s profession: Event planner.

Strategic mistletoe placement? No, but there is a charming off-key karaoke duet to The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York.”

Watch: on Hulu

Skip: Life-Size 2: Christmas Eve

Sorry, fans of the original, but there are far too many commendable Christmas movies out there for you to waste your time watching Tyra Banks do another horrific impression of Daryl Hannah in Splash. The zany script offers a few funny lines, especially as toy tycoon Grace (Francia Raisa) dances on tables and enjoys bottomless mimosas with her witty club friends. Until, of course, Eve comes back to life to get Grace’s life back on track/suck all the fun out of the movie, and to help Grace snag handsome music producer Calum (Gavin Stenhouse). Life-Size 2 is for diehard Life-Size fans only, who will likely thrill at the Lindsay Lohan cameo.

Female lead’s profession: Wild-child heir to toy dynasty.

Adorable moppet? Alison Fernandez’s Lex, who’s the lone fan of the terrifying and awkward life-size Eve.

Watch: on Hulu

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.

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