The Streaming Experience: Lifetime’s The Christmas Setup & Paramount’s Dashing in December
I guess this 2020 holiday world we are all isolating in is feeling its “Yuletide gay” inner spirit this season. Pretty much a gazillion Christmas movies are clogging up the airwaves on so many channels that you literally could watch a formulaic romantic holiday comedy love story at almost any hour of the day or night as we dash our way to the 25th of December. It truly is endless, like the repeating streaming of Mariah Carey’s Christmas spectacular. The list of ridiculously titled holiday movie fare, ranging from “Christmas Carousel” to “Five Star Christmas” on the Hallmark Channel are piling up to the shining stars, one on top of the other, trying most desperately to garner our festive attention. They promise mainstream romantic love, monogamy-centrist cultural norms, PG sexual tension, minor complications, and plenty of sparkling Christmas lights. Most, I truly believe, won’t entice me, or convince me to give them the attention they desire of me for the few hours it takes for the handsome man (or prince) and the pretty young woman to come together in love over some yummy holiday hot chocolate. But there is a new genre this season, one that I can truly get excited about, and it is quite the LGBTQIA+ representational accomplishment. It will definitely make the Yuletide as gay as it can possibly be, and that is a true blue holiday gift if there ever was one.
First off, I must say that I love this gaytastic idea, as corny as it all is and will be. To give the LGBTQIA+ community their own, especially on National television is a remarkable achievement. To give us all a moment to shine and see ourselves in, that’s what it’s all about. But let’s be honest, my hopes are and were not all that high, as I expected some pretty lame-ass heteronormative tales being told of romantic love, and not at all rated R, but this time, those formulamatic stories will have queer characters from different communities taking the lead and running with it through the proverbial snow. Nothing revolutionary or mind-blowingly authentic was going to come of this, I thought, but it was a step in the right direction, and as long as it wasn’t impossibly exploitive or derogatory, I was not going to complain, or at least not that much. But on that note, as my first dive into the genre, I did complain, and quite honestly too. I managed to sit through The Happiest Season, the lesbian take on the Hallmark-styled Christmas tale, and found, as I wrote my review, that it didn’t leave me all too seasonally happy about how it was packaged and wrapped up for consumption (click here to read my review). For that first dive in, it literally left me disappointed, sad, and quite desirous for a whole lot more. Lucky for me, there was more.
Then delivered unto me one faith-filled night was Lifetime’s The Christmas Setup, written by Michael J. Murray, the writer of such other holiday fare as “Christmas Tree Lane” and “Christmas 9 to 5“. Hesitantly, I tuned in, crossing my gay fingers and hoping for a whole lot more while trying hard not to ask for too much, if you know what I mean. I was already feeling a bit homo-humbugged from The Happiest Season, but I vowed I wouldn’t just hate all of these formulas for being exactly what they intended to be. Light holiday flair and not much high art was nothing to shake your angry stick at. If they followed the same silly formula as the others, I could be ok with that. Maybe it could make my gay Grinch heart grow a few times bigger each night, if I looked at it all in just the right light.
Starting out a bit on the slow and silly side, The Christmas Setup eventually finds its way through the small town to don just the right caroling hat, It does manage to find some pretty silly but sweet humor in some pretty fake, but cute scenarios. The film surprises, as it makes some sense as it achieves some level of honest emotionality as the two romantic leads; the engaging Ben Lewis (“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World“) and the dreamy Blake Lee (“Parks and Recreation“) are both out queer actors, who also happen to be married in the real non-Lifetime Christmas world. This was some post-show news to me, but it did feel right. The way they look at each other, and the way they engage, even when given some pulp romantic dialogue and setups to contend with, never made me cringe – which I will say is pretty astounding and awesome for the type of entertainment they find themselves happily set up in.
It also doesn’t hurt that Hugo, played sweetly by Lewis, has a super-kind accepting mother, Kate, who is basically a feisty well-intentioned matchmaker of the highest order. Played adoringly by the surprisingly tender and charming Fran Drescher (“Nanny“), this woman is about three steps ahead of her sons at every turn of the calendar page. It’s all mapped out on that Christmas schedule as if she can see into the future, finding her way of pushing it along a bit faster. Is it “Fate or Kate?” they ask. Well, to be honest, in the Lifetime Christmas world, it doesn’t really matter, because as directed by Pat Mills (“Guidance“), we are as smitten by the whole thing as Hugo is of Lee’s sweet eyed Patrick. It’s perfectly clear, from the moment Hugo sees his high school crush Patrick walking up to his mother’s door soon after arriving from NYC, he literally falls head over heels for the man, and no wonder. Lee gives us a sweet-natured, out gay man who is as comfortable in his skin as anyone, regardless of sexuality, would hope to be. He’s a gentle trusting guy and good son who knows what he wants when he sees it, and he sees it as quickly as we do.
So what’s the catch? It’s The Christmas Setup, you know, a traditional holiday one, so there has to be a conflict, and one that will resolve itself in under two hours without too much hurt or pain or disappointment. Hugo arrived to his hometown direct from his big NYC lawyer job, bringing along his best friend, Madelyn, played warmly by the very charming Ellen Wong (“This is Wonderland“) to partake in the wonderland of his family’s over the top holiday celebrations. He loves it and is embarrassed by it, all at the same time, and with Kate’s help, Lee’s Patrick is always close by to assure the nervous big city boy that, in his eyes, he’s always pretty damn cute, regardless of the hat. It’s surprising to see, that being gay in this town and in this movie is just a tiny insignificant detail, like playing a Love, Actually musical instrument, as it appears pretty much everyone is just fine with it all. They actually don’t even seem to see it. It’s not given any attention, and thankfully, although not entirely realistically, we never have to deal with the slap of homophobia or the dirty looks of middle American judgment. It’s surprisingly endearing, that their obvious flirtations aren’t anything to notice by anyone, except with warm smiles of sweetness, love, and care.
There’s a London England law office promotion that everyone might have to deal with, and a sweet backstory of an old historical train station, its possibly destruction/renovation, and the unearthed tale of one of the town’s founding fathers, an Edger Carol, who had a secret all of his photographic own, that add a not overly sweet subtext to an already charmingly rich story. Throw in the handsome brother Aiden, played strongly by Chad Connell (“Good Sam“), the batting of the eyes of pretty Madelyn, and the house is suddenly full with good Christmas cheer and sweet romance. The layers and the entanglements are all here, and the framework, even when somewhat implausible or ridiculous, is sold with such genuine care, that we all want to show up and write our own wish list to Santa. We all wisely know, from that first Christmas tree delivery, exactly where this holiday tale is going, but with a movie as well crafted as The Christmas Setup, we happily and giddily sign up to all the activities Kate has in store for us, drinking down the best hot chocolate in the world, and quite ready for a second cup (and kiss).
I have to add that when watching, knowing what’s at stake, both in and out of the movie, we just can’t wait for that first Hugo and Patrick kiss. I kept saying it out loud, “would you just kiss, you crazy foolhardy kids!” But it’s not just the one kiss, which I must say is something novel to report. Queer representation on National cable television, especially in this type of traditional holiday fare, is a scarcity these days. These men aren’t being flown in to play the token gay brother coming home to shadow and highlight the straight sister’s tale (although Robert Downing Jr. did it with aplomb in “Home for the Holidays“), but they are the romantic leads in a story about the two men figuring out their romantic feelings for each other, void of all internalized homophobia or some tired coming out story that we’ve all seen before. And it is in the fact that they kiss twice, most lovingly and tender, that takes us on a big forward-thinking and moving step in the right direction that makes it all feel so right, normalizing same-sex intimacy on screen for all to see. It does seem a bit silly to be invested so much in this detail as I watch, but there is no way that we are not waiting and cheering them on, cause it just felt so naturally obvious. This is the reality of attraction, even when it is sugar-coated pseudo-reality played for mass consumption. But it is the closest I’ve seen in these types of traditional holiday filmmaking, and I have always wanted to have at least one to relate to, even if it’s in my overly romantic snow covered twinkling fantasy land.
The same can be said of Paramount Network’s Dashing in December, the Montana ranch version of pretty much the same Christmas tale. The story parallels The Christmas Setup, with only the conflict and the underlying complications riding out in different directions on a cute holiday sled. Dashing has a powerful money man from New York by the name of Wyatt, handsomely played by the well-coiffed, out gay married actor, Peter Porte (“Devious Maids“), who is returning home to the family horse ranch for the Christmas holidays. He’s greeted most warmly by his thrilled, adoring mother, Deb, played strongly by the soft spoken Andie MacDowell (“Groundhog Day“), looking as radiate as we all can remember. It’s been years since he has last visited, maybe because of the sadness and grief brought on by the memories of dead father from many years ago. He has disconnected himself physically and emotionally from his family’s ranch, his horse, and all the people who he loves but left behind. There is no bad blood, but Porte’s Wyatt just doesn’t seem to want to fit into this place anymore. He’s stiff and uncomfortable in the wide open spaces (is it his acting or the character? I’ll let you decide), but that’s not why he came home. He also, not so secretly, wants to convince his mother to sell the familial home and the Winter Wonderland attraction that his father built so many years ago. It isn’t paying for itself, and is a financial drain on this determined career-driven young man. But will that superficial above-it-all stance last under that Montana sky? I think we all know the answer to that Christmas question.
Once again, we see it all coming, that unexpected romance that sparks up between him and the new ranch hand, Heath, played warmly by the very appealing Juan Pablo Di Pace (“Mamma Mia!“). It’s definitely not love at first sight, as the two bump heads in the most obvious of ways. But the outcome, well, that is pretty much written in the stars, as the chemistry of opposites attracting has a way of pushing these two together. I wouldn’t say the two actors are as well tuned in as the two in The Christmas Setup, but their engagement with one another and the vulnerability they bring to the roles do the job just fine. It also doesn’t hurt how handsome and sexy the two are.
The motto of these two Dashing holiday Setup stories are pretty much the same, but I’m also thinking that all of these types of movies come with the same philosophy firmly attached. “Love comes at different times in different ways,” the earth-mother Deb tells her stoned-off son, “you can’t anticipate it. But if we find it, we better hold on to it.” Those are wise and starry romantic words, that could be said by this mother or that, but for the fact that it is being said by any of these mothers to their gay son is pretty much a Christmas gift to the community, whether it comes wrapped in fine art, or this kind of festive, albeit formulamatic, Christmas schmaltz. It’s solidly monogamy-centrist, hetero-normative in nature, which is a tad old school boring, but hey, let’s not get too mired down in the piles of cultural norm-snow that we don’t see the uplifting stars or the sun’s rising. It’s a beginning, and in that, we can celebrate.
Dashing in December is fun, a heartwarming horseback ride into a Montana ranch town that also, surprisingly, doesn’t have an ounce of homophobic tension anywhere. This is even true when the group, along with the boys’ mutual gal pal, Blake, played pleasantly by Caroline Harris (“Westworld“) go out on the ‘town’ with some old high school friends for some drinks and some country music line dancing. My gay-danger alert system roared up a bit, unconsciously and alarmingly, but I settled it down pretty quickly. I sorta hate that my alarm bells went off inside my head, but this isn’t that kind of film and that ingredient is not going to be added. Written and directed with a holiday wit and flair by Jake Helgren (“Christmas on the Menu“; “A Very Charming Christmas Town“), this sweet queer holiday film never rides too far away from its traditional feel-good roots,. The spark of love is endearing like a warm hug on a cold winter’s night. And isn’t that what these Christmas movies are all about? To believe in romantic love, and that the snow will always fall, just when we need it and want it to the most. To make the picture as perfect as we have always dreamed it would, or could be, with leads that remind us of our fantastical selves, gifting us with something many of us have desperately been waiting a long time to see.
Next stop: Erin Rodman’s The Christmas House, an official Hallmark holiday film that follows a family made up of three couples; the straight retired parents (Sharon Lawrence, Treat Williams), and their two partnered sons; Mike (Robert Buckley), his brother Brandon (Jonathan Bennett), Brandon’s husband Jake (Brad Harder), and Mike’s high school crush Andi (Ana Ayora). as they all come together to try to revive a family tradition with hopes that this act will help them all reconnect and find resolution. Cross your fingers for me and this one. Here’s hoping it keeps working that holiday queer magic on us all. Or I’ll just have to return to rewatching the deliciously fun The Prom, who somehow miraculously found the balance and magic, even with Corden not really finding his way.