Hallmark Magic in an Age of Anxiety

Robert Knight,

I don’t know how everyone else is doing, but we’re ahead of the game in at least one category: watching Christmas movies. 

It beats fretting over the latest sex scandal, unconstitutional court rulings or whether Kim Jong-Un is having a bad enough day to fire off a nuclear missile.

With less than a week to go, we’re through most of our old favorites, saving the best – “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas” – for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

In between, we’ve been viewing the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas, with films that vary widely in quality.  There are some genuinely smart and evocative offerings like “Call Me Mrs. Miracle” starring “Everybody Loves Raymond’s” Doris Roberts.  But others are so lame that we cease caring within 20 minutes and think about reading or playing Farkle. 

Regular Hallmark watchers buy the formula and then see how they pull it off.   An accomplished city girl (lawyer, designer) with an annoying boyfriend (cell phone addiction, never time for her) unexpectedly has to go out to Cracker Barrel America and there finds her true love running a tree farm, café or troubled ranch.  Since the actors are all ridiculously good looking and good at their craft, success depends on the script, editing and direction. And sometimes the scenery.

hallmark_small Hallmark Magic in an Age of Anxiety Culture

We keep a log of the films.  A few are stinkers, while others (“A Very Merry Mix-Up”) are good year after year.

So what if the American towns and cities look a lot like Vancouver and other telegenic spots in British Columbia? With production incentives galore, that’s where they film most of them.  It’s only a problem when the plot is supposed to unfold in say, Minnesota, and the mountains in the background are Alp-like.  But they did that in the 1978 Robert DeNiro film “The Deer Hunter,” which won Best Picture and four other Academy Awards.  It didn’t matter that they pawned off the snowy, 10,000-foot crags near Mount Baker in Washington State as North-Central Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies.

Hallmark, which began in 2001, does a lot with a little, but sometimes shoots higher, as with Hall of Fame offerings like “The Christmas Train,” based on the David Baldacci book.  With a stellar cast and striking sets, “The Christmas Train” looks and feels like a made-for theaters production, and it drew nearly 5 million viewers in its first airing back in November. 

Before I go further, let me assure you that, being all man myself, I’m not one who always feels like watching Hallmark.  That would be my wife.  The main viewing audience is overwhelmingly female, as you can discern from the ads and the ratings.  However, like at least one other red-blooded American male I know who admits to enjoying them and who will go unnamed, I watch Hallmark with my wife most of the time.  On my own, I prefer “Blue Bloods,” the superb Donnie Wahlberg/Tom Selleck NYPD drama on CBS.  My wife, who grew up in a high-crime city, says it has too many jarring scenes. 

Which brings us to the other aspect of Hallmark Christmas movies, and any film produced by the parent company, Crown Media Family Networks:  They’re clean as a whistle.  You will not get sucker-punched with profanity, gratuitous sex or violence. Even Hallmark’s murder mysteries, which include medical examiner scenes, do not drag the viewer onto the operating table.  It’s old-style moviemaking, leaving much to the imagination. 

With Hollywood’s doubling down on weirdness – even on primetime TV – that leaves you wondering how Tinseltown got so depraved, Hallmark is soaring.  

In the first half of 2017, the Hallmark Channel took in $190 million, which is 7 percent more than the same period last year.  In the second quarter, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries increased its audience by 23%, according to Nielsen.  In October they launched the Hallmark Drama channel.

My only small beef is that, although Hallmark is replete with many wholesome themes, such as redemption, honesty, justice, sacrifice, family and rising above materialism, they give short shrift to faith.   Rarely do characters pray or go to church or seek out clergy or the Scriptures for wisdom. The high-quality Western Canada romance series “When Calls the Heart” is an exception, as are some others based on books by best-selling Christian authors like Karen Kingsbury. 

Hallmark is most popular in the so-called red states, where church attendance is far more common than in the blue states and big cities.  Perhaps that audience is content to watch depictions of love and triumph, knowing from Whom they originate, and why we celebrate this season – and that is enough. 

Robert Knight is an author and regular Washington Times contributor.