Tom McAllister is many things: Barrelhouse Nonfiction Editor, teacher, novelist, podcast co-host, regular dude. He is also a huge fan of Hallmark holiday movies, an enthusiasm he's managed to pass along like a cheery ridiculous pinkeye infection to the rest of the Barrelhouse Editorial Squadron. Since it is, in fact, The Season, I sat down to talk with Tom about the strange appeal of these movies, the Formula they employ, why it works and why it's problematic, and who would play Tom and his wife Laurabeth in the holiday movie of their lives.
Dave Housley: So, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that you have singlehandedly turned most of the Barrelhouse editorial staff onto Hallmark holiday movies. This is not exactly on brand for you. How did you start watching these movies?
Tom McAllister: I can't remember when we started watching these movies. It's been years. My wife is a pediatric nurse and has some pretty bleak days at work, and so she really loves light entertainments, movies where very little is at stake, and people end up in love, and maybe there are a few laughs. So I'm sure it was her putting them on at first.
Now, Hallmark has a formula for their holiday movies, and there's not a lot of deviation, but it wasn't always as polished. So some of those earlier movies (like basically all the ones with Brooke Burns) are hilariously bad, with bizarre performances, baffling dialogue, and just _weird_ plots. So it started with us laughing at the movies, while also my wife was genuinely enjoying the bland, predictable love stories.
DH: The formula is one of the things I love about these movies. Just in case some of our readers are not familiar with it, can you break down the plot and the casting formula for us?
TM: There are a few variations, but almost all of them go like this:
Busy working woman (probably named Holly) in the city has a major setback at work (advertising/magazine writing/real estate/food blogger) and an early heartbreak (boyfriend dumps her/boyfriend fails to propose/boyfriend suspected of cheating), and she decides to leave town. Her car breaks down in the middle of a small town that has a name like Christmas Acres, and it's going to be a couple weeks before they can get the parts.
She finds herself staying at a quaint inn, with an older married couple and maybe a precocious kid. The Town Hunk crosses her path frequently. At first, they sort of don't get along, though it's nothing serious, and their coupling is inevitable. They share a number of meaningful glances while participating in the town's Christmas traditions: snowman building competition, tree lighting ceremony, cookie baking, etc. A man who is Maybe Santa gives her sage advice, and over the course of two hours, she learns not only about herself, but about small town values, and the meaning of Christmas. The movie ends with a kiss under mistletoe. Everyone is either a b-list star from the 90s, or looks sort of like one.
DH: That is a solid breakdown of the formula. What do you think it is that's so appealing about these movies? They are fun to make fun of, but I don't think that's all there is to it.
TM: If it were just to make fun of them, I think we would have lost our enthusiasm for it a long time ago. There's something fascinating about the aggressive blandness, and the commitment to being as palatable as possible. These movies never mention God, and rarely mention Santa or the other accepted traditions. They just create this little world in which Christmas is the most important and meaningful event in the world, but for no particular reason besides that Christmas is a time of love and peace.
They do create a soothing backdrop for all the hectic action in our lives during Christmas season, a season I find to be often unpleasant and even miserable, due to the month long obsession with consumption for consumption's sake, and also the nonsense culture wars around it.
But also: now these movies are competently produced and acted and they are real professional operations that make very simple promises and deliver on them. You will see some traditional holiday markers, you will see two pretty people fall in love, you will get a few goofy things to laugh at.
And ALSO: seeing the minor stars of my youth (Alicia Witt, Dean Cain, Hillary Duff, Danica McKellar, etc) in these movies is part of the fun. "Look at that guy!" I can say. "He's the guy from the other thing!"
DH: You've been reading romance novels for Book Fight for awhile now. Do you see parallels in what you're reading there and what you're watching on the Hallmark channel? Also, what a strange life you've carved out for yourself.
TM: It's a little harder to discuss romance novels as a broad genre, because there are so many variations. But for Book Fight, we've focused mostly on mainstream Harlequin romances. One major common thread is how often the plots are driven by Not A Conflict. Two beautiful people find one another extremely sexy and even charming, despite finding them also annoying. One minor thing that is easily overcome ("I promised myself I wouldn't date anyone within six months of my graduation from vet school, but it's only been four months!") drags the plot out long enough to make the thing a novel or a book. The sexual tension isn't simmering so much as it is insisted upon.
The other big thing: these movies and the romances we've read so far have been aggressively, overwhelmingly white and hetero. The small town people in these movies are all clearly Trump voters. It sucks, but what can you do.
DH: That is a good transition into a thing I wanted to talk about. Obviously there are some really problematic things about The Formula, as charming and comforting as it may be. Gender roles is one thing. It seems that any woman who is successful in "business" (more on that in a moment) also very much needs to be taught about Christmas. This year I've also really noticed how much the movies embrace what I guess we could call "traditional" attitudes toward "business" in general. There was the one you watched where the conflict was that the protagonists wanted to be in advertising as opposed to some kind of artistic endeavor. There was one I watched where a terrible asshole "trader" bets his buddies that he can "get a girl to marry him" and nobody in the movie, including the writer, director, producers, apparently, seemed to think that that was a terrible awful assholish thing to even think about and not a cute way for two characters to meet. It may be where my head is at, and our constantly plummeting political situation, but it does seem to me that this year in particular these movies are servicing the idea that "business is good" in a very uncomplicated and unrealistic way. Unless, of course, you are a woman, and then you should probably be taught about Christmas by a handsome roughneck. Have you noticed that? Am I crazy?
TM: I don't think you're crazy about the problems with The Formula. There's something uncomfortable about the way the Hallmark Christmas movie exalts the Small Town Values of Real America, given the current political climate. It's also annoying, the way markers of city living are used as shorthand for people who don't have values or good priorities.
The movies are steadfastly apolitical, but there's a politics to that too, right? One of the ostensible pleasures of a Hallmark Christmas movie is that it takes place in a town that exists out of any real space or time that resembles anything like America. They're Thomas Kinkade paintings come to life. So they tend to reaffirm extremely traditional values, which means they present a world that is comfortable and familiar to the audience, which excludes all kinds of people.
The unremitting whiteness is hard to miss, too. They've begun adding one person of color per movie, not even as the sassy best friend, but typically as some co-worker who gets 3-4 lines. I think there are 33 new Hallmark movies this Christmas season, and only one actually stars a person of color (Holly Robinson Peete).
DH: There's an interesting crossover between these worlds and the world of the movie Road House, in that they just very aggressively set out to make this world that's like the world but different in very peculiar ways, like there are famous bouncers, or everybody in this one town is super invested in the results of the annual ice sculpting competition. They just lay it out and stick to their guns regardless of how ridiculous it may be, and it works in a way. Part of the Formula is how consistent the formula is, too -- if we were brainstorming people of color who might show up in a Hallmark holiday movie, I'm pretty sure Holly Robinson Peete would be at the top of that list.
Do you think it's getting worse the past few years? Or maybe "worse" isn't the right word -- do you think this is becoming a more prominent part of these movies? Or are we just noticing more? I've been honestly a little shocked at a few of the bits this year. It's almost like a kink, you know? A weird predilection for "business" in general. But again, it very well could be something that was there all along and just kind of sticks out in the current climate. Also I'm old and was raised on pop culture that generally regarded The Establishment as the bad thing we're fighting against, so I think that's why it's legit shocking to me to see figures who are certainly establishment figures acting in establishment ways portrayed as the actual heroes of these movies. Sorry that was maybe me working some things out there...
TM: Allow me to congratulate you on Barrelhousing this up by making it about Road House by like question 6.
I think you're not wrong, but the formula has been like this as long as I've known it. Because they're not praising corporate titans so much as they are praising the vague concept of "business," in the way that my undergrads want to be business majors because "business" = wearing a suit, and wearing a suit = respectability. The most businessy thing the heroes do is Land The Big Account, which is about as generic as possible, and they always do it in this very humane and personal way.
Though there is one (_The Christmas Parade_) starring one of the Property Brothers as an actual bad business guy. He's a developer who wants to bulldoze the beloved mom and pop shop in a small town and replace it with condos or whatever. He ends up getting his comeuppance and losing the girl, because he is Mr. Business but he never learns to love Small Town Values.
I think it's part of this American pathology where we want to revere billionaires but also believe that they're wholesome and Just Like Us, and assume that the only difference between them and us is a couple good decisions. Which is working out just fine for everyone, obviously.
DH: Landing the Big Account? That reminds me of a little movie called Point Break....I can get from anywhere to Swayze in two moves, Tom.
So...transition...what's your favorite Hallmark holiday movie and why?
TM: To be a favorite, the movie has to hit the formula notes, but deviate just enough. There have to be a couple intentionally funny moments (these movies are so gentle, the jokes are frequently not even jokes; it's hard to imagine the writer aiming for more than a bemused smile), and twice as many unintentionally funny ones. The two leads have to be legitimately likable. _Ice Sculpture Christmas_ is maybe the peak of the form, mainly because the two leads have actual real chemistry, and Rachel Boston is the best actress in any of these movies. But also, there is a pivotal ice sculpting competition. _The Nine Lives of Christmas_ stars former Superman Brandon Routh as a hunky firefighter who loves cats and works with an amazingly supportive crew of other firefighters. There's also a Maybe Santa. _I'm Not Ready for Christmas_ is the best Alicia Witt Hallmark movie, and it steals the premise of _Liar Liar_. My wife insists that I also list _A Nutcracker Christmas_ here (I haven't seen it yet).
DH: Important theoretical question. Who would you cast in the movie I'm going to write about an overworked alien who lands in a Christmas tree farm and is taught about Christmas by the hunky Christmas tree farm owner (obviously he inherited the Christmas tree farm and also they are engaged in some kind of Christmasy competition and etc). Dream casting: alien woman, hunky Christmas tree farm owner, Maybe Santa (probably that's the hunk's father/uncle)?
TM: After some serious research and auditions, I've got my cast for your movie:
Overworked Alien Woman: Jenna von Oy
Hunky Farm Owner: Jonathan Taylor Thomas
Maybe Santa: John Larroquette
Red Herring Hunk who turns out to be a bad guy: Scott Speedman
Token person of color who gets 3 lines: Karyn Parsons
Town Mayor: Earl Sinclair, from _Dinosaurs_
DH: I did not see Jenna von oy coming but I think she does have a bit of an alien quality. Also you just got yourself an executive producer credit, buddy.
Okay, keeping the casting going, in the Hallmark holiday movie of your life, who from the current round of Hallmark players plays Tom? Who plays Laurabeth?
TM: My wife, who loved _My So-Called Life, got really excited when I suggested we be played by Jared Leto and Claire Danes, but I'm so unhappy with the idea of Jared Leto going method to play me.
DH: Since this is a Barrelhouse interview and I already managed to sneak Road House in here once already, what's your favorite Patrick Swazye movie?
TM: Favorite Swayze film appearance is probably the SNL Chippendales sketch, because, as someone who is 15 years younger than you, that is almost certainly my first exposure to his many talents.