Ranking the Queer Holiday Romance Movies of 2020

If there was one thing that’s most curious about popular entertainment in our unprecedented pandemic year, it is the plethora of gay holiday movies that has suddenly come out, most particularly from platforms that have for so long embraced heteronormativity as a given. I’m talking primarily about Lifetime and Hallmark Channel, both of which grind out these holiday romances every year, unapologetic for their formula and for their sheer quantity — and more so for hewing close to an idea of love as strictly being heterosexual. Gay men and women hardly appear in these confections, and if they do, they play support: the best friend, the quirky boss, perhaps the florist.

But something happened late last year that would alter the landscape of Christmas romance movies this year. Patrick Serrano, writing for The Oprah Magazine, identifies the turning point: “Then came 2019, when the LGBTQ+ representation in the TV movie sphere shifted completely, thanks to two forces. First, Lifetime’s Twinkle All the Way featured a quick gay kiss between two C-plot characters played by Brian Sills and the ever-so-handsome, Mark Ghanimé. Around the same time as this landmark, if unceremoniously unrolled, depiction of gay affection, the Hallmark Channel pulled a Zola ad featuring a same-sex wedding and kiss because it was deemed ‘controversial.’”

The pulling of that Zola ad, which was the Hallmark Channel’s response to ultra-conservative forces decrying the “desecration” of one remaining stronghold of heteronormativity in the name of “family values,” gave rise to LGBTQ voices protesting the decision — which, in turn, put under the spotlight, the very notion of representation in these movies. Why indeed have these movies resisted for so long gay love? After the public outcry, the network eventually reinstated the commercials.

The clapback must have been swift and brutal because only a year later, we have notably these: Hulu with Happiest Season, Paramount Network with Dashing in December, Lifetime with The Christmas Setup, and Hallmark itself with The Christmas House.

I had no plans to watch any of these. I’ve seen two or three of these Christmas romance movies before, and they’ve always struck me as pantomimes of holiday cheer and romantic love, the snow obviously fake, the screenplay an odious amalgam of retold stories [usually involving disputed real estate in some winsome rural setting, where the city rat learns to relax and give in to love, but not before a confrontation about lies and the secrets people keep], the cinematography a flatness of landscape that has no idea of depth or texture, and the characters overwhelmingly white in skin color and privilege. [In other words, I hate Christmas romance movies.]

But the curiosity eventually kicked in: what is a gay Christmas romance movie? I wanted to see how this panned out — and now that I have, here is my ranking of all four films [plus a series], from embarrassing inanity to giddy holiday joy…

5. The Christmas House (Michael Grossman, The Hallmark Channel)

Hallmark, the most conservative platform of the lot, steps ever so gingerly into diversity — by giving us a love story between a man and a woman, except that the man has a gay brother who is happily married to another man. Well, it’s a start. Small steps, you could say. But it’s not helped by the blandest of execution — a movie that sleepwalks its way through slapdash Christmas romance movie conflict and resolution. Brothers Mike (Robert Buckley), a TV actor, and Brandon (Jonathan Bennett), a baker, come home to revive an old family tradition — helping their parents Phylis (Sharon Lawrence) and Bill (Treat Williams) decorate full blast their house in Christmas lights and ornaments one last time, with the effusive help of Brandon’s husband Jake (Brad Harder), before putting the house on the market. [Real estate!] Then Mike reconnects with high school friend and former neighbor Andi (Ana Ayora) — and a change of heart is in order, making theirs the central romance of the film, thrusting the gay couple into the sidelines, a diversity figurehead for the most part. It wouldn’t have been so bad were it not for the fact they’re in a film so bland nothing in it is believable.

4. Happiest Season (Clea Duvall, Hulu)

From first hearing about it, I was happy enough to dive into this lesbian Christmas romance movie, which felt very much like a corrective. But everything in Clea Duvall’s film rubbed me the wrong way, from characters who are all extremely unlikable you could not find anyone to properly root for, to underlying thematic implications — gaslighting and emotional abuse in relationships, among other things — that gnaw at you, and continues at it post-screening that I had to ask myself if the film really made those choices, and what for. The story is simple and unproblematic enough: Harper (Mackenzie Davis) is taking her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) home for the holidays for the first time — but soon admits she has yet to come out to the family, thus necessitating a ruse that leads to shenanigans of all sorts. Duvall stages these “shenanigans” in strange comic sequences — a misunderstanding at the mall, for example, leads to cameos by comedians Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus as mall security too eager to delve deep into an accusation of shoplifting — which I take as Duvall making light of her material, but they stick out so much as sore thumbs they feel like standup comedy that has totally bombed it leaves the audience with plastered fake smiles as they try to make sense of a terrible punch line that doesn’t land. This film is a joke that never lands.

3. Dashing in December (Jake Helgren, Paramount Network)

From Paramount Network comes a film that hews the closest to a typical Christmas romance movie: finance whiz Wyatt (Peter Porte) finally comes home, after five long years, to the family ranch in Colorado, ran by his widowed mother Deb (Andie MacDowell). But he has other things beside reunion in mind: he wants to convince his mother to sell the ranch [real estate!], which has long been a money pit he’s been unwillingly bankrolling for years. Somewhat tense holiday dinners ensue — and it is up to ranch hand Heath (Juan Pablo Di Pace) to convince Wyatt to give the farm another go. Wyatt remains resolute, until he finds himself falling for Heath’s rugged charm. It’s all cute and comfortable, driven mostly by the believability of the characters and a focused sense of place.

2. Dash and Lily (Joe Tracz, Netflix)

Netflix’s Dash and Lily is not a movie but a web series, but it feels like a worthy addition to this list because of one thing: the joyful pairing of Langston (Troy Iwata) and Benny (Diego Guevara) as a newly-hitched gay couple who do not just provide bland support to the titular leads, but actually provide the conceit [clues and dares in a red notebook!] that drive the story, and gets their own arc as well. The main love story, based on the YA novel by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, is winsome enough to follow: Christmas grinch Dash (Austin Abrams) and Christmas lover Lily (Midori Francis) find themselves falling in love, sight unseen, over the course of the holiday season as they exchange heartfelt correspondence [and dares] in a notebook, making full use of New York as a veritable Christmas wonderland. And then there’s Langston and Benny who are unapologetic for their sheer horniness, they feel totally deserving of a spin-off.

1. The Christmas Setup (Pat Mills, Lifetime)

Lifetime’s effort, like Dashing in December, also feels very close to the tropes we demand of a Christmas romance movie, including real estate as the B-plot, but I am utterly gobsmacked by how it transcends the formula without losing a single iota of its charm. This film is utterly delightful, and earns every ounce of sweetness it concocts — and while it is derivative and predictable [it is, after all, a Christmas romance movie], its characters feel grounded enough by winning performances they actually do the same to the material. Hugo (Ben Lewis) is a somewhat uptight, if ambitious, New York attorney who decides to come home to visit his mother Kate (Fran Drescher) for Christmas together with his best friend Madelyn (Ellen Wong), and soon also his brother Aiden (Chad Connell). Kate is an indefatigable community organizer who feels compelled to lead the way in bringing holiday cheer, complete with time-honored traditions, to the neighborhood and enlists her family and friends in the selfless service to this relentless march in the name of the Christmas spirit. But it also soon becomes apparent that Kate is capable of more than just community organizing. She is also perfectly capable of setting up her sons, in conniving and subtle ways, for romances they don’t think about as even plausible. This includes Hugo being forced to consider what he really wants in life, especially when “circumstances” have him reconnecting with his high school crush Patrick (Blake Lee) just as he is being offered a promotion to his firm’s office in London. Plus there’s the B-plot of the town’s train station — traditionally the site of a particularly beloved community Christmas tradition — which is being demolished for future development by the uncaring town aldermen, until Hugo digs deep into its history and not only finds legal real estate loophole, but also a symbolic full-circle of local queer history. The movie does so much, and does it all with infectious lightness of being.

For further reading:

The New York Times: Same-Sex Kisses Under the Mistletoe: Holiday Movies Rethink a Formula
Cinemablend: 9 Christmas Movies Featuring LGBTQ+ Stories
The Washington Post: TV’s Gay Christmas Movies are as Benign, Charming and Cliche as We Always Hoped They’d Be
Esquire: In the Queer Christmas Movie Arena, Predictability Still Outshines Realness
Decider: The Gayest Christmas Ever: Inside 2020’s Big, Queer Holiday Explosion
Advocate: 21 Movies That Queered Christmas
Good Housekeeping: 15 Most Festive LGBTQ Christmas Movies
NPR: Holiday Rom-Coms Go Beyond Diversity To Center New Christmas Stars
The Oprah Magazine: Lifetime’s The Christmas Setup Is the LGBTQ Holiday Movie I Never Thought I’d Get to See
CNN: It’s a Record Year for LGBTQ Representation in Holiday Movies
Salon: TV’s First Crop of Queer Christmas Movies Range From Saccharine Fun to Superficial Flops
Film School Reject: Make the Yuletide Gay: Why We Need More Queer Christmas Movies

Interpreter of hamsters. Author of Beautiful Accidents: Stories and Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror