15 Dec Episode 152: Hallmark Christmas Movies and the Cozy, Conservative Nostalgia Machine
Citations Needed | December 15, 2021 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: And speaking of gratitude, we should say this is the final episode of Citations Needed of 2021, year of our Lord 2021, Adam, which I think is a fitting way to introduce this episode.
Adam: Yes, speaking of Lord, we’ve wanted for a great deal of time to do, and we’ve had some requests to do this as well, an episode on Hallmark films, which we’re very excited to do today to cap off the year and leave people with a warm, hot chocolate feel for this very special episode of Citations Needed.
Nima: So without further ado, let’s get to it. A blast from the past teaches a small town to embrace tradition and believe in miracles we simply can’t explain. A cynical urban professional finds kindness and purpose while traveling through the heartland. Two old flames living in the fast lane discover, amid the magic of Christmas, that they were meant for each other all along.
Adam: These loglines describe the plots of countless movies made for and broadcast by Hallmark, the famed greeting card company-turned-media conglomerate that has become synonymous with made-for-TV Christmas movies. The Hallmark Cinematic Universe is one in which the fantasies of conservatives everywhere are played out: everyone in town is part of a white nuclear family, bartenders and waiters are happy to be of service, single women are emotionally unfulfilled, police and the military are uniformly viewed as heroes, and the largesse of the wealthy brings joy to wholesome small towns.
Nima: While it’s easy, and of course not a little bit fun, to dunk on Hallmark and Hallmark-inspired Christmas movies, it’s also worth examining the political currents of Christmas movie schmaltz and shlock. Why is it that they’re produced in such abundance, with upwards of three dozen of these films put out every year? What ideological precepts are their themes of nostalgia meant to reinforce? And what tropes do they perpetuate beyond the cozy iconography of fuzzy sweaters and snow-lined sidewalks?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll seek to answer these questions, focusing on four movies: Journey Back to Christmas from 2016, The Christmas Train 2017, Entertaining Christmas 2018, and Operation Christmas Drop from last year. We’ll dive into the ways in which nostalgia for an imaginary MAGA-style past informs their character development, settings, and plots, leaving little room for messaging other than dog whistles like, ‘Let’s just go back to the good old days.’
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by David Roth, co-founder and co-owner of Defector Media. He has written for Deadspin, The New Republic, New York Magazine, among others, and co-hosts, with Jeb Lund, the podcast “It’s Christmastown,” about the gentle, cornball, consequence-free world of the Hallmark Channel.
David Roth: The idea of it is that it’s sort of cinematic comfort food pegged to a holiday with some merchandising tie-ins. They’re so conventional that they wind up feeling kind of uncanny and that’s what I think is fascinating about them. They’re trying very hard to be normal, but they’re also being shot in basically real time on very low budgets, with television actors from my childhood, as a person in his early ’40s, and so the weirdness that that haste produces is not like any other type of film that’s out there to find.
Adam: So as we begin I want to start off by doing what we sometimes do, which is a qualifier, which is we go after a lot of big topics on this show, we go after sinister right-wing media figures, feckless liberals, sinister forces of corporate media, the CIA, this is not one of our bigger targets to be clear. This is pretty low hanging fruit, and probably not the highest stakes episode we’ve done.
Nima: Big Hallmark?
Adam: Yeah, look, we are attempting to end the season on something a little light hearted so if you’re looking for a super serious takedown full of conspiracy, true detective boards, where we show how the CIA is behind —
Nima: Stay tuned, it’s coming.
Adam: You’re not not going to get it, what you’re gonna get is that these are reactionary pieces of creative fiction, which are not particularly original, not very insightful, and certainly pander to and market to a specific demographic, although I do think we will be discussing some of the ways in which these movies do reinforce a very conservative ideology. But again, this is not maybe the biggest revelation in the world. Nor is this a secret.
Nima: The most sinister aspect of doing this episode, Adam, I think, is that I was forced to watch a number of these movies, but what started as excruciating agony wound up with a kind of a more hot chocolate-y type of joy.
Adam: Yeah, so let’s get into this. Hallmark movies are fundamentally about feeling. These films, these movies are actually sort of a useful entry point into pure aesthetics. They have a very particular way they film and set design, which is Christmas lights in virtually every shot if not every shot, typically out of focus, so you have this sort of glow.
Nima: Soft focus, soft focus.
Adam: A certain palette, a very particular set of tropes, which you almost always have to have, fuzzy sweaters and a very kind of soft lens. There’s a term in Norwegian — I’m going to butcher this, and if we have any Norwegian fans, I’m going to mispronounce this — it’s called koselig, which is defined as, quote, “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” So basically —
Nima: The feeling of Christmas.
Adam: This feeling of Christmas. It’s about the feeling of Christmas and people, of course, sit down and watch movies because they know that it’s, as David Roth puts it, they are consequence free, there’s never really high stakes, they’re kind of just on while you’re baking or with family or sitting alone drinking red wine, as the case may be.
Nima: Mulled wine.
Adam: And this is like showing up to a barbecue restaurant complaining they don’t have vegetarian food, it is the thing they do, they are conservative by definition. But we do want to give a little background to start off with, of what Hallmark is, what is the sort of Hallmark brand.
Nima: So, Hallmark was founded in 1910 as a postcard company and would eventually grow into what we now know as the foremost, and often derided, greeting card giant. The company delved into television back in 1951, when it began to sponsor an anthology series called the Hallmark Hall of Fame, broadcasting operas, plays, and other productions in order to generate corporate goodwill. By 1998, the company bought a Christian cable network called Odyssey and rebranded in 2001 into what we now know as the Hallmark Channel.
Hallmark broadcast its first original Christmas movie in 2002, it was called Santa Jr. By the 2010s, Hallmark’s Christmas movies had become its signature products as well as a ratings juggernaut despite dwindling cable audience numbers in general, particularly with white conservative women due at least in part to its perceived role as an antidote to the quote-unquote “mature” content of much mainline primetime cable and premium cable television. Now, not surprisingly, when Hallmark airs holiday movies, they’re almost always about Christmas, and not only about Christmas, Adam, but usually if you write a script that has Christmas in the title, you can sell it to Hallmark.
Adam: Yeah Christmas definitely has to be in the title. An E! Online story quoted one regular Hallmark viewer, a North Carolina retiree, who explained her fandom of the channel by saying, quote:
“There is no profanity nor any sex offensive acts in any movie I have ever seen. It is different from all other networks; there is no violence, no profanity, and no needed sexual behavior with the exception of a couple of sitcoms which are not Hallmark productions and are on late night.”
In 2017, Hallmark Channel had become the most-watched cable network in November and December among 18- to 49-year-old and 25- to 54-year-old women specifically. According to a 2019 study by UCLA researchers, the three top-rated cable shows among white viewers during the 2016–2017 were all Hallmark, and one sampling from 2016 to 2017, the top three The Good Witch, When Calls the Heart and Chesapeake Shores were all Hallmark. It’s apparently a very lucrative demographic. By 2017, Hallmark, under its parent company Crown Media Family Networks, had three cable networks: the Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, and Hallmark Drama.
In 2017, AdWeek reported that Hallmark Channel’s annual two-month marathon of Christmas-themed TV and movies known as Countdown to Christmas, and the equivalent holiday programming period from Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, quote:
“represent one-third of Hallmark Channel’s annual ad revenue, according to the company. This year, the network looks to bring in an estimated $390 million in ad revenue…while Hallmark Movies and Mysteries will take in an estimated $146 million in ad revenue.”
Accordingly, Hallmark seems to increase its production of original Christmas movies each year having done 21 in 2017, 37 in 2018, 40 in 2019, 40 in 2020 and 41 in 2022. Presumably inspired by these numbers, other networks and streaming platforms have hopped on the Christmas-movie bandwagon. According to a 2021 AdAge report, quote:
Lifetime plans to kick off its holiday movie season on Nov. 12, and Freeform’s is set to start on Dec. 1. GAC Family, helmed by former Hallmark CEO Bill Abbott, has whipped up a holiday schedule of its own that includes some well-known Hallmark stars. Plus, networks not typically thought of for Christmastime favorites, including VH1 and Comedy Central, have also announced holiday slates this year.
And that’s just on TV. There’s also a plethora of streaming platforms that are dabbling in seasonal content, including Netflix and its library of both classic and original Christmas specials, and Hulu, which has also emphasized other holiday offerings as of late.
So put another way, we are getting, there is increasingly more and more holiday shit on the platforms.
Nima: The war on Christmas is apparently being won by Christmas.
Adam: People love this shit. It’s extremely popular, and it is growing by leaps and bounds every year.
Nima: And it’s extremely, extremely lucrative, as you said.
Adam: It’s lucrative and quite cheap to produce.
Nima: Well, hey, you know, they do make greeting cards so they know how to, you know, increase their profit margins there. So before we get into the movies that we actually just want to discuss and kind of dig into, let’s return quickly to the politics of the average Hallmark viewer. A 2019 study by the Norman Lear Center found that the Hallmark Channel was one of the most popular networks with people who are ideologically quote-unquote “red” — and I don’t mean red meaning communist — which the Norman Lear Center defined as those with, quote, “conservative views on most issues, including positive attitudes towards police and skepticism about affirmative action, immigrants and Islam.” End quote. “Reds,” quote-unquote, again, American Republican red, the study noted, have the highest proportion of senior citizens.
Jeb Lund, a journalist and podcast co-host with our guest today, David Roth, wrote this in December of 2019, quote:
Hallmark’s movies are stridently anti-metropolitan, almost always beginning with a heroine fleeing the city on some pretext or another. The geography of her personal rescue takes the form of small towns and pastoral settings, where everyone has a nice house and a car and is probably a small-business owner or about to improve themselves by becoming one. Blue-collar jobs exist, but they pay at artisanal rates. And cratered school budgets and bankrupt shelters are rescued by private donors; in a world that cannot mention taxes, the commons only ever existed via the goodness of unnamed hearts.
Adam: So having set the table we’re going to go through four films as we mentioned at the top of the show, and we’re going to talk about these films briefly, and we’re going to talk about what we liked, what was problematic — you’re canceled Candace Cameron Bure — we’re gonna go through these films talk about them. First up Journey Back to Christmas, Hallmark 2016. The plot is a small town nurse and World War Two widow Hanna is transported from the year 1945 to 2016 in the sleepy fictional Vermont town of Central Falls, when a kind hearted cop named Jake is called to do a wellness check on her he brings her into his family home, where his mother, his sister and his niece live and welcomes her into the town where she teaches the quinoa-eating, smartphone-touting, organic toothpaste purchasing population to revive old traditions and trust that miracles do in fact happen.
Nima: Journey Back to Christmas, not only does star Candace Cameron Bure, Hallmark staple, of course, as nurse Hanna, it stars Oliver Hudson as Jake, and then there is Mr. Cook, the mysterious benefactor of the town, played by the incomparable Tom Skerritt. So, you know, pretty high up on the prestige scale there. This was one of my favorite ones to watch, I think, Adam, it sets up, you know, she’s a nurse in a small town, a war widow, and you know, there’s happiness around her, engagements, and you know, she feels very sad. She’s most upset, we learn, that she feels like even though she’s a nurse, she has no purpose, Adam, because really what she wanted and she says this out loud to a friend, is that she really just wanted to make a nice home for her husband, and now that he is dead, she really feels untethered.
Adam: Which to be fair, your husband dying in WWII is probably not a lot of fun. But yes.
Nima: Now, we also learned early on that there’s going to be a comet crossing the sky, the Christmas comet that only appears every 71 years. It also just so happens that a friend of Hanna tells her that happiness is found in the future, not the past. Lo and behold, the comet soars across the sky, and Hanna is transported to the year that the film was made 2016, 71 years later.
Adam: So this film has all the kind of basic thematic cliches, cops are here to protect us, cops are good. Number two, the youth have abandoned tradition. So the whole premise is that they need someone from 1945 to come to the modern age to sort of reteach us the importance of tradition and Christmas tradition.
Nima: That’s right. They don’t even decorate the gazebo anymore, Adam.
Adam: And three, the wealthy are benevolent, trope is pretty much in every one of these movies. So Jake, the cop who was called to the wellness check on Hanna is our main male lead. He’s a cop. Initially, the whole premise is like, is she crazy or is she really from 1945? And he uncovers the truth that she in fact is. The town of Central Falls is completely different in 2016, Hanna’s old house becomes an organic food store.
Nima: Yes, called Organic Planet no less. It sells, among other things, gluten-free toothpaste.
Adam: As a mark of modernity and how they’ve turned away from tradition, they had to make gluten-free toothpastes. Isn’t all toothpaste gluten-free?
Nima: It doesn’t even matter, clearly the screenwriter didn’t care, it was offensive enough, it was un-American enough to put in there. They actually love this gag so much that after initially she sees that gluten-free toothpaste is being sold in Organic Planet, the store that is now occupying her old home, they repeat this gag a few scenes later when Hanna says to the hero cop, Jake, “I don’t even know what gluten-free is,” to which Jake replies, “Most of us don’t.” And not much later, there’s another health food dig. Gossip is spreading around Cedar Falls about the mysterious stranger now in town, Hanna, who, quote “made a scene in the health food store” and a character responds to this by saying, “I would too if I had to eat quinoa.”
Adam: Yeah, so quinoa and organic and gluten-free, it’s all the gay, right? It’s new, it’s sort of, because conservative media is obsessed with gluten-free, I think that they think gluten-free is like a moral panic or a social contagion of some kind that infects liberals. So you have to have the sort of gluten-free cheap shot, again, one of the recurring themes is that the town has turned its back on Christmas.
Nima: Yes, kids these days are on their screens all the time.
Adam: And the main theme, and of course Candace Cameron is Kirk Cameron’s sister, she’s a very hardcore Christian, so this movie is a little bit more, as Nima you put it, Christ-y.
Nima: This one is super duper Christ-y, there’s a lot of —
Adam: I didn’t find it as Christ-y.
Nima: Because you’re just brainwashed man.
Adam: Well, I think I have a higher threshold of Christ-y, but I think it has Christ-y vibes, is all I’ll say.
Nima: The Christmas comet is kind of a stand in for like the Star of Bethlehem, the caroling that goes on is not always your “Deck the Halls” kind, it’s much more “Silent Night,” the Christ child was born.
Adam: That’s big Christ energy, but I think it’s mostly because that’s Candace Cameron’s whole deal. So there’s one scene in particular where they talk about how no one carols anymore. This is part of their kind of falling from tradition, their embrace of modernity. They replaced caroling presumably with organic gluten free quinoa. So we’re gonna listen to that scene real quick. It’s quite silly.
Hanna: Everybody comes out for it, seems like all the neighbors, we carol, we drink hot chocolate, laugh.
Kid: Can I Carol?
Hanna: Kids don’t go caroling anymore?
Woman: I guess we just don’t. I don’t know. We’ve just never done it.
Kid: Can we mommy? Can we carol?
Nima: The idea of losing tradition is rampant throughout this. We haven’t talked about the snooty, skeptical townsfolk. There’s a family, they really don’t believe Hanna, the old timey, time traveling nurse, is genuine and the fact that a miracle occurred and transported her through time. No, she’s just a grifter, she’s out to get something. So this whole scene that takes place in a vintage clothing store where, you know, ‘Oh, maybe she just bought her old timey clothes there and is fooling everyone,’ but in the store, when asked why the gazebo is not lit anymore, as opposed to what it looks like on an old postcard from town that they find in the store, the thrift store clerk says this.
Clerk: People used to pass these traditions on to their children. I don’t know, kids these days just don’t seem interested the way they used to.
Adam: So anyway, she goes to the town. She teaches them about tradition. Modernity sucks. It has a lot of gay shit in it and we should all go back to the old ways.
Nima: There’s also a line where Jake the cop asks his cop partner, who incidentally is his secret crush and little sister’s bratty BFF, actually says this line, “I like snow. Do you like snow?” Which I think is my favorite movie line ever?
Adam: Well, in the interest of fairness, there’s actually a line in it that was good, and then I was pissed it was actually good. I mean, good, relatively speaking. When she falls in love with him, the woman cop partner, he looks at her longingly, he kisses her on the forehead, and she sort of flirtatiously says, “Have you lost it?” And he looks at her deep in the eyes and he says, “No, I found it,” and I was like, that’s actually a pretty good line.
Nima: Incidentally Jake the cop lives at home on his parents’ property, for some reason, along with his single sister Louise and her daughter Gwen. Now unsaid, but implied, and this is actually a current that runs through a lot of Hallmark movies, is that Gwen’s dad is dead, which is why they now live with her grandparents, which is why her mother lives with her parents since as we know in the Hallmark universe no woman could possibly raise a child without a man around.
Adam: Well, no. Of course not.
Adam: Let’s move on to my favorite, we’re gonna move on to my favorite one now. So this is the one I liked the best, and had the highest production values, The Christmas Train.
Nima: Oh, this is a really good one. This is part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, by the way.
Adam: Yeah, which is where they spend the beaucoup bucks, right? These usually have higher production values. So The Christmas Train is about a skeptical, down-on-his-luck former war correspondent Tom Langdon, played by Dermot Mulroney, who’s fucking great. He plays the deadbeat dad and Angels in the Outfield, also with Danny Glover, which is one of the goofiest plots ever, where he basically tries to disown his own child and the judge is like Sure. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m not gonna be around.’
Nima: I think my favorite Dermot Mulroney movie has to be Young Guns.
Adam: That’s right. He was in that. Anyway, he encounters an old flame played by Kimberly Williams-Paisley, the wife of Brad Paisley, the country music star, and she’s a country girl turned big city script doctor who used to be a journalist who worked with Tom Langdon, they dated for three years? Is that how long? Six years? Some arbitrary time.
Nima: In some war-torn Middle Eastern country.
Adam: Yeah and they make constant reference to being in Israel in the Middle East.
Nima: So Tom, Dermot Mulroney, is set to do a story. He’s no longer a war correspondent, he now does culture writing, schlocky stuff about which sweaters to buy. So he’s going to do for his, you know, holiday article, he’s going to take this cross country, Christmas time train trip on what is known as the Christmas train and write a story about it and the people he encounters. It is there that he meets not only his former flame Eleanor, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, but also her boss played by the incomparable Danny Glover, who’s a big-time movie producer.
Adam: And also a major donor to left-wing causes, the actor, not the character Max Power. And there’s a frumpy old maid played by Joan Cusack, who despite being less than a year older than Dermot Mulroney, is automatically per se unsexualized and reduced to a tertiary character, because obviously, he has to go for someone ten years his junior. She’s in this as well and it’s a bizarrely decent cast.
Nima: And possibly the worst script I’ve ever seen.
Adam: It’s like a weird Amtrak commercial.
Nima: Train travel, what? But it’s truly train travel through the heartland of America is the most American thing you could possibly do, and especially, they’re going from DC to LA. So, you know, coastal elite power cities, but in the middle of the country is where the heart, of course, is found, and that’s where you get to enjoy the ride and fall in love again. And so what are the tropes in this one? Unsurprisingly, the real soul of America, obviously not on the coasts, not the big cities. There’s a romanticized Rockwellian conception of trains throughout, of course, synonymizing them, and cross-country travel, with really this deep heart and soul of what it means to be America.
Adam: Well, maybe there’s some added benefit of convincing conservatives that public train transit is actually worth investing in. These trains are hilariously immaculate. I mean, they have warm lighting in every cabin, the main drinking car, it looks like something from North by Northwest that just doesn’t exist anymore, you know, where you have white glove waiters, a charming post-racial bartender, who’s always, I mean, it’s just, it’s so ideal, and again, I know it’s kind of their deal, but it’s —
Nima: It’s the whole thing, but everyone not only has the best of intentions, but it’s like everyone acts like your friendly doorman. That’s every single character.
Adam: There’s no pesky Jews or Muslims to kind of ruin business.
Nima: To convolute the message.
Adam: There’s universalist claims about how everybody loves Christmas. Well, I don’t know, not everyone celebrates Christmas. But anyway, so everyone’s uniform, almost everybody is white, except for Danny Glover, and I think there’s another person who’s Black, but with all these movies, there’s like the tokens.
Nima: Well and it’s not only merely tokenizing in The Christmas Train, but the Danny Glover character, Max Powers, the film producer, very much plays the trope of the magical Negro, which is like a very common film trope where a Black character is there to not only perform miraculous deeds, but pretty much serves the sole purpose of enabling the white main characters to fulfill their own destinies. So obviously, it’s all about taking a journey, right? Now, in all of these movies, and it is no surprise that the first movie we talked about is called Journey Back to Christmas, this Christmas Train is also about going back, but really, it’s the ride that you need to appreciate.
Tom: You don’t take the Christmas train to get somewhere fast. You take it for the journey and what a journey it is. Because with every stop it makes, a little bit of America gets on and says hello and sometimes even Merry Christmas. People don’t rush because that’s not what trains are for, they’re not just about the destination, they’re about the joy of taking the trip.
Adam: So to find true love, one must look to their past, rekindling nostalgic, you know, in the words of Al Pacino from Glengarry Glen Ross, “the nostalgia file,” is where he goes to find his true love, and that’s obviously a very common recurring theme, which is somewhat universalist, you know, falling in love with an old flame. Very relatable I guess, everyone sort of had or has that inclination or is maybe perhaps done it themselves, perhaps ill advisedly so, and they discover their romance, and they get together, and of course, there’s always the problem, which is the problem in almost every romantic comedy, where you have the superfluous nagging wife or douchebag current boyfriend, who you need to get rid of which they do somewhat tidily.
Nima: Yeah, she’s very pleased with the fact that everyone has found true love.
Adam: Yeah, and she takes it very well for reasons that even get even goofier later, but basically, she’s the typical kind of villain in these movies, which I think transcends Hallmark, I think that’s true of most romcoms where she sort of a little bit too skinny, too tall, kind of, of course brunette, very sort of sinister looking, has a kind of girl-who-would-pick-on-you-in-high-school look, which is what you want when you want the girl who we’re going to dispose of, or the woman we’re going to dispose of.
Nima: Right, it’s like the mean girl versus like the girl next door.
Adam: Yes, it’s almost too convoluted to explain in a synopsis, but let’s just say that one of the major themes that plays itself out, again, is that the wealthy benevolent benefactor solves all the problems at the end. So people basically live at the generosity of wealthy donors, which again, is part of our kind of dystopian, right-wing worldview, where all good things happen by rich, nice people.
Nima: The third movie that we want to discuss is actually, I think, my favorite of the bunch that we watched. It’s called Entertaining Christmas. It is totally horrible, produced by Hallmark, of course in 2018, and it follows the story of Candace Livingstone, the heir apparent of a Martha Stewart-like Empire, who travels to Cedar Falls, again in Vermont, to join a military family for a Christmas homecoming party to welcome back their beloved father, who has been stationed overseas. Now, though Candace lacks her mother Liz’s knack for cooking and crafting, she finds love and learns through the spirit of small town folks, that Christmas is about family, about being who you are, and that she’s indeed good enough to get the job done.
Adam: Yeah, and so the general themes are, of course, the US military is awesome, heroic and noble, that kind of goes without saying, number two the wealth are benevolent, which, again, we’ll get into, and of course, as always the real soul of America, Nima, is not in big cities, it’s in small towns.
Nima: Never, never. Although I do find it interesting that in a number of movies that we watched, the benevolence of small-town America can be found also in Vermont, not only in the so-called heartland, but as a New Yorker who very much loves Vermont, that really warmed my heart.
Adam: Well, we learned in our heartland episode that Vermont is actually part of the heartland.
Nima: It’s part of the heartland of course.
Adam: E.g. 95 percent or greater white population. So she comes from the big city, big city gal, doing her business life, which again is like the primary trope of these, and then she ends up in a small town and of course — blah, blah, blah — learns the true lesson of Christmas. So this one stars Jodie Sweetin, who’s another Full House alum. I think the Full House alums have cornered the market on this. The guy she falls for, Brendan Fehr, didn’t like him, thought he was a dud, didn’t have a lot of charisma, kind of a jock, not that interesting. It’s possible it’s because he does look like the guys who picked on me in high school, maybe it’s a sort of Freudian baggage I have.
Nima: He was pretty lanky. I don’t know if he looked like a jock, with his slicked-back big-city hair.
Adam: No, he’s definitely a jock. There’s a scene with his shirt off, dude, guy is jacked.
Nima: He’s a small-town journalist.
Adam: Oh, yeah, this is the funniest part. He works at the Cedar Falls Gazette.
Nima: He works at the Cedar Falls Gazette, but he comports himself like he’s, you know, big time, and my favorite character in the whole movie, Adam, is his editor.
Adam: Yeah, the frumpy editor.
Nima: Editor slash publisher of the Cedar Falls Gazette, who’s all, you know, ‘Get me the story by like 9am,” as if anyone is reading the Cedar Falls Gazette, but it is very gossip-driven and he definitely has very, very big looming deadlines.
Adam: Which is their kind of MacGuffin to get them together, and then he uncovers that she doesn’t really know how to bake and sew and he’s gonna write an expose on her.
Nima: He incidentally is also the brother of the soldier who is coming home. So it’s all in the family.
Adam: It’s all very sort of important. This is all very important stuff. And this has similar themes, she learns the importance of small town sort of simplicity, everyone in this town can sew and bake with some degree of competency, she has personally kind of drifted out of what sort of matters which is, again, Christmas matters, traditional values matter, normal heterosexual relationship.
Nima: I thought she was very sweet.
Adam: She doesn’t, the actress is not very good. But objectively Christmas Train is better actors than this.
Nima: I actually enjoyed this story a lot more. I thought it was sweeter. This one got me.
Adam: I will say it was less convoluted, is what I’ll say. So then at the end, of course, wealthy benefactors, her mom who plays this Martha Stewart character, they just really love the troops and they want to save the troops and then at the end they all kind of make this decision about what to do with the company based on what’s sort of the right thing to do.
Nima: The chairman of the board even shows up to the homecoming.
Adam: Yeah, he’s a nice guy too, and then at the end we have a kind of soldier return scene, in which the fact that it’s all deeply manipulative is never really addressed.
Nima: It’s so wonderful. But now that we’re talking about soldiers, I think we should talk about our fourth film before we speak to our guest today, David Roth, because this one, not Hallmark fair, but the Hallmark adjacent Netflix Christmas time movie that came out last year, 2020, called Operation Christmas Drop.
Adam: So this one’s kind of cheating, because it’s actually more of an American military propaganda film. Although it is very much a Christmas movie. The plot is a congressional aide to some evil liberal senator who wants to cut the military base in Guam, they actually filmed it in Guam with the help of the Pentagon. She’s kind of like a Bernie Sanders-type who wants to get rid of military bases. So her kind of sharp elbowed aide is sent to Guam to conduct an investigation to find excuses to shut it down. This is obviously something that happens so much in this country. There she needs Captain Andrew Jantz, who looks like an underwear model and I believe is an underwear model, who shows her the base’s humanitarian Christmas tradition of, to airdrop from their bombers, I guess, forgive my lack of military jargon — I wish I lived like in an Aaron Sorkin script, and knew all this really cool military jargon I could bust out at any point, but clearly, I’m a draft dodger — and so they dropped aid to Micronesian islands wearing Santa hats, and this is the titular Operation Christmas Drop, which is a real thing by the way. This is a commercial for America’s forward position in the Pacific with respect to proximity to China. So Erica participates in this operation, is touched by the generosity and convinces her evil congressperson boss to keep the base open.
Nima: That’s right, ‘Don’t defund! Don’t defund! We’re spreading Christmas cheer to colonized people across the Pacific.’
Adam: So, the military helped produce this film. And it’s, again, it’s sort of cheating because it’s not a standard issue Christmas film, Hallmark/Netflix Christmas film in the sense that it’s really just a military commercial disguised as a Christmas film, but it has many of the same tropes. She’s a big city woman who goes to a small sort of simple island, military base thing, so it’s kind of like a small town, learns about the importance of Christmas and simplicity and, of course, falling for guys with dimples and square jaws and six packs, which you know, you really don’t have to go to small towns to do this, they have plenty of attractive men in big cities. None in Chicago, incidentally, where I live, but other ones I believe, have them. So just a quick, you know, and nobody goes back to their hometown and runs into Cletus, the guy with the drug problem who wears JNCO shorts and works as a manager at Subway. It’s never that.
Nima: It’s not that kind of Christmas.
Adam: Yeah, it’s not that kind of Christmas. It’s always like Chet Studly, who’s the bartender slash works at the puppy shelter.
Nima: Who’s an Air Force captain, bartender —
Nima: Small business owner —
Adam: Who unaccountably has not been taken by any woman because he’s just brooding.
Nima: With, you know, we sell toothpaste with extra gluten in my shop.
Nima: Now the thing about Operation Christmas Drop though, which I think, you know, yes, takes it out of the snowy climbs, the soft lighting Christmas lights, but there’s something actually really even more sinister about the fact that this is really just a military commercial gussied up as a Christmas time rom com, because, you know, it takes place on Guam, which is actually occupied by American soldiers, people there are US citizens with very limited rights, Guam residents actually serve and die in the military at the highest per capita rate of US citizen who serve and are killed while being in the military, and the idea that saving the military base because of its humanitarian efforts, is truly sinister propaganda, like it really is.
Adam: Which is why I feel like we’re kind of cheating here, but we actually had a lot of requests to talk about this movie last year when it came out so we’re sort of making good on that because there’s a lot of political content in this film that’s pretty bad and it’s probably not fair to say that you can expand that to others Christmas films within the genre, but there is definitely a broader trend of military humping in these movies, obviously because they’re marketed towards red states where cops and soldiers are seen as being unambiguously moral agents in the world and the forces of modernity. The overarching theme in all these films is provincialism. It’s a love letter to small towns, similar to our country music episode. They’re very, very similar themes, right? We’re repeating ourselves, but obviously anti-intellectualism anti-modernity, again, a sort of appeal to a kind of heteronormative worldview, women’s value is pretty much based on what hunky guy they can land, but very much their love letters to provincialism and using Christmas and the kind of nostalgia inherent in Christmas as a vehicle to express one’s love and fidelity to provincialism, and a lack of intellectual curiosity or liberalism, right?
Nima: Yeah, I mean, Operation Christmas Drop really should have been called Colonial Christmas because like, while the ones that take place in Cedar or Central Falls, Vermont, or on a Christmas train, are all about kind of anti metropolitan ism and small town-yness, what is actually really kind of additionally creepy, colonial and racist about Operation Christmas Drop, is that the local indigenous inhabitants of Guam, where the military base is, are seen as like living in thatched huts, rather than houses or buildings. They’re so grateful at one point, you know, the Congressional aide, Erica, the main character, starts, you know, handing out things from her handbag to the local children, eventually just giving the bag itself away saying, you know, ‘Oh, well, you need it more than I do,’ and it’s like, what year is this and where is this? The whole thing is just set up to not only hearken back to some, you know, creepy, nostalgic kind of ’50s, ’40s or even 19th century colonial type exploration of Micronesian islands, but it really does serve not only to completely negate any kind of indigenous culture or religion, and impose literally by dropping it out of the fucking sky, Christmas on local populations.
Adam: So yeah, these things that are meant to drop bombs also dropped gifts, which is, again, look it has the politics of Swiss Family Robinson, I don’t know what else to say. Let’s move on to our guest.
Nima: To discuss all of this and so much more, we’re now going to be joined by David Roth, co-founder and co-owner of Defector Media. He has written for Deadspin, The New Republic, New York Magazine, among outlets, and co-hosts, with Jeb Lund, the podcast “It’s Christmastown,” about the gentle, cornball, consequence-free world of the Hallmark Channel. David’s gonna join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by David Roth. No one better to have on this episode, we imagine, so thank you, David, so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
David Roth: Man, thanks for having me. I’m always happy to have an opportunity to talk about something else while the Giants are playing in Monday Night Football.
Adam: That is true. So you, as an expert, I was hoping you could kind of lay out the general ground rules and formula for a Hallmark slash Netflix slash even Lifetime Christmas film, we’re sort of putting them all in the same genre here. What are the essential tropes of these films?
David Roth: Basically, Hallmark movies exist, it’s like it’s a vibrational frequency much more than it is like sort of a filmic one. The idea is that it’s something that you have on in the background while you’re wrapping presents, or nursing an eggnog hangover, whatever, and just sort of it’s basically a Christmas movie with rom com attributes, would be the broadest brush you could paint it with, and sometimes they’re weirder, and sometimes they’re less weird, and while a lot of the movies that they make are Christmas movies, Hallmark is pumping these things out all year round, I mean they have multiple new movies premiering each week. So they are not just the most prolific studio, but they’re probably the only real place that’s making, I mean, not even mid budget, but just like very low budget, mainstream film for the masses and millions of people watch these premieres. It might not necessarily be people that I personally know and, Lord knows, I’ve watched like a hundred of them for the podcast and I feel very heavily the weight of how many hours I’ve spent watching Lacey Chabert pretend to cry but the idea of it is that it’s sort of cinematic comfort food peg to a holiday with some merchandising tie-ins. They’re so conventional that they wind up feeling kind of uncanny and that’s what I think is fascinating about them. They’re trying very hard to be normal, but they’re also being shot in basically real time on very low budgets, with television actors from my childhood, as a person in his early ‘40s.
David Roth: And so the weirdness that that haste produces is not like any other type of film that’s out there to find.
Nima: Yeah, I think, what we’ve been discussing earlier in the show and you know so much of what you’ve been kind of hinting at here, David, is one of the overarching elements of all of these films is that of nostalgia.
David Roth: Yes.
Nima: That’s kind of really saccharine sweet, wholesome nostalgia, and as your podcast co host, Jeb Lund has noted previously in The Washington Post back in 2019, he wrote this, “Calling a Hallmark Christmas movie ‘nostalgic’ is like calling steak ‘beefy,’ which is to say it’s not even an element really, but it’s platonic state.” Now, nostalgia, of course, could be fairly harmless, it can even be a positive lovely thing, but in many key ways, as we have been discussing, it does have a very certain kind of political weight to it, political content baked in, namely the calling back to an unspecified time, unspecified Americana, making blah, blah, great again. Comment, if you would for us David, on the power of nostalgia, and why this happens to be a drug that Hallmark viewers simply cannot get enough of.
David Roth: So, I think a lot of it is just that Hallmark is itself sort of constitutionally conservative. I mean, it is about commemorating occasions that’s the whole reason the company exists and how they, you know, before they became a juggernaut movie studio, back when their whole business was selling you a card that was like, ‘Well, it’s Easter again, nephew,’ you know, and just having that you could send that to somebody.
Nima: ‘Best wishes, coworker.’
David Roth: Right. ‘I see you’ve graduated from middle school,’ and there’s money in that particular banana stand, it’s just also, you know, it’s not art. In this case, I think especially where Christmas stuff is concerned that they are right on top of some actual real feelings that people have about Christmas, feelings that I had about it even growing up as a Jewish kid before I married into a family that has a Christmas tree and decorates it and all that stuff, which I’ve come to like a lot. But as a, you know, somebody who didn’t celebrate Christmas beyond like going to the movies with my parents on the day of, there was still a kind of a quiet home sort of feeling to all of it that I think is, you know, the appeal of it is obvious, and especially when you contrast it to the way the rest of the world works and the way that the rest of your life can feel if you’re somebody with a job, and I think that that type of nostalgia to me is effectively harmless, obviously it can leave a lot out in its particulars, but that’s a feeling that a lot of people can access and it’s a nice way to feel. The part where it can become reactionary though, and a lot of these movies, very few, some Hallmark movies really do have a kind of, not the current version of the GOP but kind of like a Mitt Romney campaign commercial vibe to them. That’s real.
David Roth: There is a lot of it.
Adam: Not the foaming neo-Nazi but the more sort of polite Reagan-era fascist.
David Roth: Yes, before we dispense with euphemism entirely, even the idea of Christmas was supposed to be something that you liked because you spent it with your family as opposed to something that you liked because when you say “Merry Christmas” the pajama boy from that health insurance ad gets mad or whatever.
David Roth: Before it was all about punching other people.
Nima: The true meaning of Christmas.
David Roth: Yes. So that hostility element of it is generally completely absent from Hallmark movies. So that’s another sort of sentimental thing, but again, it’s in terms of what gets included in what doesn’t and how people act and what you’re supposed to want to have happen to the main characters especially, you know, the inevitable female lead that lives in a city and works a demanding marketing job even though she could be at home helping to run the family’s hot cocoa business. So, all of that stuff kind of permeates the film without ever coming rushing out of the elevator like the blood in The Shining, you know, you just kind of notice that your socks are soggy about an hour in and it’s because hot cocoa has been seeping up through the floorboards throughout.
Adam: Yeah, because other than nostalgia, this touches on the sort of sibling to nostalgia, which you alluded to, which is provincialism. One of the things I find we talked a lot about in the introduction is that virtually all the Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix Christmas films revolve around the inherent morality of small town America, almost to the point of parody: Central Cedar, Cedar Falls, Central Falls. They’re all like the town in The Simpsons, right?
David Roth: Yeah.
Adam: It’s kind of, so I wanted to, as a bunch of smug, big city, secular, left-wingers, let us dump on this a little bit. No —
David Roth: Hell yeah, let’s get it.
Adam: And this of course, also has a lot of anti-intellectualism, again, it’s just a fucking Hallmark movie — I’m going to qualify everything by saying that, so it’s not the worst thing in the world — but it does share some of the themes with a lot of Christian films we watch, obviously a lot of country music, kind of red state media centers provincialism as a kind of implicit, moral smugness, that they’re sort of better than the big city. You write about the main trope of, I don’t know, 80% of them? I don’t want to generalize too much, because I know sometimes they’ll subvert the trope here and there, but mostly overworked woman who’s unfulfilled, who needs some guy with a really good big smile, and it’s escapism for a certain kind of heteronormative person, you’re not looking for some subversive feminist critique, right? But I do want to talk a bit about the centrality of provincialism as being part of and this kind of broader, for want of a better term, red state media ecosystem, and why that’s always kind of the primary arc of the character itself whereas nostalgia is the sort of the vibe along the way, the ultimate destination is provincialism.
David Roth: Yeah, that’s well said and I think that especially the way that nostalgia is expressed in these, it has a politics that I think it very scrupulously refuses to acknowledge or try to understand, which is, again, Hallmark didn’t invent that shit, obviously, but it is much more foregrounded in a Hallmark thing than it is in say, like a conventional rom com or whatever, where you realize at some point that you’re just hoping that everybody gets married and is happy, and again, there are pleasures in that, but in a Hallmark movie, especially the kind that you’re talking about, and Christmas is absolutely the season when they hit this the hardest, that a lot of it is about trying to make that Christmas feeling last all year long, which again, when you say it that way, it’s not so bad. It would be nice if January was more like Christmas, for instance, just thinking ahead to months I’m dreading, could have been February too. But the way that it tends to play out in this sense is that what Christmas sort of means and how it’s expressed here is you go back to your parents’ large house, in the suburb where you grew up.
David Roth: And then you fall in love with the neighbor kid that you used to have snowball fights with but now he’s a beefy divorcee, and maybe he was in the army, maybe he was in the NFL or whatever copyright-compliant version there is, there’s a lot of different options there, but in any of those, sort of what you’re going back to, and what you find yourself sort of sentimental for as a viewer, it depends on sort of where you grew up and how you grew up, and I think that for a lot of these things, the stuff that’s kind of jumped out at me about it as, again, with the vibe, you can’t have real anxiety or real even angst in these that when you have it there, the examples always go back to Alicia Witt cries too convincingly, and Jason Dohring, who was in one of these — Jason Dohring, who was Logan from Veronica Mars — was too convincingly a man wracked with grief to carry the rom com elements.
Nima: It just didn’t work.
David Roth: Yeah, well, you see him in his woodshop and very clearly just in a world of hurt and you’re like well, this isn’t really what I signed on for.
Nima: I didn’t come here for this shit! (Laughing.)
David Roth: Yeah, like I came here to see people in pajamas eating candy canes and being like, ‘This is the best candy cane I’ve ever tasted,’ and so a man who looks constantly near tears or a rage freakout is a vibe killer.
Adam: Because it’s vibes only, I mean it’s the definition of vibes only.
David Roth: Yes it is. It is, you know, nothing but people vibing.
Nima: On their way to the small town that they came from because, also in these films, literally no one could be from the big city. Everyone moved there and then is unhappy there and has to reclaim their happiness back in their childhood small town.
Adam: This is Nima being defensive by the way.
Nima: Goddamnit! People actually grew up in New York.
Adam: We’re just bitter because we’re a bunch of soulless city slickers.
David Roth: Yeah.
Nima: (Laughs.) Why can’t the Christmas train go to Grand Central?
David Roth: I grew up in a decently rustic, I mean not like a rustic but, you know, so we had a yard, I was in New Jersey, you know, I don’t know if I’m painting a picture here, good solid 25 minutes and a little bit down market from Tony Soprano’s neighborhood, but not like super duper far off from that. But what’s important though, is that I still have the, you know, these feelings about the idea of, you know, driving down the street that leads to the home where you grew up, and there is snow on the ground and stuff. I feel a feeling when I see that in a movie, it’s just the feeling that I feel is I’m looking forward to seeing my parents, I’m looking forward to eating irresponsibly for a few days, whatever. I’m not looking forward to being like, you know, maybe I could just go back to my childhood bedroom and never leave and I could return and just be a child again, except for I have a very chaste relationship with my neighbor. And this is again, where the sort of Hallmarkian lens comes into things. That might be something my parents wanted at some point, it has never been a thing that I wanted. But then these movies are not for, as you said, rootless cosmopolite online types. More like our grandparents, and be like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if Davey was at home all the time and he could help out around the house.’
Nima: So actually talking about key demographics here, what is the kind of target audience? Increasingly, Netflix and Hallmark and these other channels have been making more of an effort to be, say, more inclusive, albeit very belatedly, and after probably a lot of marketing scolding, but the last couple of years have seen kind of a surge of majority-Black versions of these films for instance. The Hallmark movies are notoriously lily white, painfully excruciatingly white save like a Magic Negro type character in Danny Glover, but do you think that this shift in clearly trying to attract, you know, different audiences, more melanated audiences perhaps, is this an attempt to expand simply the demographic reach to make more money stay, you know, little with the times? Or do you think it’s more about fending off criticism that these films are just mindless conveyor belts of reactionary schlock?
David Roth: It’s a good question because I would never accuse Hallmark of not trying to make the maximum amount of money possible in every one of these things. I don’t want to, you know, drag these movies unnecessarily, but if you saw the production value, you would know that they’re all about savings and generating profits. I think that sort of what’s happening is that Hallmark is going to be at the very tail end of the broader float in the culture in some direction or another and I think that what you see in terms of the inclusiveness, in terms of casting or in terms of trying to make, so yes, they do make some movies where the leads are Black, they do make now one or two Hanukkah themed movies a year, the first of which I saw were absolutely just could not have been more bizarre if generated via AI.
Adam: Are you talking about Mistletoe & Menorahs?
David Roth: Yeah, is that the one where there’s a whole plot thing involving Sufganiyah which is like some Israeli bullshit that came around since I was a kid.
Adam: Maybe, it’s the one where there is a Jewish guy who grew up in the United States but somehow knows nothing about Christmas, which is definitely not a thing.
David Roth: Yeah, so it’s Mistletoe & Menorahs.
Nima: Didn’t you know that every Jew in the United States is from New York City? Had to be, right?
Adam: Well, it would have made way more sense if they made him Israeli, because then it’d be like, oh, like you actually wouldn’t necessarily know all this stuff even though you would.
Nima: Why would you not know that stuff? Don’t know where that shit took place?
Adam: Well, yeah, but an Israeli is way more believable than some guy from like, New Jersey. I don’t know, the whole movie is absurd.
David Roth: Somebody that you invite into your home and makes it weird, like an Israeli guy, that’s the character that you’re describing here is someone who comes in as being like, ‘What kind of tablecloth is this?’ I’m allowed to make that joke, by the way.
David Roth: But I think the, yeah, so Mistletoe & Menorahs is also, there’s a lot of little stuff around the edges for Hallmark movies, any scene that is shot in a city, there’s just always a siren in the background of the soundtrack just so you know where you are, all the ones that are set in Chicago, but shot in Scarborough, Ontario, but that’s how you know that you’re supposed to be in the city. And I remember, the Jewish character in Mistletoe & Menorahs was like, they were sort of trying to make him seem Jewish, but again, it was the sort of thing where it was coming from, the only way they could do that was by having him have heavier eyebrows and talk a little bit faster than the other characters in the film, they were completely at a loss for how that would work and I think that that’s generally where they are with the movies that we’ve seen where there is a gay married couple or a couple of people who are cohabitating but gay or whatever, that all of this is new, really, basically, since Jeb wrote his column in 2019, not to say that that was the reason why, but people were starting to notice.
Nima: Right. Well, because just for some context, there was major backlash when there was a gay character in one of the films.
David Roth: Yeah, and that is how it’s going to be, I mean, I think that this is, again, that sort of secret politics of having no politics, the way that this always manifests itself, in this case would just be someone being like, ‘This is supposed to be about normal Christmas feelings. and you’re going to go ahead and put a happily married couple of handsome gay white men in the middle of my normal entertainment? Are you fucking serious right now, man?’
David Roth: And that’s where Hallmark can’t kind of hide from the reality of the sort of cinematic universe, for lack of a less ridiculous term, that they’ve created for themselves.
Adam: Yeah, because that sort of reclusiveness or kind of cocooning away from culture is sort of the, what the thing that’s being sold is, right? It’s sort of like, ‘I used to watch the NFL, but then all the kneeling, now I don’t watch anymore, I just want to turn on the TV and relax.’ And again, because if you have a sort of normative identity, the default ought to be and should be reflecting you and your values and anything that’s antithetical to that is seen as being too political and one of the appeals of Hallmark, I would imagine, is that it truly is a space where, again, with the exception of some modest stuff around the margins, it isn’t quote-unquote “woke,” it’s aggressively not quote-unquote “woke,” and that’s part of its appeal.
David Roth: I mean, it’s just Jurassic, it’s like a 1958 of the soul that just sort of has settled over the whole thing, and it’s not, what’s funny, I mean, it’s easy for me to say, as a white person, although a white person whose culture is not especially well represented in Hallmark movies, that there is not, what’s oppressive about these or what is stifling about them is the formula, and it’s the milieu and it’s how sort of narrow it is. It’s not the idea of, because what you were saying, the one thing that they would never do, that they would make a Hallmark movie, I would say that we’ll see one in the next few years where the main romance in it is maybe a gay couple, they’ve already had a gay kiss, it’s not a crazy thing to make a movie like that. What they will not do is have those people live in a city, or have them come from a home where people are divorced.
Adam: They sort of graph on a kind of white heteronormativity onto minorities and queer people.
David Roth: Right. So it is inclusive, I mean, for whatever it’s worth, but it’s including people of other demographics in this objectively pretty stifling idea of what normal is.
Adam: Kind of like Man in the High Tower kind of version of events.
David Roth: Right, but I think that that’s actually sort of something that you see up and down the culture at this point, it’s the idea of, it just also feels like, and this is going to make me sound like I’m a thousand years old, but it just feels like there are fewer movies now, and so the event movies that you get, the idea of something like The Eternals, which is like 100 percent this machine tooled Disney product designed to sort of, like when they were creating Poochie in The Simpsons, and they were like ‘Rasta-fy by 10 percent.’ That it’s all like faintly Rasta-fied around the margins, that they’re kind of trying to make it contemporary, but it is fundamentally made by robots.
David Roth: For people that are living in the Matrix pods, you know, but you can bring sort of identities into that, but they can’t really have an impact on the sort of story that you’re telling. So you can tick all these boxes, but it’s going to be the same as it would be if everybody was just a slightly different version of Chris Evans.
Adam: To be generous here, while I was watching these Hallmark films for this program, I was about six months late watching the White Lotus. I don’t know if you guys have seen the show on HBO.
David Roth: Not yet.
Adam: It’s a deeply nihilistic cynical show about middle-class values, right? To the point where I couldn’t even watch it, because it was like, ‘Okay, we get it, they all suck, everyone’s a pervert, and shithead.’ What’s clever in 1993 maybe is wearing a little thin in 2021, and you’re watching this, there’s a lot of stuff like this, again, aside from the kind of cops and doctor shows, a lot of what’s produced is, can be very nihilistic from Hollywood, or has a very bleak view of humanity, and this is obviously the polar opposite of that. So it’s, I feel like in a way, you have to sort of look at it in relation to what the other kind of cultural production is.
David Roth: Yeah.
Adam: For the record, I don’t think that excuses the reactionariness of what they’re producing, but they are filling a niche in a way, right, which is like, this shit isn’t cynical, it’s wholesome, it’s about fucking Grandma and Christmas and that’s it and you can see the appeal of that.
Nima: But it’s like every movie is written by someone who saw It’s A Wonderful Life, but didn’t really get it, they got the Merry Christmas Bedford Falls scene, but not why that’s powerful.
David Roth: Yeah, and that is actually kind of an interesting thing that runs through a lot of these because I remember the first, or maybe the second movie that we watched for the podcast was a movie called Christmas in Angel Falls, that is, in a lot of ways — I assume you’ve seen it almost everyone has — that’s like, in a lot of ways a type of Hallmark movie they don’t make anymore, there’s a literal Angel played by Beau Bridges who sort of inexpensively materializes and dematerializes at certain scenes, but it is grounded in a town that is heartbroken because the factory closed and an angel comes to town and shows everybody how to get back in touch with the version of themselves that they are on Christmas, which all kind of has some echoes of the Glenn Beck 9/12 thing, when you hear me say it, but in the movie is actually decently sweet. I mean, it’s just basically like taking pride in your shit, remembering that you have this beautiful building that you let fall into disrepair because you’re sad but you can make it beautiful again, there is, beyond the sort of like usual hearth and home over city stuff, there is a kind of a politics in that is not quite as red in tooth and claw as a lot of the mainstream studio stuff is. It’s about real things and real values and the idea of community. It’s just that because these movies are made so fast and made in such I think a slapdash way, and also again, because you can’t point any of this shit out, because it will upset the viewer, so it can be there but it has to be kind of latent in the thing that you’re watching.
Adam: Yeah, it’s very much the kind of Josh Hawley, sort of just touching on the decay of kind of small-town America, which is people are leaving, jobs are going away and his response is not like, ‘Hey, this is about the hedge funds taking your your pensions or about the factories closing for the private equity firms that I used to be a lawyer for, it’s actually because men are addicted to opioids, porn and video gaming,’ where there’s a kind of moral dimension to it to the extent to which they do touch on these kind of quote-unquote “small town” themes. It’s like, yeah, people lost the spirit of Christmas or the spirit of community, which, again, is a very kind of corny way of storytelling and it’s very traditional. They’re not the first ones to do it.
David Roth: Yeah, and it’s weird, because I think by putting the Christmas sort of scrim over it, you’re able to touch on the idea of things like a community that’s suffering from the loss of jobs, or the loss of opportunity, or just in general, that kind of, I think it’s hard not to say this in sort of a corny way, but in the way that I think that a lot of American society is effectively in a state of emotional depression most of the time, just anhedonic, and having a hard time seeing a better future and all this stuff, not necessarily undeservedly, that you can touch on that if you’re like, ‘Let’s fucking rally and make this the most beautiful gazebo lighting in the history of the town of Angel Falls.’
David Roth: That’s a way to address that. I mean, it’s not, again, an especially incisive or bold one, but it’s more than I think a lot of movies are capable of doing, because they’re just so dedicated to making sure that everything looks expensive and beautiful and comfortable.
Nima: Yeah, actually, you know, to that point, let’s kind of go a little deeper where we already are kind of hinting at now, you know, it is the holiday season so we’re going to be very Un-Citations Needed-y right now and ask kind of a nice question. David, what do you like most about these Hallmark movies? You have seen so many of them, you have done your due diligence, what do you kind of really, really like about them? What maybe is not so problematic, but actually good? And what perhaps most important of all, would be the plot of your own Hallmark Christmas film if you, of course, were held at gunpoint, forced to hold up a newspaper that shows the date and you had to make one of these?
David Roth: We used to do these on the podcast, we haven’t done them in a while, there’s one with Andy Levy that I think of, actually the one that we did for The Christmas Train, I believe, where we would make up our own sort of Hallmark movies and pitch them. I remember that mine was called A Christmas Blimp, and it involved James Brolin. I don’t remember everything that was involved in it. So let’s just say that my dream is to get Christmas Blimp into production and then, you know, in true Hallmark fashion —
Adam: Is it just a remake of Christmas Train?
David Roth: Sort of. I think it was kind of about expanding the sort of Christmas Train idea to include something that’s more flammable. I didn’t have it all worked out if I’m being honest, maybe I didn’t have 100 percent of the story plot.
Adam: I really liked The Christmas Train, it’s only when I actively liked.
David Roth: The Christmas Train is, so to answer the other questions, which I really appreciate, I always like the idea of, it’s like the thing about the 2016 debates where they’d get to the end of it and they’d be like, ‘Say something nice about Donald Trump right now.’
Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah.
Adam: ‘What do you like about Hillary Clinton?’
David Roth: But in this case, I think movies like The Christmas Train, which was not 100 percent my favorite, but when a Hallmark movie is good, or when it is done better, I mean, Christmas Train is technically — this is an embarrassing thing to say, but I’m gonna say it — it is technically a Hallmark Hall of Fame production so they look a little bit better and they got better actors in them.
Nima: Oh, that’s no joke. It is a-list, Danny Glover, Joan Cusack and Dermot Mulroney. Hell yeah.
David Roth: Yeah, like Dermot Mulroney is a notable step up from like, not to say that the soap guys that usually are the leads in these things are bad, but it’s like Dermot Mulroney’s got the teeth and he can do facial expressions and usually you get like one of those.
Adam: Don’t, can we? Sorry, can we, before you go on, can we talk about the sexual chemistry between Brad Paisley’s wife and Dermot Mulroney? I was like, they actually seem like they want to fuck, this is like the horniest movie I’ve ever seen.
David Roth: So that’s a thing that’s great about, so the two things that I like about Hallmark movies, one when they are as berserk as The Christmas Train and and you’re just like, how do you even fucking come up with this stuff? Danny Glover is God.
David Roth: Also, this is like a version of Snowpiercer where everyone’s just drinking schnapps all the time. This is a real thing. All right. Anytime you’re dealing with something where it is authentically unclear how any person could have devised the story or the approach or any of the things that happen in it, which is at this point, I would say it’s one in five Hallmark movies is that crazy, when that’s the case it is, the thing that I always compare it to in the podcast to the point where I get like goofed on for it is like with David Lynch’s Inland Empire, completely expressionistic, plotless, just moments of bizarre reverie and ecstasy and menace, Hallmark movies are never quite able to get there, but they can be really strange in a way that a lot of mainstream stuff is not. The other thing though, and this is usually the thing that I wind up enjoying the most from like even the average two stars out of five Hallmark experience that we get, the performers usually are pretty good and when the chemistry works, you can have this interestingly, disjunctive experience of what seems like a real adult relationship happening within the broader milieu of a bunch of people who just have s’mores in their brains where they should be having thoughts it’s just hot cocoa sloshing around, they’re like, ‘Ho ho, delightful!’ And then there’ll be two good actors who seem like they’re actually kindling a relationship in it. It’s not frequent that there is actually any sexual chemistry in them, but when it happens it’s kind of funny because you can sort of feel the movie fighting itself in the way that only really weird texts are able to do where it’s clear that it is going in some direction as it’s going to be like a hard R, whatever, but where you’re dealing, like R rating I mean.
Adam: A lot of them are extremely horny, but obviously they just kiss because that’s kind of what it is. But like, it’s sort of a throwback to Hays Code era cinema where you can’t show anything so it’s just nothing but obvious innuendos.
Nima: Right exactly. Everyone sleeps in twin beds.
Adam: Yeah, I don’t know, maybe there’s an appeal for that. I don’t know.
David Roth: And I think that’s something that’s like sort of also coming in, in the same way that there’s now characters in these movies that represent the sort of people that you might meet in everyday life, instead of it being exclusively grandparents and grown grandchildren, that there are divorced people, there are gay people, there are people of color, you know, the people in your actual neighborhood if you live in America, and this doesn’t exactly count as representation, but people whom have sex are now sort of starting to be represented in the Hallmark universe and it is honestly a breakthrough thing. Whole new energy in the movies.
Nima: (Laughs.) It’s a whole new Dermot Mulroney-style Young Guns energy.
David Roth: Yes.
Adam: I love how we measure the politics of Hallmark relative to them starting at 1955, like the Eisenhower America, and so they’re now at 1962, they have an interracial couple, we’re sort of patting him on the back for that.
David Roth: Yes.
Adam: And then by 2030 they’re going to —
David Roth: They’ll have roared into the ‘70s.
Adam: Yeah, yeah, they’ll have an abortion subplot. It’ll blow our minds.
David Roth: Someone’s going to smoke a cigarette.
Nima: Well, this has been absolutely delightful. Before we let you go, let us know what you are up to these days. Tell us a bit about Defector and the other amazing work that you have going on.
David Roth: First of all, thank you for letting me waste your time and your listeners trying to break out the fine points of why Alicia Witt is better at being in Hallmark movies than Jodie Sweetin is.
Nima: Ooh, you heard it here first.
David Roth: Yeah. So those are the real trash ones. There’s a couple of actors that we just have come to avoid in the podcast, and you guys really kind of, you can’t watch these and not watch a Candace Cameron Bure one but she is just a mush, man. Whoo. Not great.
Adam: I don’t mind the Candice Cameron ones. She’s like serviceable, she’s better than Jodie —
David Roth: She’s better than Sweetin. I mean, the Sweetin ones are really, it’s bizarre fanservice for Full House weirdos. So, beyond the Hallmark stuff, which you know, we still do when we can do them, the Defector project is basically me and everybody that I worked with it at Deadspin quit on Halloween of 2019, knowing full well that things are going to remain normal and cool in perpetuity as time went by after that, we had just a bad time with some private equity ownership and it was pretty clear that we were on borrowed time, and instead of all going out gradually under the thumb of one particular fluffy, weirdo, CEO guy, we just all quit. And then we tried for a long time to get our site started together, we all liked working with each other and all suddenly found ourselves with a great deal of time on our hands and we launched the site in the September of 2020 and it’s working. It’s a subscription site, but I mean, we are getting paid better than we were at Deadspin, we own our shit, we get health insurance through the site. I mean, it’s been a period of time that I obviously don’t need to tell you was full of disappointment and dread. It’s rather shocking how well this is all worked out. I’ve never been happier professionally. The site itself has been a godsend for us and we are growing and trying to keep doing our stuff and keep making a good enough site that people will keep subscribing to it, which is, you know, a challenge, but it is definitely better than all of the other flavors of working online that I’ve experienced to date.
Adam: Yeah, totally. I look forward to the IPO.
David Roth: Thanks. Yeah, we’re going to SPAC with A-Rod I think and see where that goes.
Nima: Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with David Roth, co-founder and co-owner of Defector Media. He has written for Deadspin, The New Republic, New York Magazine, among many others, and co-hosts, with Jeb Lund, the podcast “It’s Christmastown,” about the gentle, cornball, consequence-free world of the Hallmark Channel. David, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
David Roth: Thanks very much for having me, guys. I appreciate it.
Adam: You know, it’s like the old complaint, right? Christmas comes earlier, and earlier every year, we have a very hard and fast rule in our household that we do not celebrate Christmas till after Thanksgiving, no decorations or anything because otherwise it’s a slippery slope. In August.
Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, I was seeing Rite-Aids breakout the Christmas stuff right after, I don’t know, July 4 this year.
Adam: No, no.
Nima: Maybe not. No, but certainly right after Halloween, skipping over Thanksgiving, right?
Nima: We’re going to start blowing up those Santas and reindeer and just get to it already.
Adam: Yeah, there’s something about the kind of cultural, I don’t want to say Christian hegemony, because it is, I think it is somewhat secularized, but of course it is Christian hegemony, of the sort of Christmas aesthetic as being everywhere, and people love it. I love it. I have a Christmas sweater. I took Christmas photos. We have Christmas cards. I made Christmas cards for the first time. That’s what happens when you have a kid, you start doing Christmas cards. Well, technically Chrismukkah cards, you know —
Nima: You don’t do Hanu-mas? You say Chrismukkah?
Adam: We say Chrismukkah, we don’t do Hanu-mas. Hanu-mas sounds like a horror film.
Nima: Go on.
Adam: But anyway, so I get it, you sort of want to get in the mood and that some of these movies are about the sort of feel, and in many ways, the more breezy and pointless and, you know, you need like maybe one or two clever twists and a couple good jokes and some good charismatic performances, but like, not really too —
Nima: (Laughing) You just said the nicest things about these movies that are pure torture to watch.
Adam: No, I’m saying that that’s what one would maybe want.
Nima: Oh okay. Because you’re not going to get it. You’re going to get the mouthfeel only, you don’t get the taste, you just get the mouthfeel.
Adam: To elevate the genre.
Nima: It’s the texture. It’s the texture.
Adam: I believe that’s the film school term: to elevate the genre. And you just, it’s just kind of on, it’s sort of a glowy feel, and so much about Christmas is this kind of glowy feel and then you realize that like, look, it is fundamentally predicated on nostalgia, more than any other holiday. It’s the smell of something cooking, it’s this sort of reminiscent of your early childhood Christmas memories and how you want to sort of reproduce those for your own children. And so it’s like how do you sort of churn that out as part of this kind of nostalgia machine? And of course, that’s gonna just be inherently conservative, right? I mean, it doesn’t necessarily have to be, it could be more inclusive. It could be more pluralistic and more liberal.
Nima: Because every Christian isn’t actually white, even though that’s what you would think.
Adam: Well, right. Or they’re gay, or they’re liberals, or they’re progressive, or you could even do a Christmas movie that takes place between a union organizer. I mean, they are not inherently nostalgic, but you can sort of see why it lends itself to that because, ultimately, the lens of nostalgia is the lens of conservative media and what’s more nostalgic than Christmas, which is why you get 8,000 of these fucking movies a year because there’s a window in which they can sort of do this stick without seeming weird, right?
Nima: Well, right because you kind of get to combine schlocky cultural tropes, even if it’s been secularized with a distinctly religious undertone. It is Christmas. You know, there have been a few Hallmark Hanukkah movies, I think, you know, I don’t know they mentioned Kwanzaa at some point in some movie, but this is about what Hallmark has deemed and because of I think a lot of media tropes help prop this up, the idea of what it is to be truly American and to be truly American it’s about getting out of the big city, going back to your childhood bedroom with your parents who somehow are just getting by but they have a three-car garage, and all their furniture is from Crate & Barrel, because all the houses in these movies are just gorgeous, but no one in these films has a different frame of reference, grew up in a different way, is looking for something other than this mass media, mass-culture-produced Christmas aesthetic.
Adam: That’s why I found this assignment so kind of intriguing because I kept asking myself the question of, am I nostalgic for something that I actually experienced or am I nostalgic for a memory that never happened? That’s sort of effectively been Inception’d into me by mass media, by Coca Cola, Starbucks commercials, by Hallmark films, like I’m looking back I’m like, yeah, I guess I opened a present at one point, but my Christmas has never really looked like this and, of course, for millions of people they never had Christmas. They had what, you know, whatever, they had Hanukkah, they were Muslim. My point is that when you ingest the, that’s what I’m saying, I don’t even think I’m being nostalgic for Christmas, I’m being nostalgic for some facsimile of Christmas.
Nima: Yeah, no, exactly. It’s the Coca Cola, you know, rosy-cheeked Santa Claus, right? It’s the train travel. It’s the put down your phones and snuggle up by the fire, which I think is, you know, there’s something lovely about it, and there’s something exceedingly weird about it.
Adam: Because now that I’m a father, I find myself wanting to recreate these kinds of tropes, right? We get a tree, we do this, and I’m saying like, okay, we kind of did that, but am I doing it because it was part of my culture, or am I doing it because I’m checking these boxes? I don’t know. It’s interesting. Most people of course don’t handwring over these things, they just do them and live happily, healthy, well-adjusted —
Nima: Can you just drink some fucking eggnog and just be happy for once.
Adam: I did! I drank eggnog while watching Christmas Train, which is probably why, I mean, I think it may have been the brandy talking. I was like, this is a good movie. Sarah’s like, that’s not a good movie.
Nima: These movies are built for eggnog.
Adam: Yeah, they’re built for it. You pretty much had to. We did a Christmas movie night, I had some friends over and then they all were like super into it. But anyway, I think the sort of creation of a kind of Christmas aesthetic is very interesting because it is not clear if this is something that, it’s a collection of Dickensian cliches and aesthetic choices made by marketing firms.
Nima: Which I think Fox News has weaponized really well, there’s kind of this Christmas aesthetic infused in the, you know, our country is being taken away from us. Our memories are being seized, our nostalgia is being ruined, our traditions are being compromised, and all of that, I mean, you know, not to go too deep on this, but that, I think, has everything to do with the absurd backlash over critical race theory. ‘Don’t erase our imagined past because our imagined past makes us feel warm and fuzzy and we need that to hold on to what we believe ourselves to be.’
Adam: And that’s why these movies are so fucking popular because there is a market for that, there’s a niche for that, fair or not fair. And again, these audiences are not, they lean white and conservative, but they’re not exclusively white strangely enough. A lot of minorities watch these programs for, you know, probably the same kind of effervescent reasons as leftist do ironically. But no, there’s definitely a making-America-great aspect to it that is very seductive. It sort of seduces you into this lull where you feel good, and if there’s one thing we don’t like on this show, it’s people feeling good. We like to make you feel like shit all the time.
Nima: That’s right. We want you to feel terrible, so, you know, pour out the eggnog and drink some Listerine, and then eat an orange.
Adam: You’re all horrible people. Christmas is a bourgeois construct, just sit around and self-flagellate and read Marxist theory.
Nima: But that’ll do it for this episode of Citations Needed. That will do it for the year 2021 of Citations Needed, we cannot thank you all enough for listening to the show, for supporting the show, for spreading the word, for rating and reviewing on Apple Podcast, if that’s the thing you want to do, please do if you care to, whatever, and of course endless gratitude to those of you, to our amazing listeners who support us on Patreon. With an extra, extra special Christmas time shout out. Going to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. Merry Christmas. Happy holidays. Happy New Year. We’ll catch you in 2022.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, December 15, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.