Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Hallmark, Netflix and shame-free TV for the holidays

Welcome to that wonderful time of year when it's OK to wallow in stories of Christmas princesses in places you can't find on a map and magical small towns no one ever wants to leave.

Rose McIver and Ben Lamb in Netflix's "A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding," which premieres on Friday, Nov. 30.
Rose McIver and Ben Lamb in Netflix's "A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding," which premieres on Friday, Nov. 30.Read moreCourtesy of Netflix (custom credit)

I watched a Christmas movie last weekend on Netflix called The Princess Switch, in which a baker (Vanessa Hudgens) from Chicago and her doppelgänger (also Hudgens), a duchess from some fictional country, traded places, a few days before the duchess was scheduled to wed a prince from another fictional country and the baker was to compete in an international baking contest.

And I’m feeling OK about it.

Never mind that the “duchess” came from a place, Montenaro, that sounds like a midsize car, or that the prince (Nashville’s Sam Palladio, getting to use something closer to his own English accent) hails from Belgravia, a name more often associated with a posh part of London. Even in a world where American Meghan Markle ended up marrying Britain’s Prince Harry, the plot is far-fetched, but I’m not nearly as embarrassed to be watching now as I would’ve been in, say, June.

The holidays should be a shame-free zone.

Still, this time last year, I was poking fun at Netflix’s A Christmas Prince, the streaming service’s hilariously obvious play for the viewers who’ve long made the Hallmark Channel’s holiday seasons bright.

A few weeks later, I was blaming Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer — and, yes, A Christmas Prince — for my December descent into the gentle madness of Hallmark holiday movies addiction, in which I quickly lost count of the number of tree-lighting ceremonies and first kisses I witnessed.

I eventually broke free, returning in January to my regularly scheduled diet of TV-I-have-to-watch-for-work, shows I’d watch even if TV wasn’t my job, and the noir-ish Scandinavian series and British mysteries I turn to when I’m goofing off.

Yet here I am again, facing the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s with an eye to making room on the DVR for Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” lineup (which on Thanksgiving night included Christmas at the Palace, in which the single-dad king of “San Senova” falls for the woman he’s hired to prepare his daughter for an ice-skating pageant) and anticipating, with only mild dread, the Nov. 30 release of A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding, which whisks us back to Aldovia to witness the wedding of Amber, an undercover reporter-turned-future queen (Rose McIver, iZombie), to Richard (Ben Lamb), who’s now king.

The sequel can’t be any sillier than the original, can it?

The official trailer for this royal extravaganza, which will again feature Alice Krige (Chariots of Fire, Tyrant) as Richard’s mother, Queen Helena, recorded one million views in its first four days on YouTube. People who love stories about royals who fall for commoners are clearly hungry for more. I might even be becoming one of them.

Because lately I’ve been slogging through Amazon’s The Romanoffs, the anthology series from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner that includes at least one character each episode who claims descent from Russian’s doomed royal family, and finishing up the final season of Netflix’s House of Cards.

Not only are happy endings few and far between in these shows, but both are full of people so awful that even the twinkliest Hallmark Channel characters would be hard-pressed to turn them from the dark side. I’m generally OK with gloom (see TV, Scandinavian), but I do like things to have a point, and if the point is merely, “Everything is terrible,” well, thanks, but that’s what cable news is for.

So while it’s exhausting to try to keep up with Netflix’s own-every-genre style of programming, I’m not entirely unhappy that it’s lately been pointing me toward its growing library of romantic comedies (yes, even the teen ones). Among the made-for-Netflix offerings, there’s nothing like the brand discipline that exists at Hallmark, where you know what you’re getting going in — it’s hard to believe the same programmers ordered Netflix’s charming To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and the seriously wrongheaded Sierra Burgess Is a Loser — but what its romantic comedies lack in consistency, they frequently make up for in diversity.

It’s hard to imagine Hallmark making Nappily Ever After, a Netflix romantic comedy about an African American ad executive (Sanaa Lathan) whose relationship with her hair is as complicated as it is with the men in her life, and yet the story it tells would fit in fine there. So would The Holiday Calendar, a Netflix holiday movie starring Kat Graham (The Vampire Diaries) as an ambitious photographer who can’t seem to focus on the right guy, and This Is Us' Ron Cephas Jones as the grandfather whose gift of an antique Advent calendar will change her life.

Like Netflix, Lifetime and Freeform — which also aspire to Hallmark’s holiday market share — don’t insist on all-white Christmases.

Hallmark, to be fair, isn’t unaware that its casting could be more inclusive, and it’s proceeding the Hallmark way — with familiar faces.

“That’s very important to us, to be more diverse,” Hallmark Channel CEO Bill Abbott told me in an interview last summer, adding that he thought they’d made strides in 2018.

Philadelphia’s Holly Robinson Peete, whose family’s show, Meet the Peetes, is the channel’s first venture into “reality” programming, starred this year, along with Rick Fox, in two Morning Show Mystery movies for the network’s Movies & Mysteries channel, based on books by NBC’s Today show weatherguy Al Roker, who also produced the movies. Peete also has appeared in other Hallmark movies, including last year’s Christmas in Evergreen and its sequel, Christmas in Evergreen: Letters to Santa, which premiered last Sunday (and will air again at various times, including 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28).

She and her husband, onetime Eagles quarterback Rodney Peete, will star with their family in the Meet the Peetes Christmas Special at 9 p.m. Dec. 3, before the series returns next year.

The network’s “Countdown to Christmas” lineup suggests signs of progress don’t begin and end with Peete. (Or as put it, “Hallmark Channel is finally producing holiday movies with black leads!”)

At 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24, Tatyana Ali (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) stars, along with Dondré T. Whitfield (Queen Sugar), Dennis Haysbert (24), and Philadelphia’s own Patti LaBelle, in the debut of Christmas Everlasting, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation in which Ali plays a busy Manhattan lawyer who returns to her Wisconsin hometown after the death of her sister, and finds she’ll need to stay awhile (as characters in Hallmark movies nearly always do).

Other Hallmark “Countdown” stars of color include Jerrika Hinton (Grey’s Anatomy) in A Majestic Christmas (8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2), and Tia Mowry-Hardrict (Sister, Sister) and Duane Henry (NCIS) in A Gingerbread Romance (8 p.m Sunday, Dec. 16), while sister channel Movies & Mysteries' Memories of Christmas (9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8) stars Christina Milian (Dancing with the Stars).