Story by Bob Abelman
’Tis the season.
Soon, storefront windows will resemble Currier & Ives lithographs, Christmas-themed films will be released at local cinemas, and television will be inundated with a rerunning of nostalgic stop-action animation specials. But for many, nothing says the holidays like the Hallmark Channel’s made-for-TV movie lineup.
The Hallmark Channel, a cable network that premiered in 2001, aired its first original, family-friendly Christmas-themed made-for-TV movie that same year and never looked back. Last year, its “Countdown to Christmas” movie lineup – which started on Oct. 20 and ran through Dec. 25 – offered 37 newly minted, one-and-done Yuletide tales with such titles as “Homegrown Christmas,” “Tingle Around the Clock” and “Mingle All the Way.”
The art and craft of TV anthologies
The made-for-TV movie has had a long and fairly lack-luster history. It started in the late-1940s with the creation of original, non-serial plays presented as part of a weekly anthology and billed under a single title such as NBC’s “Kraft Television Theater” and CBS’s “Studio One.” They tended to focus on psychological intrigue and moral confrontations since early TV cameras were best at capturing action close up and early TV sets had very small screens. They were produced in New York City and performed live, as was all of TV programming at the time, and typically aired on Sunday nights when theaters were dark and stage actors were available for hire.
In the mid-1950s, the motion picture industry – which for years had wanted nothing to do with this upstart new medium – decided to get a piece of the action and produced programming that could be shot on location and recorded on film, which could more easily be serialized and scheduled. By the 1960s and 1970s, Hollywood-produced television dramas dominated prime time television and the made-for-TV movies that remained on the air under the headings “NBC Saturday Night at the Movies” and “ABC Movie of the Week” became known for their low budgets, second-tier talent and ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter.
By 2000, only 146 made-for-TV-movies were made by CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC and the now-defunct UPN, and averaged a measly 5.4 Nielsen rating.
But for the Hallmark Channel in 2001, low-budget was pretty much a mission statement and a 5.4 rating was an aspiration for any cable network. In 2008, it launched its “Countdown to Christmas” lineup. Last year, these made-for-TV movies attracted 85 million viewers and, according to AdWeek, accounted for one-third of the card company’s annual ad revenue.
This year’s “Countdown to Christmas” contains 40 new original holiday movies, including two Chanukah-themed stories slotted between heavy doses of Christmas cheer. Chanukah begins the evening of Dec. 22 and ends the evening of Dec. 30, which means that it overlaps with Christmas and, so, was on the radar of Hallmark Channel executives. Menorahs have been added to the mistletoe.
Though this is the channel’s first venture into Chanukah, there have been Jewish characters featured in one of its past holiday stories. In 2012’s “Hitched for the Holidays,” an Italian-Catholic man played by Joey Lawrence from TV’s “Blossom” and a Jewish woman played by Emily Hampshire from TV’s “Boy Meets Girl,” pretend to be a couple to placate their families, including her meddling mother played by Marilu Henner from TV’s “Taxi.” They also pretend to be Jewish since none of the actors actually are. In true Hallmark fashion, the young couple fall in love by the time the closing credits roll.
Hallmark’s made-for-TV movies are loved by many because they are a shamelessly romantic, extraordinarily wholesome and pleasantly predictable art form. They are ignored by many and mocked by others for the exact same reasons.
So formulaic are these films that an unofficial drinking game made its way to Facebook, to be played during viewing. A shot must be taken each time the depiction of tree-shopping occurs, a snow fight erupts or mistletoe is given a zoom-in to close-up. A double-shot is required if Candace Cameron Bure, who has been in 18 Hallmark movies, makes an appearance.
The anatomy of a Hallmark Chanukah
To get a sense of what a Hallmark Chanukah would look like, so we can plan our viewing and alcohol consumption accordingly, a veteran writer of Hallmark and Lifetime TV programming – who happens to be my cousin – was recruited to take a stab at a Chanukah-themed story made out of the essential ingredients that define every formulaic Hallmark Christmas movie ever made. He requested to remain anonymous as he still works in the industry.
His responses are cynical but on-target.
Canvas: Recent Hallmark holiday shows tend to feature attractive but forgotten ’90s TV actors as the romantically involved couple. Thoughts on casting this Chanukah version?
I’d go with a known made-for-TV movie commodity as the female lead, so that there is clear lineage between the “Countdown to Christmas” franchise and this new “Careening Toward Chanukah” installment. Lacey Chabert (“Party of Five”) is a favorite, having been in over a dozen Hallmark Channel films. Danica McKellar (“Wonder Years”) has been in several and also has name recognition. Hallmark veteran Lori Loughlin would have been another option if not for that college admissions bribery scandal, which is a made-for-TV movie waiting to happen.
None are actually Jewish, which is apparently not a problem at Hallmark, but I’d throw an Israeli actor into the mix just to cover our backs. A heartthrob like Aki Avni would attract Hallmark’s target demographic of women ages 25 to 54, only we need someone younger and less talented – which is code for more affordable since we are probably working with a budget of just under $3 million.
Canvas: Let’s go with Danica McKellar, for no other reason than she was a teenage TV crush of mine. And let’s go with an Israeli-to-be-named later. Most Hallmark holiday movies tell the tale of a seemingly mismatched couple brought together by forces beyond their control. What about our Aki wannabe and Danica?
Since English is a second language for our Israeli, let’s make it a distant second and use the language barrier as a vehicle for light comedy, some dramatic miscommunication and something to be overcome so there is a final moment of true and heartfelt understanding and emotional connection. A Chanukah miracle!
Canvas: What brings them together? What’s their story?
What if our Ari-lite is the brother of Danica’s dead husband – dead spouses are popular on the Hallmark Channel – and feels obligated to help her raise her children. Hallmark movies tend to have plenty of children on screen. Let’s give her three.
Or, he is a widowed foreign diplomat with his children in tow during a mission in the U.S. Their plane is forced to land due to a snow storm. Local authorities ask Danica, the only Jew in this small American town, to house them until the weather clears.
Choose one. Either way, he’s in town for eight days and eight nights and they fall in love. A Chanukah miracle!
Canvas: Let’s go with the latter. What small American town?
Hallmark gravitates toward fictional locations with homey, holiday-inspired names like Garland, Hollyvale and Homestead. For our story, I’d go with Little Dreidel, New Hampshire or Semi-Semitic, South Dakota.
Canvas: How religious should we make this story?
Hallmark “Countdown to Christmas” movies tend not to be too religious, preferring something spiritual or supernatural to make things right for a happy ending rather than anything particularly Godly. They don’t want to lose agnostics – who are huge card-buyers for other occasions – as an audience. Intervention by elves was used in “Northpole,” angels helped out in “A Heavenly Christmas” and a storefront Santa worked his way into “A Wish for Christmas.” Perhaps we go with a heavily bearded homeless man the locals call “The Rabbi,” because he spouts non sequitur wisdom while talking to himself or his hallucinations.
Canvas: Let’s talk about production values.
Or the lack thereof. These made-for-TV movies are typically made within a three-week window, so production values are limited though sufficiently attractive to maintain the Hallmark brand and holiday spirit.
Canvas: Happy ending?
Canvas: Sounds like we have the makings of a made-for-TV Chanukah movie that Hallmark would be proud of. What would the promotional blurb sound like on the Hallmark Channel?
As families in the small town of Maccabi, Maine prepare for Christmas, a snow storm forces a small private plane to make an emergency landing. Its passengers – a widowed Israeli attache and his three young children – are stranded on this first night of Chanukah until the weather clears. Local authorities call on Sara, the young woman who operates the one kosher bakery in town, to house them. Pastry and compassion overcome the language barrier between them and soon Sara’s house feels like a home. Elijah and Sara’s romance is foretold by the ramblings of an old homeless man who weaves his way through neighborhood trash cans and into our hearts. Starring Lior Ashkenazi, Danica McKellar and Ed Asner as “The Rabbi.”
Canvas: And what would be our movie’s title?
“Home for the Challah-days.”