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Formulaic for a Reason: The Existential Appeal of Hallmark Movies

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From Thanksgiving until Christmas, the Hallmark Channel plays feel-good, holiday-themed romance movies 24/7. At any moment during the holidays, turn to either of Hallmark’s two cable channels and you’ll find a two-hour (or 84-minute, plus many commercial breaks) movie about a guy, a girl, usually a small mountain town, and lots of Christmas trees, carols, and snowflakes. Ratings for these feel-good Hallmark movies are skyrocketing in the Trump era. For the 2017 holiday season, Hallmark produced a record 33 new original films, with titles like A Song for ChristmasThe Sweetest Christmas, and Marry Me at Christmas.

Ratings for these feel-good Hallmark movies are skyrocketing in the Trump era.

“I think we’ve watched this one before,” you’ll probably say as you settle onto your couch with a blanket. That’s because these films—hundreds have been made over the decades—do all blend together. They often share the same screenwriters, directors, and actors (Candace Cameron Bure, Alicia Witt, Lacey Chabert, and Lori Loughlin are regulars). They are cheaply made, ridiculously scripted (Journey Back to Christmas features a “Christmas comet” that magically takes a woman back and forth in time), and unapologetically cheesy.

But people love them. Why?

Hallmark Formula

My in-laws watch these films every night during the holidays, and they can set their watches by the predictable plot beats that fill out the well-worn formula.

Within the first 15 minutes, you’ll know which woman will fall in love with which man. The woman is often a city girl—perhaps an advertising executive, an interior decorator, or a widower whose late husband died at war. The man is often more “country”—a lumberjack whose family owns a Christmas tree farm, perhaps, or the chief of police in a small Montana town. Sometimes the roles are reversed, but this “town and country” pairing is a hallmark of Hallmark movies. By the 30-minute mark, the man or the woman is introduced to the other’s big, boisterous, hospitable family. Before the film’s first hour is complete, the man and woman share a “point of no return” moment: their eyes lock in a new way, often after a pivotal conversation, frequently while snow is falling outside.

And so it goes. Usually a token villain appears, or a competing love interest, or some other “obstacle” that momentarily threatens to undermine the romantic destiny of the leading man and woman (this usually happens in the film’s final 20 minutes). But we all know how the movie will end: an embrace, a kiss, a happy family, a united town, a dog frolicking in fresh snow, a Christmas carol, and then an abrupt ending with fast-forwarded credits so the next movie can start at the top of the hour.

Cynicism Is Exhausting

I used to hate these movies. I hated them for the same reasons I hated Thomas Kinkade paintings. I saw them as too tidy, too perfect, too idyllic—absent the pain, ugliness, and darkness that gives meaningful and resonant texture to real life. But then I noticed how much delight my in-laws got from watching these movies—laughing at how formulaic they are but also loving them for this reason. And then my wife and I started watching them too, not only to ridicule their ridiculousness (which we do), but also to find comfort in their beauty. Yes, their beauty.

Hallmark films are not beautiful because they are expertly crafted. Nor are they beautiful because they are invariably full of beautiful people. They are beautiful because they are formulaic in a good way and because they are simple and earnest in a chaotic, cynical world.

Hallmark movies are beautiful because they are formulaic in a good way and because they are simple and earnest in a chaotic, cynical world.

Cynicism is exhausting. For many years cynicism led me to immediately dismiss formulaic stories like Hallmark movies, Julia Roberts rom-coms, and Marvel blockbusters. But while there are other reasons to critique these films, formulaic storytelling shouldn’t necessarily be one of them. Simple and predictable isn’t always a bad thing.

Drawn to the Simple

There is an existential beauty and allure in a simple romance. We are drawn to “man and woman fall in love” stories because, well, that is how we are wired as humans. The complementary beauty of two polarities coming together—whether town and country, water and rock, night and day, female and male—is woven into the fabric of creation (see Genesis 1–2).

Hallmark movies that narrate these simple, “old school” romances fill a cultural void that expands each year in this era of sexual and gender confusion. It’s a void that is darker and deeper than ever in these #MeToo days of Harvey Weinstein and other sexual-abuse scandals. It’s the void of good men and good women, treating each other decently, respecting each other’s dignity, loving each other well.

Hallmark movies that narrate simple, old school romances fill a cultural void that is larger each year in this era of sexual and gender confusion.

Should we still decry the poor quality of these films and long for them to be more artfully made and nuanced? Yes. I wish Hollywood made more films, like 2015’s Brooklyn, that follow a Hallmark-esque formula but with much better acting, subtler writing, more innovative cinematography, and so forth. But the fact that millions of people love Hallmark movies in spite of their poor quality shows that the hunger for straightforward, traditional romances is real.

Narratives of Hope

Do we need more films and TV narratives to remind us of the harshness, complexity, and fallenness of the world? Maybe. But these realities are ever-present in our hyperconnected world, where there is no shortage of constant reminders of darkness.

I wonder if what we actually need right now are more narratives of hope; more stories of decent people being kind to one another (see Wonder or Stronger); more old-fashioned narratives of “tale as old as time” love—reminders that when it comes to resonant visions of humanity as it was meant to thrive, there is nothing new under the sun.

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