Blogger captures strange pleasures of the made-for-TV Christmas movie

Let us for a moment consider the strange pleasures of the made-for-TV Christmas movie. Did I say pleasures? Sorry, I meant … actually, I don't know what I meant because as a genre, this might be one of the more baffling if robust annual traditions-turned-fetish dominated by a small niche of cable channels that you might not even realize are included in your monthly package.

Networks like Hallmark and ION and UP, which broadcast an assortment of gloriously terrible, weirdly comforting movies. When the world seems to be falling apart outside your window, few things are more reassuring than the knowledge that you can still curl up with a spiked hot drink and settle in for endless supply of truly tacky made-for-TV Christmas movies. They are the paper plates of pop culture — cheap, disposable and good in a pinch.

They are awful. Frequently bonkers. And therefore amazing.

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Kacey Bange, who is based out of New Jersey, started writing about these kinds of movies six years ago when she was in college and her blog (tvmoviechristmas.com) is a hilariously incisive must-read. Each review includes a synopsis, a section called "In My Humble Opinion" and then quick "Watch it/Skip it" notes.

Here she is writing about "Looks Like Christmas," starring Anne Heche and Dylan Neal, which airs numerous times on Hallmark over the next two weeks, including 2 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Wednesday:

"The tropes in 'Looks like Christmas' are fine and dandy for the most part. Two single parents don't get along. He's a workaholic wanderer. She's a control freak townie. Through the magic of Christmas, though, they work out their differences and learn to trust their hearts again. It's beautiful. Or something like it."

Here's another Hallmark effort, called "Journey Back to Christmas," about a nurse during World War II who travels to 2016 and something, something, Christmas. It also airs multiple times this month, including 6 p.m. Sunday. It stars Candace Cameron Bure (of "Full House" fame), Oliver Hudson (son of Goldie Hawn) and Tom Skerritt (of far better credits than this, but a paycheck's a paycheck and somebody's got to keep that mustache in fine form). Here's Bange:

"If any movie deserved the 'you tried' sticker, it's 'Journey Back to Christmas.' Because, oh boy, it's trying. It has an over-the-top premise and fancy costumes and newsreel footage and Jeff Fordham from 'Nashville'! There's shades of a Hallmark Hall of Fame work, with all this budget value! You can actually smell the effort! It would be kind of nice, if it wasn't so excruciatingly boring."

Or here's her assessment of a movie called "Girlfriends of Christmas Past" (airing on UP midnight Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Dec. 17), about a young woman, dumped by her jerk boyfriend on Christmas, who teams up with his other exes to teach him a lesson. The quick lowdown:

"Skip if: You don't think revenge is a dish best served over social media, if you belong on all the pedestals people place you on, or if you don't need to go shopping with your mother on Sunday."

This is the kind of film writing made-for-TV movies rightly deserve. Bange, now 24, has maintained her annual blogging tradition each holiday season, posting her first review Nov. 1 and adding a new write-up every day until Christmas Eve.

I asked what got her started.

"I always go back to when I was in high school, I was watching a movie with my mom, it was called 'A Christmas Romance' (from 1994) starring Olivia Newton-John and it was the dumbest thing I ever saw."

The plots are reliably bad. "I really do think these writers drive through town and find a profession and base the story off of that," said Bange. "Like, I wonder if they think, 'Hmm, what about "A Grocery Store Christmas" — what can we do with that?'" And if you scan the posters for this (or any) year's Hallmark lineup, "they specifically only have white people as leads," she said, with only the occasional exception (shout out to Dean Cain, who is part Japanese! Hi, Dean!).

An unofficial expert on the form, she has identified tropes: Single parent finds love. Or, cynical careerist from the city becomes stuck in a small town and learns to embrace the holiday spirit. Invariably, a Christmas tree is purchased, decorated and lit up, melting heart of aforementioned cynic. Or, a small struggling business fights to stay solvent/a special event is threatened with disaster — only to have everything work out, because Christmas.

Made-for-TV Christmas movies are where '90s sitcom stars and CW starlets go to earn a buck. "Full House's" Bure is a regular. This year's crop also includes Melissa Joan Hart ("Sabrina, the Teenage Witch") and Danica McKellar ("The Wonder Years"). According to Bange, "Dean Cain always pops up. Basically if they were big in the '90s, there's a very good chance that you will see them pop up in a Hallmark movie."

And even Bange is not entirely immune to the occasional sappy feeling or two: "There are some movies that I genuinely feel emotions about, which is surprising. There was a movie a couple years ago called 'Mrs. Miracle' that Hallmark did starring James Van Der Beek, from 'Dawson's Creek,' and Doris Roberts, from 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' and it really got into how tough it would be as a single father. And I was like, 'Wow, I'm genuinely surprised at these genuine emotions that I'm feeling!'"

According to Bange, there are 38 new movies this year, spread across various cable channels. "I'm writing about them with affection. I'm not rating these on a scale of 1 to should-win-an-Oscar. I accept the genre for what it is." Meaning: Cheesy. Reliably cheesy.

"There's something that's calming about how low-stress and ridiculous they are," she said. "To tune into something and know exactly what you're getting. To be able to turn on the TV and know for sure that you're going to watch something that has a happy ending, where everybody falls in love or learns to love each other and that's the whole big deal. There's something very comforting about that."

A couple to keep an eye out for this weekend, per Bange: "Love You Like Christmas," which is about "a businesswoman whose car breaks down in a snowbank and she gets stuck in the most Christmas-y town ever and falls in love with a cabin owner." A classic trope. That premieres 7 p.m. Sunday on Hallmark. Not to be outdone, "A Christmas to Remember" airs 8 p.m. Dec. 18 on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and features, per Bange, "a woman who crashes a car outside a little town and learns to love Christmas. Except this time the woman gets amnesia and starts raising a widower's kids. Like 'Overboard'? Except Christmas!" That one stars Mira Sorvino. Oscar winner Mira Sorvino.

And "A Nutcracker Christmas" (also on Hallmark, 7 p.m. Saturday) about a jaded ex-ballerina and a show that needs saving. It co-stars Sascha Radetsky, a former soloist with the American Ballet Theatre. As Bange noted: "They actually got people who can dance, so I'm interested in seeing how that works out."

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @Nina_Metz

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