When You’re Queer Enough to Send the Very Best
If a pandemic, murder hornets, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, and a president who refuses to concede an election he clearly lost weren’t bad enough, 2020 has now brought us another calamity—though admittedly less consequential than the ones listed above: gay paint-by-numbers holiday romantic comedies.
I have not watched most of these, nor will I. The previews alone left me stupider than I was before I hit “play.” The undisputed leader in the genre of tinsel-covered gooey melodrama, the Hallmark Channel, produced The Christmas House this year, featuring one of my crushes from my teenage closeted years, Treat Williams, alongside two identical, broad-shouldered, V-neck sweater-wearing, white (of course) men with impossibly tweezed eyebrows as our romantic heroes.
Another, Dashing in December, featured two more indistinguishable, generically handsome white men as our romantic heroes: one a city slicker with pretentious taste in wine labels and a country boy who advises the urban cowboy he loves that “sometimes, you’ve just got to figure out how to farm the pastures where you live.” (Hint: he wants you to personally plow his fields, Chad.)
Lifetime’s entry this year is The Christmas Set-Up, featuring Fran Drescher’s newly pulled back visage and a pair of adorable gay (Caucasian) clones who find love surrounded by twinkling lights and Christmas balls.
Finally, Clea DuVall (an actor best known for her performance in But I’m a Cheerleader) made her directorial debut with The Happiest Season, on the Hulu network. Featuring Kristin Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza, Victor Garber, and Mary Steenburgen, this one is similar to the others in that it’s very Christmas-y and very white, but different in that this one is about a pair of lesbian lovebirds, and features a trailer that made the film look downright appealing. So this one, I decided to watch.
And by and large, it was enjoyable. The instigating event was a little problematic. In a fit of romantic pique, Harper (Davis) invites her girlfriend Abby (Stewart) home for the holidays, while neglecting to tell her that her parents are politically ambitious conservatives who have no idea that their daughter is a lesbian. She tells her this ON THE DRIVE to whatever little all-American suburb they’re traveling to.
Then, of course, you meet the family. Steenburgen and Garber are the parents, who seem…ordinary and, y’know, FINE. Harper’s sisters are another story: one is somewhat lacking in social skills, while the other is an uptight mother of sullen twins who does everything perfectly. Whether or not Abby will be accepted and, dare we ask, loved, by this new family who aren’t yet aware that they’re meeting anyone more significant than a roommate seems to be the crux of the conflict. Will they like her? Will she like them? And, of course, will her girlfriend ever come out so that they no longer have to steal furtive kisses on the sly whenever they’re alone?
But then, the movie takes a turn. Aubrey Plaza (who is marvelous, and easily the highlight of the film) shows up as Riley, Harper’s ex. I naturally suspected that Riley would soon prove to be some romantic competition for Abby, as the potential for old flames to be rekindled.
Later, it seemed that Riley might be more a threat to Harper, as she and Abby prove that they have real screen chemistry together (more, if we’re honest, than the two leads). But, as it turns out, Riley presents an entirely different sort of challenge for our sapphic protagonists. Without giving too much away, Riley is more and more attractive and Harper is less and less appealing as the film goes on—and while Riley has no designs on splitting up our (happy?) couple, I found myself wishing that Abby and Riley would run off together anyway. For most of the film, I found myself rooting against the inevitable happy ending.
What turned me back around was the performance of Dan Levy (Schitt’s Creek) as the “best friend.” In most romantic comedies, this role is a thankless and bland sounding board for our protagonist, with an occasional sassy quip to justify the character’s existence. In this story, the sassy gay confidante matters to the plot, and his advice to Abby is one of the most touching moments of TV I’ve seen in a long time. In the hands of a weaker actor, the words as written might have been preachy and oversentimental, but Levy sells it beautifully.
If the queer holiday-themed romantic comedy is to become as permanent a fixture in our end-of-year cultural lives as eggnog and pumpkin-spiced anything, it’s an undeniable sign of progress. And if syrupy soaps are your cinematic comfort food, it’s nice to consume it in a flavor you recognize, and it’s good for your straight neighbors to expand their palate a tad. I can’t promise I’ll imbibe overmuch, but will joyfully admit that The Happiest Season made my season a smidgen happier. Have a happy and safe holiday, all.
Eric Peterson is a writer and teacher. He co-hosts a podcast about old movies—visit rewindpod.com to learn more.