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TV’s gay Christmas movies are as benign, charming and cliche as we always hoped they’d be

Blake Lee, left, and Ben Lewis in “The Christmas Setup.” (Albert Camicioli/Lifetime)
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In olden times, the people behind the so-called gay agenda wanted nothing more than what everyone else already had: marriage, kids, suburban bliss, job security and equal access to all the benignly merry things in life. Some in the LGBTQ sphere fretted that this wish list, once granted, strips away some of the qualities that set us uniquely apart. What happens to the innovation, the rebelliousness, the tawdry fun that can only come from living on society’s fringe? Does getting all the basic things make us too . . . basic?

To look at queer life now in American culture, the question has all but answered itself: With the incremental attaining of equal rights, it’s as if the magic key was at last inserted into the glowing treasure chest, unleashing a superfluid starburst that enhanced the full spectrum of gender and sexuality — for everyone. In what was originally thought to be a victory for the vanilla, we gained a thousand new flavors. Why else would conservative groups (still) be losing their minds over this? Because it’s all too fabulous to bear.

Yet the gay rights movement continues to seek the last few crowning glories of the commonplace — and when it comes to that, in television form, nothing could be more smotheringly conventional than the made-for-cable-TV Christmas movie.

Only by the good graces of irony has the Christmas movie become its own vaunted style of heterosexual camp. It’s a safe space where actors of moderate fame are called upon, like old studio players, to don sweaters, traipse in fake snowflakes, cozy up together and reemphasize the season’s sweetest recurring themes, especially the one in which self-absorbed, lightly cynical protagonists learn to let go and let love do its sparkly thing. The Christmas TV movie — perfected by Hallmark, Lifetime and a few others — presses all the right buttons at once, except the one it was always too intimidated to press: It didn’t believe in gay love.

This has been remedied with Lifetime’s charmingly by-the-book “The Christmas Setup,” which features two gay characters front and center, played by two actors (Ben Lewis, of “Arrow,” and Blake Lee, of “Mixology”) who are real-life spouses. Rather than reinvent (or God forbid, subvert) the form, “The Christmas Setup,” which premiered Saturday, assiduously proves that the Christmas movie genre was pretty much gay all along — for who else would so emphatically link ephemeral happiness to obsessive decor and splendid social gatherings?

All boxes here are duly checked once, if not twice: Lewis plays Hugo, an uptight Manhattan attorney vying for a partnership at his firm; he invites his BFF Madelyn (Ellen Wong) to spend the holidays with his family in Milwaukee. But brace yourself, Hugo warns — his mother, Kate, is one of those over-the-top Christmas people, in charge of the neighborhood’s annual holiday party at the quaint old train station that is scheduled to be demolished (and replaced by a modern mass-transit kiosk, some urban planner’s dream).

But why go into all this when all I really need to say is that Kate is played by Fran Drescher? There you have it. Your gay Christmas movie.

Kate’s Christmas tree (one of many) is delivered to the house by none other than adorable Patrick (Lee), the older, openly gay popular boy that a then-closeted Hugo pined for (see what I did there?) back in high school. The two men flirt and blush as they try to get something so large into a space so small, and yes, the double-entendres here are negligible but certainly intentional. Kate is obviously matchmaking and in no time at all, the two men are falling in love.

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Crises and conundrums emerge (will Hugo give up his career and move home to be with Patrick the Perfect? Will the historic train station be saved? Was the man who so lovingly tended to the station and started the holiday traditions all those years ago himself gay?) but, in adherence to the genre, they are fairly low-stakes concerns. That’s what is most interesting about putting gay characters in Christmas movies: In this world, nothing ever reaches a boiling point; screaming is not allowed. Characters have to be something other than wildly dramatic. Doors have to do something besides slam.

The same goes, alas, for the passion: Hugo and Patrick get two big kisses in two hours, neither more nor less action than anyone usually gets in one of these things. Also, Hugo’s straight brother, Aiden (Chad Connell), strides in with distracting handsomeness and starts making goo-goo eyes at Madelyn, so that no one is left out (except for Kate, who will always have her piles and piles of Christmas decorations). God bless us, every one.

It was only this aspect of “The Christmas Setup” that gave me pause, as if the network, producers and writers are tacitly acknowledging that heterosexual viewers might not stick around unless they, too, are thrown a chastely romantic bone. That is precisely what gay TV viewers have ever wanted, too — not to blow in and ruin things with our forbidden desires, but to be noticed and included, to the extent that Christmas can ever make anyone completely happy.

Noticed and included is precisely the approach Hallmark Channel takes with “The Christmas House,” which premiered in November (and will replay on Dec. 14), and has, for the first time in Hallmark’s holiday movie history, a gay couple in the mix: They are Brandon (Jonathan Bennett) and Jake (Brad Harder), and although they are nowhere near central to the plot — in which a TV actor (Robert Buckley) returns home to help his parents (Sharon Lawrence and Treat Williams) and brother (Bennett) stage the family’s showstopping, inside-and-out holiday decorations one last (ya think?) time and rekindles his boyhood romance with the girl next door (Ana Ayora) — the point is that they’re here, they’re full of cheer, get used to it.

Which is to say: Merry Christmas, Justice Alito! A certain swath of Hallmark viewers struggled, of course, when the network first announced this inclusive subplot. The usual cycle of boycott threats and online petitions of protest were bandied about, but here we are, watching Brandon and Jake have one of those happily faked, emphatically perfect Christmases that the rest of America can only dream of — where it always snows on Dec. 24, where people always join in for caroling rounds, where there is always plenty of time to bake and wrap and laugh and gather, where old flames willingly wait beneath mistletoe, and where porch pirates are never seen on doorbell cameras running off with all the Amazon boxes. We love Christmas movies because they make it all seem somehow possible, and we should keep pushing them to make more wishes come true.

The main worry — advertisers — is a moot point, ever since commercials became the most inclusive programming there is. When that Etsy “Brandon and David” ad comes on? The one where a young Black man brings his new boyfriend home for Christmas and room is made at the dinner table and Pops gives them an ornament with their pictures embroidered on it? Tell me you don’t well up. Someone make that into a TV movie.

Read more:

A guide to this year’s holiday movies, from Dolly Parton’s musical to Kristen Stewart’s queer rom-com

Some think watching holiday movies feels sad this year. Others started in March.

Clea DuVall wanted to see more queer Christmas movies. With Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis, she made one herself.

The Christmas Setup (two hours) premiered Dec. 12; next airing is Friday, Dec. 25 at 6 p.m. on Lifetime. Also available on-demand.

The Christmas House (two hours) premiered in November; next airing is Monday, Dec. 14 at midnight on Hallmark Channel.

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