For years, all I’ve wanted is an LGBTQ Hallmark Christmas movie with all the trappings of their typical seasonal fare: external forces pushing a couple together, light family drama, holiday spirit in excess, and, of course, a predictably happy ending. I got my wish this year. In November, Hallmark debuted The Christmas House, its first Christmas movie with a major LGBTQ storyline. The movie follows Phylis (Sharon Lawrence) and Bill (Treat Williams), an older couple who invite their sons, Brandon (Jonathan Bennett) and Mike (Robert Buckley), home for the two weeks leading up to Christmas to decorate the titular “Christmas House.” It’s a long-running family tradition involving a month’s worth of intensive decorating. We’re brought right into the tension: Phylis and Bill are selling their home and taking time apart from their relationship after Phylis struggles to adjust to retirement. Mike is an actor whose TV show, Handsome Justice, may not be renewed, and he’s reintroduced to his high school crush Andi (Ana Ayora), now a mom and divorced real estate agent helping his parents sell their home.
Brandon is a baker and he and his husband Jake (Brad Harper), who’s excited to participate in the Christmas house tradition, are on their fourth attempt to adopt a child. All in all, the film’s plot fits neatly into Hallmark’s existing canon of movies about going home for the holidays. But why release their first queer Christmas movie now? Hallmark typically has a more conservative viewership, so it’s not surprising that it has taken this long for the network to feature LGBTQ couples in its holiday lineup. According to Hallmark, the film is one of four movies released in 2020 with LGBTQ storylines, the other three featuring minor stories such as the interracial gay couple in Christmas by Starlight. Hallmark states that nearly 40 percent of its Christmas movies this year will feature “diversity and inclusion.” This comes after the 2019 controversy when Hallmark pulled a Zola commercial that featured two brides kissing, only to apologize and backpedal following social media backlash.
Like many other Hallmark ensemble films, The Christmas House moves between these three main storylines and treats each with care. The film spends time lingering on Brandon and Jake’s conversations about passing down holiday traditions to their kids, Mike and Andi’s blossoming romance, and Phylis and Bill’s communication struggles. We also get interlocking scenes between characters: Mike and Brandon compete over who’s a faster decorator, Mike and his dad talk about the many hours Bill spent learning magic to teach Mike as a kid, and the family visits Andi’s family home to eat her mom’s coveted tamales. Overall, The Christmas House succeeds in treating Brandon and Jake like any other Hallmark holiday movie couple: They have challenges, but it’s clear from the start that they will overcome them.
Jake and Brandon are affectionate onscreen: They share a kiss backlit by holiday lights, they cuddle on the couch as Phylis breaks down the plan for decorating the house in only two weeks, and they’re just as comfortable being together in public and in front of family as any of the non-LGBTQ couples in the film. The fact that they’re an LGBTQ couple is a nonissue in their fictional universe—and if Phylis and Bill ever had an issue with their relationship, the audience has no idea.
During a year when an LGBTQ couple’s right to adopt children has become a major political issue, it’s powerful to watch Brandon and Jake talk to their supportive family about their trouble adopting. Brandon is the wiser, more grounded brother to Mike, who leans on him for emotional support when he learns their parents are splitting up and when he begins to fall for Andi again. “I’ve had to learn to let things fall apart and pick up and keep going,” Brandon tells Mike in a traditionally heartwarming Hallmark scene. The line doesn’t go any deeper than that, but we’re meant to assume that Brandon’s referring to the failed attempts to adopt.
In a celebratory moment toward the end of the movie, when Brandon and Jake eventually get the news that the adoption went through, everyone in their family jumps with joy to cheer. Phylis is thrilled she’ll be a grandmother soon. The movie is careful to treat this moment exactly the way it would treat a non-LGBTQ couple announcing they’re having their first kid. It’s joyful and not a single character mentions the couple’s sexual orientation or that their queerness may have led to their difficulty adopting in the first place. The Christmas House goes out of its way not to other Brandon and Jake and instead focuses on who they are as characters, which isn’t surprising given they are both played by out gay actors. Hallmark avoids common problems in LGBTQ movies by not focusing on coming out or homophobia-centered storylines.
Where The Christmas House falls slightly short is in making Mike and his relationship with Andi the A story. Since they’re an established couple in an ensemble cast, Brandon and Jake don’t get as much screen time. We know they want kids, Brandon is a baker, and Jake can work “from anywhere,” but we don’t know much about how they met, what their lives are like at home, or—aside from the adoption—what their fears and desires are. In contrast, the B story about Brandon and Jake and Phylis and Bill receive about equal screen time. The marketing on Hallmark’s website reflects this: The about page for The Christmas House features a singular photo of Mike and Andi, and the promotional graphics for the movie feature Mike and Andi more prominently than the other two couples.
This movie would have been better served by having a storyline that centered around an emerging romance between two LGBTQ characters instead of having a family ensemble cast with a gay couple trying to adopt (not unlike Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and Patrick (Brian J. White) in the 2005 Christmas comedy-drama The Family Stone). Though they are treated with the same respect as every non-LGBTQ character, Brandon and Jake do not receive the “Hallmark treatment.” Rather, they’re shoehorned into the role of a secure, loving couple figuring out the next stage in their marriage, which in this case is raising children. Hallmark’s major competitor, Lifetime, is also airing its first LGBTQ Christmas movie this year, The Christmas Setup, which in comparison looks like it will revolve around the burgeoning romance between Hugo (Ben Lewis) and Patrick (Blake Lee). That’s what LGBTQ audiences are hungry for—fun, light rom-coms that revolve around two people falling in love.