Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hallmark Hits the Mark with Holiday Movies

(From the January 14 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

At least I know I’m not alone. The shopkeeper in Saugatuck said her husband is the same way. A few guys we know from church agreed. A few neighbor men went along with it too.

Men. Dudes. Watching Hallmark movies. And not just because they have to.

I got into Hallmark movies with my wife over the recent holiday season. Although we’re not done yet. She loaded up the DVR by recording almost every single Hallmark movie on the chart during the holiday season. We couldn’t watch them fast enough. No really—the DVR zapped a few “Hawaii 5-0” episodes we were storing up to watch during the snowy season. So for those we’ll have to surf over to the right web site on my laptop to watch them that way. Surfing for a show in Hawaii seems right.

But back to the Hallmark channel. As I noted at the outset, this is not some weakness or flaw in my masculinity. It’s not like going shoe shopping just to be a good husband. These movies are popular.

The cable network released two new movies every weekend in November and December, all with a holiday theme. And they were a hit, according to ratings data reported in the Wall Street Journal and several advertising trade publications. The Hallmark Channel has seen percentage increases in viewership each year since 2012, while many other networks endure double digit declines in audience.

So how to explain this success? The Wall Street Journal was on to it when it described the movies as “feel good.” Indeed they are. The themes all include romance, redemption and recovery of some sort.

The movies are so feel good that at times I took liberty with the ending, articulating an alternative conclusion more consistent with what might appear in theatres or on other networks. The handsome man would turn out to be an Albanian spy, or a con artist inserting himself into the lonely widow’s life just to get at her bank accounts. Or the newly married woman turns out to have an evil side and attacks her new family with an axe. I created these variant story lines—much to the chagrin of my wife---not because I am sinister, but just to demonstrate the contrasts.

Some would say the Hallmark movies are predictable plots, even formulaic. The sardonic might roll their eyes at the consistently syrupy endings, the implausibly neat sewing up of situations, all in two hours, minus commercials.

But therein lies the beauty. Simplicity is not always unsophisticated. Happy, predictable endings are not necessarily amateur. They satisfy the audience. Isn’t it a good thing that a good story with a happy ending is what people want in growing numbers?

I’ve written before about the folly of  “reality” television. I’ve complained about the mind-numbing conformity of network entertainment offerings that are endless variations on the predictable plot of big city detectives, with gratuitous violence and inevitable sexual situations. It may seem old fashioned to some, but the Hallmark movies—many of which come from short stories and novels—rely on human emotion and good storytelling. In that respect they are less predictable than the staged “reality” or pandering to depraved interests that is available on other television entertainment fare.

The Hallmark movies often start with a story of someone who has suffered a loss. There has been a relationship break-up, a death, or a realization that career pursuit left something lacking. Then there’s a plot twist, a change in direction, a new character emerges. Sure, it is easy to see the plot coming, the conflict and resolution. But the thing is, it is a joy to see.  People gawk at car accidents on the highway, but it’s far more compelling and delightful to watch a wedding on the beach.

Some may secretly mock people who watch these Hallmark movies for an indulgence into something sappy. Many others find the channel a welcome respite. We have ISIS cutting off heads, drug lords on the loose, mass shootings, and another long season of politicians slinging mud across the airwaves.

Hallmark is on to something. We’re all still children, at least a little bit. We want to close the curtains on the world out there. We want to be distracted from the potential of monsters lurking. We say, tell us a story.