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The Christmas Setup 2020 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Director: Pat Mills
Writer: Michael J. Murray
Stars: Fran Drescher, Ellen Wong, Ben Lewis
When 2020 began, I wasn’t planning on watching every new release put out by Lifetime, even though I’ve been hosting a podcast called Lifetime Uncorked since 2016. On the weekly show, my friend Drew Current and I talk about my favorite pastime: Made-for-TV movies.
But, as the pandemic progressed, I decided that instead of attending Zoom trivia or socially distanced picnic dates, I’d spend 2020 with murderous mothers, devious nannies, and nightmare pool boys. I saw Ms. Vivica A. Fox take down “the wrong” wedding planner, stepfather, and cheerleading coach in her multi-film franchise, and Nia Vardalos poison her daughter with “anti-free” in a ripped-from-the-headlines flick about Stacey Castor. And when it came time to indulge in Lifetime’s epic Christmas movie slate, I’ve enjoyed every minute of that, too.
Whether I’ve loved, hate-watched, or hated myself for loving them, Lifetime movies have been there for me throughout this difficult chapter. But it was only until I saw The Christmas Setup that I knew I’d chosen the right path in life (or in Lifetime).
Out December 12, The Christmas Setup is Lifetime’s inaugural full-fledged LGBTQ+ holiday rom-com. The movie features a Lifetime TV movie first: Gay romantic leads, portrayed by real-life husbands Blake Lee and Ben Lewis. Their character names? Hugo and…PATRICK! Yet another sign this movie was meant for me—and I’d been waiting.
I’ve admired the female protagonists in TV movies since I was a kid. In a typical Lifetime thriller—my favorite variety of overtly dramatic made-for-TV fare—disarmingly attractive women are deceived by someone they shouldn’t have trusted in the first place, but after fighting like hell, they almost always preserver over the villains. The women in these movies are survivors and will do whatever it takes (usually with a fire poker!). As a gay man, I can relate to that—fighting for your happy ending.
In comparison, I felt estranged from the holiday movie bubble. Though it’s fun to watch a beautiful, work-obsessed leading lady (preferably played by a sitcom star of yesteryear) find love in their small suburb with a hometown hunk, I never saw people like me represented in their deliciously saccharine love stories. Designed to be escapist entertainment, these Christmas movies had the opposite effect on me: They reminded me of being an outsider.
Still, even though I felt shut out by them, I was complacent with the holiday rom-com formula for years, simply because I never expected to see an LGBTQ+ couple get a happy ending, Lifetime style. Gay characters in TV movies were only ever implied, and always relegated to the role of sardonic sidekick or prissy assistant.
Then came 2019, when the LGBTQ+ representation in the TV movie sphere shifted completely, thanks to two forces. First, Lifetime’s Twinkle All the Way featured a quick gay kiss between two C-plot characters played by Brian Sills and the ever-so-handsome, Mark Ghanimé. Around the same time as this landmark, if unceremoniously unrolled, depiction of gay affection, the Hallmark Channel pulled a Zola ad featuring a same-sex wedding and kiss because it was deemed “controversial.”
Flash forward to this holiday season, when networks are openly striving for diverse representation—including Black people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people—in TV movies to reflect the real world we live in. Hallmark has six movies featuring gay characters in supporting roles, including The Christmas House; Hulu took on a lesbian coming-out story with Happiest Season, and Paramount Network has a gay cowboy movie (no, not Brokeback Mountain) Dashing in December, written and directed by my fave LGBTQ+ TV movie virtuoso, Jake Helgren.
Of them all, none succeeded more than The Christmas Setup. There is no coming-out story here. There is no traumatic event that’s a catalyst for change. There’s just a quaint, satisfying love story—the kind straight and queer people have been enjoying for centuries, but have predominantly only depicted straight couples. Cheesy TV Christmas movies are all the same. Why should the ones featuring a gay romance be any different?
In The Christmas Setup, Hugo (Ben Lewis) is a busy New York City lawyer heading back to his hometown for the holidays. He (literally) falls for a striking Christmas tree delivery guy named Patrick (Blake Lee). Sounds like a familiar trope, right? Together, they help Hugo’s mother Kate (Fran Drescher) save the town’s historic train station. Playing the role typically reserved for a leading lady, Lewis is charming, self-deprecating, and clumsy. He pulls off a great Sandra Bullock-esque performance, complete with pratfalls. The only thing missing is a goofy laugh—I suspect Drescher stipulates in her contract that iconic laughs be reserved for her.
Director Pat Mills, who is also gay, was wise in not objectifying either man with a gratuitous shirtless scene, like some Lifetime holiday movies have done. Instead, Mills sticks to the unofficial Lifetime Christmas Movie Rulebook by having the characters share only a chaste Christmas kiss, keeping The Christmas Setup a family-friendly affair.
The fact that it didn’t break the comfortingly predictable and wholesome mold was the best part for me. It was enthralling to see LGBTQ+ characters happily building a snowman and decorating a tree in “drag.” It’s what I would like to imagine for my future husband and me—except instead of building snowmen, we drink martinis inside.
“With The Christmas Setup, viewers are welcoming LGBTQ+ characters into their living rooms for the holidays.”
Finally, a touching B-plot elevates the film from forgettable TV movie into a beautiful one, and subtly nods to the lack of meaningful representation in decades of pop culture. The original owners of the train station were unable to express their affection publicly. In an old photo, they’re shown standing next to each other, resisting holding hands. Patrick and Hugo share their kiss in the same spot at the end of the film. The movie acknowledges the LGBTQ+ community members that came before while celebrating how far we have come.
It is so important for made-for-TV movies to include love stories featuring characters from all walks of life, like The Christmas Setup. TV movies are different from “movie movies” because they’re watched at home. With The Christmas Setup, viewers are welcoming LGBTQ+ characters into their living rooms for the holidays.
My Christmas wish for this season is that any LGBTQ+ person who comes across The Christmas Setup feels seen and valued. Because they are. If holiday movies teach us anything, it’s that everyone deserves love this time of year, even a workaholic lawyer, begrudgingly transplanted back to their provincial town.