Holiday TV shows bring the comfy and cozy – and better reflect society

Kailey Schwerman/Lifetime
Jacky Lai (left) and Tony Giroux star in "A Sugar & Spice Holiday" on Lifetime. The film is the first seasonal offering from the network to feature an Asian American family.

This season people are seeking out the predictable, sappy shows that have become as much a part of the holidays as eggnog and twinkly lights. These programs always end on the same happy note – which is exactly the point, because sometimes you need a brief escape that feels like a warm hug (especially in 2020). The feel-good messages beamed into our living rooms look a little different this year, as diversity and acceptance have become part of the message. 

One of the best new offerings is Lifetime’s “A Sugar & Spice Holiday” (not rated but suitable for all audiences; airing Dec. 13), which is its first featuring an Asian American family. In it, a workaholic Chinese American architect returns home for the holidays, is reunited with her high school crush, and teams up with him to win the local holiday baking contest. Though formulaic, it delivers humor, and the two leads, Jacky Lai and Tony Giroux, sparkle when together. Deep-rooted traditions and a reverence for family past and present give this film added depth.

Lifetime also breaks new ground with “The Christmas Setup” (TV-PG; airing Dec. 12). Fran Drescher all but winks at the audience as she merrily tries to match up her visiting gay son (Ben Lewis) with a recently returned local (Lewis’ actual husband, Blake Lee). Featuring decent production values and a solid script, this film stands out from the pack because of strong performances and romantic leads that are adorable without being saccharine. 

Why We Wrote This

Seasonal fare is the escapism many viewers are longing for this year. But besides cheerful decor and happy endings, diversity and acceptance have also become part of the message.

Over on Netflix, an entire series has been devoted to the holidays with “Dash & Lily” (TV-14), based on the young adult series by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan that starts with “Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares.” Dash (Austin Abrams) and Lily (Midori Francis) are two teenage misfits who have never met, but leave clues in a notebook around New York City, testing their knowledge as they dare each other to break out of comfort zones while leaving hints as to their identities. All eight episodes fly by with a killer score, top-notch production values, and spot-on performances from all involved, especially the scene-stealing Jodi Long as an eccentric and wise great-aunt.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix
Midori Francis stars as Lily in an episode of "Dash & Lily" on Netflix. The eight-episode series is based on the young adult novels by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan that begin with “Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares.”

“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” (rated PG), also on Netflix, has been grabbing attention as the year’s splashy animated title, but it is an overly produced mishmash of live action and animation that has vibes reminiscent of “The Greatest Showman,” “Peter Pan,” and a robot that looks like “Wall-E.” The cast features such veterans as Forest Whitaker, Phylicia Rashad, Ricky Martin, and Hugh Bonneville. Kids will enjoy the music and magic but it may prove too frenetic for adult viewers. A much better animated Netflix choice can be found in last year’s “Klaus” (rated PG). Highly original in both looks and plot, this is a stylized tale of Santa’s beginnings. A postman is banished to the far north for being a slacker, only to find that his actions change the lives of everyone in the miserable town he now calls home. Both weird and wonderful, this is just intriguing enough to add to your yearly watch list.

Netflix will also try to woo you with the second installment of “The Christmas Chronicles.” Don’t let it. Just rewatch the warm and energetic original (both rated PG) starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, as this year’s sequel is more than a little dark and mean-spirited, failing to retain a believable plot even in a make-believe world. Consider who’s watching with you if you click on another buzzy Netflix movie: “Holidate” (TV-MA). It’s funny and clever, but too risqué for most family audiences.

Hallmark breaks out of its usual mold by offering a holiday flick starring a same-sex couple in a subplot. “The Christmas House” (TV-G) features that common trope about a couple that knew each other back in the day and are now flirting their way through the holiday season. The supporting cast includes a married gay couple (Jonathan Bennett, Brad Harder) that have both more chemistry and a more complex and interesting storyline than the show’s lead pairing. An added bonus is Treat Williams, as charismatic as ever, playing the dad. Elsewhere, Hallmark is featuring films with interracial couples this year, and it revisits Hanukkah with “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” (though it and Lifetime have been faulted previously for missing the mark with non-Christmas shows). 

Hulu is dishing up diversity with “Happiest Season” (rated PG-13), one of the more realistic offerings during a month filled with fantasy. Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis play a lesbian couple heading to Davis’ family home for the holidays, with Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen as her rigid and demanding parents. The couple pretend to be roommates because Davis’ character never came out to them. The story follows the usual trouble-in-paradise arc we see in so many romances, but truth prevails and romance is sweetly restored. The writing is overly broad, but kudos to Hulu for injecting a few hard truths into the story, giving the movie some much-needed substance. 

If baking is your jam, make sure to catch the third season of “The Great British Baking Show: Holidays” (TV-14 for language) on Netflix. Of the two episodes, the first features past contestants making typical holiday treats, while the second veers from the normal routine and showcases the cast of the series “Derry Girls,” set in Northern Ireland. The actors are funny and a bit ribald and can’t really bake, which is part of the reason it is funny and rather charming.

If you prefer musical celebrations, consider “My Gift: A Christmas Special From Carrie Underwood,” also featuring John Legend and streaming on HBO Max. Apple TV+ is offering “Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special,” an annual affair this year featuring Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, and rappers Snoop Dogg and Jermaine Dupri.

Dolly Parton has been everywhere in 2020, and now you can catch “A Holly Dolly Christmas” streaming on CBS All Access starting Dec. 6. It showcases the singing star as she performs songs from her new album on a candlelit set. And a holiday classic is getting the live musical treatment in “Dr. Seuss’ the Grinch Musical.” Airing on NBC on Dec. 9, it was filmed at the Troubadour Theatre in London and features “Glee” star Matthew Morrison in the title role. The cast also includes Denis O’Hare and Booboo Stewart. (All the musical programs are unrated, but are considered family fare.)

When all is said and done, there is always “It’s a Wonderful Life,” found streaming everywhere and proving annually that solid writing and true sentiment always win the day – and sometimes help an angel get his wings.

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