Tomorrow is the best holiday of the year: February 15, when the candy goes on sale. In the meantime, it’s Valentine’s Day, and this year the Hallmark Channel is attempting to seize the day that should rightly belong to them, given their history in the greeting card business.
Since the beginning of February, Hallmark has debuted three new, original movies: My Secret Valentine; Very, Very Valentine; and Cooking with Love. This is part of a clear attempt at extending the channel’s Christmastime dominance into other seasons—the “Countdown to Valentine’s Day” followed hard on the heels of “Winterfest,” their spin on what most of us call “ugh, January.”
But do they stand a chance? Join us as we descend into Hallmark’s uncanny valley and unpack the network’s (inevitably chaste) Valentine’s Day offerings.
Stassa Edwards: Okay, well, we’ve given birth to children which means our DNA was altered, requiring us to watch Hallmark movies. Congrats to us! We decided that it would be a good (??) idea to watch Hallmark’s Valentine’s Day offerings—three movies about falling in love and Pinterest.
Kelly Faircloth: Yes, after getting EXTREMELY into the Hallmark lifestyle over Christmas in order to write about the channel, it has stayed on my radar, likely due to the aforementioned childbirth. Clearly, they have decided to try to expand their seasonal dominance of Christmas to other holidays. The three movies were packaged as the “Countdown to Valentine’s,” and featured several of the personalities who are often in the Christmas movies, including Winnie from the Wonder Years and Lacey Chabert. Stassa, what is the verdict on how well this strategy is likely to work for them, if this year’s offerings are any indication?
Stassa: I think it’s likely to be a success since Hallmark is good at sticking to the same themes that work at Christmas: A secret admirer in one movie (the Chabert); the “handsome but poorly behaved dude is reformed by a woman” in another movie starring Grant from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D; and, of course, the florist that finds romance. Hallmark loves a woman florist almost as much as they love a baker who finds love.
Kelly: Also, a family-run winery.
Stassa: Yes, all Pinterest professions.
Kelly: Moms! Love! Wine!
Stassa: Chef! Wine! Flowers! They really got to the fundamentals of romance. I also tortured myself and watched the 30 minute Valentine’s preview show they made starring Aunt Becky, who is now a Hallmark celebrity (a Hallmark celebrity is a real thing). Lacey Chabert and Winnie from the Wonder Years have really reinvented themselves as Hallmark celebrities.
Kelly: I mean, given that women disappear from pop culture after 40, it’s probably a pretty great gig. It seems like the type of job with steady pay where they send you a nice gift basket for your birthday.
Stassa: Yeah, that’s the thing about Hallmark. It’s pure camp, but might be one of the few venues that acknowledge that women (well, white women, at least) over 40 exist. And, as is standard for Hallmark, their Valentine’s day offerings were very white.
Kelly: I’m really hoping that their foray into romance publishing (a potential source of movie ideas) will push them to diversify these movies, because they are aggressively white right now.
Stassa: I noticed that the network is launching a reality show featuring Holly Robinson Peete, so maybe that’s on the horizon. But Hallmark’s success is based on a fundamentally conservative point of view—I don’t necessarily mean politically conservative, but culturally.
Relationships have challenges, but not the kinds that lead to divorce. Everyone is straight. Everyone is middle class (at least). Everyone has a great kitchen.
Kelly: We talked about this when I was writing that piece about their Christmas movies—it’s almost Elizabeth Gaskell-like in its attitudes about ravenous capitalism. The antagonists are often lawyers, or investors, the heroes are small business owners where “it’s like a family.”
Stassa: Definitely. The movies are wary of capitalism impeding on the authenticity of family and relationships, but treats that authenticity as natural in and of itself—small town values, if you will.
It avoids the mess of everything that such values imply but just simply ignoring their existence.
Kelly: Indeed! Speaking of: Two of the movies were set in New York, and specifically, in the case of Very Very Valentine (whichever the florist movie was), it almost broke my brain.
Stassa: They were indeed in “New York.” There were pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge!
Kelly: Unlike a lot of Hallmark movies, it didn’t treat “the city” as this far-off shining isle of investors and lawyers, but it was set in this neighborhood that was very low density and had LAWNS in front of the BUSINESSES. Sorry, but no way!
Stassa: Let’s just stop and point out that the florist had a brownstone with a full dining room in Brooklyn.
Right, Hallmark has this weird relationship with urban settings. It wants the romance of New York on Valentine’s day—like movie romance—without the garbage on the street. So the city itself is replaced with what I’m assuming is some nice place in Canada.
Kelly: I could not stop picking out details suggesting they were really filming somewhere like Albany which, I realized, makes me a Hallmark villain.
Stassa: My favorite thing about Hallmark movies is that they don’t care to actually convince you of location or even time. Were these movies set in 2018 or 2002? Who knows!
Kelly: They exist in Hallmark Land.
Stassa: Hallmark Land is a place where your hair is constantly curled.
Kelly: I mean, look, Regency England has been a Tolkien-like trope landscape for 80 years at this point and it works and I love it.
Stassa: Right, like everyone in Victorian England has now been granted perfect teeth. But it’s interesting that Hallmark asserts “the present” while denying any iteration of its reality. There are no politics in Hallmark World—everything is implied. But none of the heroines would ever ask an object of affection, “So, who did you vote for?” These movies are great at navigating precisely what might collapse their fantasy.
Kelly: Truly, they are ideological riverboat pilots.
What I was fascinated to notice watching three back to back, because I planned poorly, is that there are really two types of Hallmark movies: The really earnest, emotional ones with only the gentlest jokes, and the more traditional rom coms. The Lacey Chabert (family winery) and Danica McKellar (florist) ones were the former, Cooking with Love—featuring a cranky man reformed by a woman!—was actually the latter, in that it was set on a TV cooking competition for kids and had a sense of humor about its whole setup. Also, the real antagonist in that movie was a scumbag man trying to steal a woman’s good ideas to surpass her on the corporate ladder.
Which is interesting, because that’s definitely a divergence you see in the category romances of the 80s. You had your lines that were more about stereotypically nurturing heroines and then you had the lines that featured dedicated career girls. And readers knew which ones they liked and bought accordingly. It’s just fascinating to watch that echo down over the decades.
Stassa: Right, the movies were really succinct in their articulation of “the feels,” as Hallmark like to call them.
Kelly: I was wondering, what would we say exactly made these movies “Valentine” themed?
Stassa: Set-wise, they reiterated this standard idea of romance: Candy; red hearts; candles; flowers, etc. Even their promo image just had chocolates on a red background and generally “falling in love.” Like the Christmas movies, the holiday was “important,” if not as magical. The Danica McKellar movie, they kept emphasizing how IMPORTANT Valentine’s Day was to her.
Also, let’s just stop and appreciate that McKellar’s character broke up with her boyfriend, expressed her undying love to her best friend, cried because she thought she was rejected, and got engaged on the same day. If one of my friends had that day, I’d be like “Ummm, you need to take a nap???” “Maybe think about this???’
Kelly: As moms, though, I think we can both appreciate that level of emotional efficiency. Also a very mom suggestion: “Take a nap!”
Stassa: True, I’m very busy!
I was surprised that they decided to reserve “magic” for Christmas. Hallmark was really keeping its primary money maker intact.
Kelly: I will say, it’s ironic given that romcoms on TV are so associated with Valentine’s Day, at least in my head/experience of basic cable, but I felt like the Valentine’s angles were more forced than the inclusion of Christmas. Those Christmas movies are built around a very specific theory of the holiday; these were reaching a little more, I thought.
Stassa: I would love to be a fly on the wall listening to Hallmark executives define holidays.
Kelly: Also: They are not just doing this for Valentine’s. They have a weekend of President’s Day programming. Are they going to do Arbor Day? Actually, I would be DELIGHTED by an Arbor Day hallmark movie.
Stassa: You’d think that Valentine’s would lend itself more easily to the Hallmark method than Christmas does.
Kelly: It’s really strange! I mean, this is the company that sprang from the greeting card business. Hell, they practically invented Valentine’s Day.
Stassa: Which of the three movies did you think was most successful?
Kelly: Personally, I was delighted by Cooking With Love. Even though it was basically about a man reformed, a trope whose flaws I recognize, that guy has such a smooshy face that he didn’t seem that bad. And I liked that the villain was the guy who was going to come into her workplace and steal her ideas. Also, I love romance novels about being in the media limelight and reality TV, apparently, something I didn’t realize about myself until recently. Also, their approximation of the Union Square Greenmarket was very convincing and I appreciated their effort.
What about you?
Stassa: I agree that Cooking with Love was the best of the three simply because Hallmark finally let a woman have a career.
Kelly: (This is why the Silhouette categories of the ‘80s are my favorites.)
Stassa: My least favorite Hallmark subgenre is “a city girl is very unhappy with a wonderful career. She quits and marries a handyman.”
Kelly: Yeah, at least sit with that one a little bit. Maybe you actually just need a vacation to Atlantis with your girlfriends.
Stassa: I’ve never really understood the appeal of moving to the small town where your car breaks down and no one can fix it! You’re not in love; you’re trapped! And that creepy guy isn’t really Santa, he’s just creepy! (Feeling very passionate about Hallmark movies right now.)
Kelly: To be clear, though, we both cannot stop watching them.
Stassa: It’s a problem. They make me so angry (sometimes), but at least they’re delivering on the feels that they promise. I’m honestly really fascinated by what they’re saying about “being a woman” and why women of a certain age want to consume that particular myth.
Kelly: I also think that when you watch a bunch of them all in a row, it’s a different experience than one here or there. A bunch of them in a row and the themes start really jumping out at you and boxing your ears.
Stassa: Yes, like you, I watched all three in a row, while repeating to my son at least a hundred times that he needed to get his Valentine’s Day cards ready for school and no he couldn’t open them right now and keep them. But that’s probably how most of their audience watches them?
Kelly: Yeah, they are utterly perfect laundry movies, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. I always appreciate that somebody out there, somewhere, is in some way recognizing that labor, even if it’s in an attempt to sell me consumer packaged goods.
Stassa: Distracted Viewing For Moms Who Want to Get Away From It.