The Christmas Setup Is the Actual Queer Holiday Movie of Our Dreams
Sorry, Happiest Season
I didn’t go into The Christmas Setup thinking I would tear up. I went into Lifetime’s first gay-focused holiday romance with the expectation that it would be as sweet and heartwarming as hot chocolate, but not expecting much more because this was, still, a Lifetime movie. But this adorable holiday movie was even more than that. It was touching and romantic and exactly what a queer movie holiday should be: something that sees queerness for its unique beauty and not in terms of tragedy or shame.
The plot of The Christmas Setup is very simple. Neurotic New York lawyer Hugo (Arrow‘s Ben Lewis) heads home to Milwaukee for Christmas, bringing his best friend Maddie (Ellen Wong) along for the trip. His mom, Kate, played perfectly by Fran Drescher, is not only in charge of all the Christmas traditions and events in their neighborhood. She also takes all that organizing as a great way to arrange for her son to keep running into his very cute high school crush, Patrick (Blake Lee).
What results is a pretty typical cable Christmas movie. It’s the same plot as a million other Lifetime movies or romance novels or fanfic. Hugo and Patrick flirt and find romance, but there’s tension because, oh no, what if Hugo takes that big job in London! The performances are uniformly warm and natural, and no one is a jerk to anyone. The movie is full of tropes as predictable and welcome as the truly astonishing number of Christmas wreaths and lights this neighborhood is adorned with. And that’s perfect.
When Happiest Season hit Hulu last month, just in time for the holidays, it was a milestone for queer representation. It was a major holiday RomCom, the sort of things genre usually only reserved for the straights! And it featured a lesbian central couple! Win! But for a lot of people, myself included, it was a bittersweet experience, because the central conflict of the film where terrible Harper shoved Abby back in the closet felt so retrograde and dated. Why did this landmark “first major gay holiday movie” have to focus on the closet and shame? Why can’t we just get a movie that’s about gay people instead of about people being gay in painful ways?
That’s what The Christmas Setup is. The queer characters are lucky enough to have families that are entirely loving and supportive. No one really bats an eye that Hugo or Patrick is gay. Heck, Kate’s entire thing is trying to set up her son with a guy and she’s a wonderful loving mom who just wants her kids to be happy. Even Hugo’s Air Force officer brother is kind, supportive, and loving. Hugo and Patrick face obstacles, but none of them have to do with their sexuality, and that is so refreshing.
This is not to say this movie isn’t queer. It’s not just a typical holiday movie with one character’s gender-flipped. There’s a truly queer sensitivity to The Christmas Setup. There’s some surprisingly dirty flirting, some drag, we get into the ways the main characters navigated the closet when they knew each other in high school, and most poignantly, there’s a subplot about a historical queer character. This movie understands how far we’ve come and celebrates that, without wallowing in tragedy. It’s also worth noting that Blake Lee and Ben Lewis are both gay and out in real life. And also married to each other, which makes their chemistry particularly great.
There is certainly a place in our media for stories about the closet and queer angst. We live in a world rife with homophobia and prejudice. People are in the closet and face serious obstacles. But those shouldn’t be the only stories that should get traction. We also deserve to see every kind of story told about us, including silly, sweet, corny Christmas movies where life is simpler and every problem can be solved with tinsel and hot chocolate. Christmas is about joy and hope for everyone, and that should include queer people.
This time last year, queer communities were still smarting from the fact that Hallmark had pulled a commercial from the air during the holiday season because it featured a lesbian wedding. The backlash to that was huge, and Hallmark and others got the message that we want and deserve the same sappy content that the straights get. Now, we have queer holiday movies all over, on Hulu, Lifetime, and even on Hallmark. And all of that is powerful, and each time someone watches any of these movies, it’s another small victory.
But I think The Christmas Setup is the biggest win this holiday season because it’s a perfect encapsulation of queer holiday joy. And I sincerely hope it won’t be the last because I love schmaltzy holiday movies and I want more of them. The straights get like 100 every year, let the gays have a few too. Give me lesbians next year, Lifetime. Let every kind of queer person fall in love next year, Hallmark, not just be there as background. And remember, there’s no need for the closet in these fantasy holiday worlds. Keep giving us joy and making the yuletide truly gay.
You can watch The Christmas Setup on the MyLifetime player any time by signing in with your cable provider, and the movie will also be airing again Thursday, December 17th at 8:00 pm on Lifetime with other reruns throughout the holidays, including 6:00 pm on Christmas day.
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