Every week, and sometimes more often, three millennial Greenville, South Carolina, men named Bran, Panda and Dan leave their children, all under the age of 2, with their wives for a guys night out. But they don’t hit up a bar, a strip club or a game of sportsball. They cozy up to watch the extreme feel-good holiday pumpkin-spice latte that is the Hallmark Channel’s series of Christmas movies.
In all, there are 37 of these forays into the holiday heart. The Wall Street Journal just documented it as the guilty-pleasure binge of the season, featuring rabid fans who spreadsheet their rankings of the movies. It’s not just the expected audience of women, but even fathers watching with their wives and teen daughters.
Bran, whose full name is Brandon Gray, says the men have seen 21 of the films so far. And they are committed to watching, parsing, light-heartedly mocking and ultimately celebrating every single one of them for their podcast, Deck the Hallmark, before the year’s end. Because why? Because Christmas, man. Chriiiiiistmassssss.
“These movies aren’t good, but I love Christmas,” Gray says in one of the preview podcasts, titled “Rocky Mountain Christmas.” “I do feel like I’m a part of the Hallmark family, even though I don’t like it.”
Gray is the enthusiastic one of the bunch. Panda likes the movies okay, and Dan, often referred to as Grumpy Dan, is the hater of the group.
The trio were recently featured on Good Morning America, and the podcast has now gotten over 20,000 plays. He spoke with MEL by phone about the films, the podcast and why he’s so nuts about Christmas.
But first, to understand why three men would spend months watching every Hallmark Christmas Movie, you’d have to know what a Hallmark Christmas movie is. It’s basically this:
The woman is a big-city woman. That man is a lightly bearded, rugged country man. The big-city woman has to go to a small town to do something important but annoying, where she is held up indefinitely, only to eventually realize that this town holds not just the world’s best snowfall, cookie-baking, holiday décor and winter sweater inventory, but also contains the one man who can wash all that ambition off her enough to make her snap out of it and see what’s really important in life (hint: What’s really important is Christmas). I made that plot up, but I can tell you from Hallmark Christmas Movie bingo that I’m right:
I can also tell you from perusing the 37 titles streaming on the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries that I’m right:
“Mingle All the Way” is a new networking app designed to pair busy professionals together for upcoming events, without long-term romance. Molly, founder of the app, is determined to prove to her family that it is a success. Therefore, she joins the app, and meets another busy professional, Jeff. When Molly and Jeff are matched, they are both horrified to realize they’ve already had not one, but two disastrous previous encounters. Nevertheless, they agree to stay matched for all their respective upcoming holiday engagements. As the pair gets closer, perhaps their business arrangement might turn into something more this holiday season.
In essence, these are modern day fairy tales that churn out a particular kind of predictable holiday purity — true love found just at the last minute; a do-over on a life derailed by the wrong values or excessive urbanity; the It’s a Wonderful Life realization of what’s important, without any of the what-if-you-died-and-no-one-cared darkness. They feature repeat performances from actress like Lacy Chabert, Danica McKellar and Candace Cameron Bure.
They are feel-good on steroids, and thanks to their perfection of that formula, the network is enjoying something of a ratings boom. Last year, they were the most watched non-news cable network, bringing in 85 million viewers with the Countdown to Christmas series. And while the network has typically counted on older women pushing 60 for their main viewership, younger audiences in the 18 to 49 range have begun to tune in, and increasingly, men.
But contrary to what every article about men who love rom coms will insist, there is really nothing that unusual about men watching Hallmark Christmas Movies. In a sense — and I mean this with the utmost respect for the indisputable wholesomeness of the enterprise — it’s holiday porn.
It’s the movie version of a Pottery Barn holiday catalog. It’s a Christmas tree in a blender. It’s the coziness of sugar cookies with a log-cabin view of gently falling snow. It’s the predictable plots, the trite and reductive themes, the light petting, and the inevitable payoff of finding love, just before your luck runs out, while simultaneously finding the spirit of Christmas. The production values are something like sitting in front of a crackling fireplace in a Nordstrom perfume aisle in December.
But I say that like it’s a bad thing. Fans certainly don’t think so, and have leaned in to the recipe with unbridled enthusiasm:
But back to Brandon Gray and his pals. They (mostly) shamelessly love that Christmas spirit, and what makes the podcast enjoyable is its ability to appreciate the films while acknowledging how bad they are. They don’t shred them for their cinematic shortcomings, but rather get most of their pleasure out of picking apart plot holes, like why it’s snowing that hard in Memphis in one of the films (Christmas at Graceland), or why in one of the films, LeAnn Rimes plays a temporary superintendent (It’s Christmas, Eve), as if jobs like that even really exist, or, as the film would have it, are a dime a dozen and there for the taking (all of the guys have backgrounds in education).
Gray spoke to MEL from South Carolina.
You say you know the Hallmark Christmas Movies are bad but you really love them anyway. Are you okay? What happened to you?
I am okay! It really starts with a love for Christmas. I really like Christmas and I even have my own online Christmas radio station. I just love it.
It’s my favorite time of the year, and when I found out there were these movies that played for two months straight I wanted to give them a shot.
And prior to that have you always enjoy what we call, for better or for worse, chick flicks?
I’m fine with a good chick flick, I don’t know what that says about me. I don’t mind cheesiness. I can take them for what they are. I know that they’re cheesy and they’re bad and low budget, but at the same time, it just makes me feel so Christmasy. Somehow Hallmark has figured out how to bottle that up into a two-hour movie and make it happen almost every time. I don’t care about these movies the rest of the year, but, come Christmas I’m in.
You’re all married, now fathers, and all have kids. Do you think that has something to do with turning more toward these kinds of films?
Yeah, we are all married and all have kids under the age of 2. I will say that since becoming a father, I cry a lot more. I do find myself tearing up a lot more at these movies than I used to. But no, I was already into them before my son came along.
You’re also watching in South Carolina, a stronghold of masculinity.
I’ve never bought into that idea that masculinity equals not crying or share your feelings. I don’t think that makes you a man, or a masculine man. I don’t feel any less of a man because I like these Hallmark movies. I haven’t heard any pushback but most of my friends know where I’m at in my love for Christmas and these movies.
Breaking down the implausibility of the plots is a particularly funny part of the podcast.
We all do that in general with movies anyway, it just so happens these movies have a lot of plot holes and improbable things that happen.
You really don’t have to have seen any of the films to enjoy the podcast, because the plots are so basic, and the movies are so similar. But the jokes are more about those plot holes than just shredding them for being Hallmark movies, and it’s clear that you really enjoy them.
That’s one of the goals in the podcast, we want to be able to make something Hallmark fans can listen to and enjoy and not have their feelings hurt. We try to not be mean spirited. But also to do it in such a way that if you haven’t seen it, you can still listen to it and get it. We didn’t want to just comment on it, we wanted synopsis too, and these movies lend themselves to be summed up in two or three minutes.
You guys often notice a lack of diversity in the films, which has long been a criticism of the network’s content. You point out when a black character is token. Is that a big drawback for you?
For me and my journey in life, I work in ministry, in a church. My heart has begun to break for lack of a diversity in the church. I have it on my mind a lot already. So that lends itself to the movies. You see enough of these movies and you see they are all played by good looking white men and women. You see that the people of color they just throw into those movies.
This year, they finally have three movies that have lead characters that are people of color. It’s a big deal. It sucks it took them until 2018 to make that happen, but there’s beauty in seeing these stories be an image of the world as it actually is, and not just a small corner of the country.
Was it easy to talk your friends into doing this podcast?
It was. They’re pretty down to do whatever. I have a lot of dumb ideas and they’re used to it. When I threw it out in April, we didn’t know how many of the movies there would be, but they were on board.
How often do you have to get together?
Hallmark has the Hallmark Channel and the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries Channel, so there are two different networks. They show two on Saturday and two on Sunday. Last week for Thanksgiving, they had one every single night. It was hell, but we made it through.
With kids and families, how are you finding the time?
It’s a lot. Especially during a season where there already is a lot. We have a lot of movies and podcasts while also still doing Christmas. We’ve been able to handle it pretty well. Sunday and Wednesday we get together after the kids go to bed to record. We’re doing our best to do this justice without burdening our families.
Do you have good support from your wives?
Absolutely. Though I want to say that none of our wives are into these movies! Including mine. Every time I get excited about one, she rolls her eyes, but they are so supportive of us.
What do you think is the essence of a Hallmark Christmas movie?
A Hallmark Christmas movie is just a super cheesy rom com with a bit less comedy, and an overabundant amount Christmas thrown on top.
It’s Christmas romance. Lots of baking. Lots of decorating. The general plot is really just decorating with Christmas thrown on top of it. There’s always tons of snow, regardless of where it takes place. There was a movie in Memphis and it had a ton of snow, which makes no sense! But they do it anyway. It’s like when you pick up a Christmas snow globe. And you think, That is so Christmas-y. They put all that in a movie!
What do you know about your audience?
We can see the demographics through analytics. Early on in preview episodes, it was just the same people who watch Hallmark movies throughout year, which is women over 50.
Our podcast was in line with that. As we’ve gotten more into the season, our audience has transitioned people who listen because they just like the Christmas movies, and then there are also the people who listen to us that watch them kind of ironically but still like them. It’s now more of the generation of millennials watching these movies who are in their 20s and 30s like us. It’s majority female, but we have 25 percent who are guys.
Maybe you’re giving men permission to admit they enjoy them.
We’ve heard from quite a few guys who watched them and didn’t tell anyone and now they can come out and say they like them. A woman emailed us to tell us her husband likes putting on his PJs and watching the Hallmark Christmas movies with her. Hallmark knows what they’re doing. Their numbers are continuing to grow. They’re doing their thing and they know what they’re doing. But if we’re the ones giving guys permission, I’m all right with it.
So will you watch these movies with your son?
Oh yeah. He doesn’t even have a choice. Ironically, his name is Grizzly. So he already has a lot to live up to with that.