We can't take any more of 2017, so we've turned to the Hallmark Channel in desperation
Consider the Hallmark Channel in December.
No, but really.
"I cannot stop watching the Hallmark Channel," says Mac Cohn, proprietor of a sports website in Ohio. "Usually to unwind I would watch football, but even watching football has become a political thing. The Hallmark Channel has none of that."
Hallmark, which often seemed to exist just so you had something to fold laundry to, is now deep into its biggest annual event - "Countdown to Christmas," a series of several dozen fresh-from-the-oven seasonal made-for-TV movies. And it is an event.
"The Christmas Train" - with a plot that is vaguely "Murder on the Orient Express," if one replaces "murder" with "festive spirit" - reached 4.9 million viewers when it aired the Saturday after Thanksgiving weekend, the most-watched cable program in the country that day. Meanwhile, the actual "Murder on the Orient Express," a feature film starring two Oscar winners and several nominees, recently made $10.7 million on its opening day in theaters. Impressive - but divide by roughly $10 a movie ticket, and that means there were five times more people watching Kimberly Williams-Paisley and Dermot Mulroney poke around a mystical polar express on Hallmark than multiplex-goers watching Johnny Depp and Dame Judi Dench.
"The Hallmark movie that is my favorite is 'A Christmas to Remember,'" Cohn continues. "It's a TV personality - I believe she has a cooking show? - and she needed to get away for the holidays, and she ended up wrecking her car in a snowbank, and she got amnesia. Have you seen it?"
We have seen "A Christmas to Remember." We have seen "The Sweetest Christmas." We have seen "Marry Me at Christmas." We have watched Hallmark movies in which the tax-friendly Vancouver area doubles as a festive Chicago, a festive Georgia, a festive Maine inn, a festive Vermont inn. We have watched Lacey Chabert as an aspiring clothing designer and then as a different aspiring clothing designer, and then as an overlooked baker, and then as an overworked office drone, and it snowed every time at the end. Every single time.
We would typically be the first person to mock the idea of the Hallmark Channel, but there is something specific about this December: It's crap. The news stinks, current events stink - turning on the television, in general, stinks.
Another beloved icon revealed to be a sexual predator? Nope - let's watch Hallmark.
Another North Korean missile, now deemed capable of hitting the United States? Nope - Hallmark.
The president is retweeting fake video clips of - NOPE, LA LA LA LA. HALLMARK. HALLMARK. HALLMARK.
"It's like, Hallmark or Prozac?" offers Julie Miner, an adjunct professor of public health at George Mason University and one of the many people who, for reasons they cannot fully explain, are watching a truckload of Hallmark this season. "Like, I don't want to take anti-depressants, but at this point in 2017 it's that or its Hallmark."
"About 10 years ago, we were making Christmas movies, but we weren't doing it as part of an overall event," says Michelle Vicary, Hallmark's executive vice president of programming. "But what the ratings told us, and what our audience told us, is that they wanted more."
And so now the Hallmark Channel - and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries - has released, in 2017 alone:
"Thirty-three movies," Vicary says.
They work on them year-round, each put together quickly, with a modest budget of a few million dollars, and then they debut a new one almost every night in December.
They are always Christmas-focused but tend to celebrate the season rather than Jesus Christ. They are often about a high-powered career woman who needs an invitation to slow down. She is played by someone from that show you used to watch circa 1992-1998. She will meet a moderately attractive man who looks like an Old Spice commercial. The plot might be reminiscent of a specific big-budget feature film, except smaller budget, and with Christmas.
Danica McKellar's "Crown for Christmas" is like "Maid in Manhattan" + Christmas.
Alicia Witt's "I'm Not Ready for Christmas" is "Liar, Liar" + Christmas.
"Generally, there are no open-mouthed kisses in Hallmark Christmas movies unless a soldier is returning from war," offers Miner. "Like, you just returned from war, you can have tongue."
"Generally, if Angela Lansbury is in it, she might be a fairy godmother."
A few years ago Miner started a Facebook group: "Is This Movie Good (For a Hallmark Movie)," which dissects and rates Hallmark fare. She has become somewhat of an expert of the entire genre, but she finds this season particularly in need of Hallmark.
"I have three kids, the youngest of whom is 9. I literally cannot have the news on, because my children would ask, 'Why is this man showing his penis to people?' And sometimes you are just not ready to talk about that."
"I have definitely watched four movies on Hallmark in the past week," says Colton Underwood, NFL free agent and recent Hallmark convert. "Maybe five movies. Maybe six movies."
This began in late November when Underwood's grandmother mentioned over the phone that she was watching a cute movie. He turned on the TV to watch along with her. "But we were definitely not on the phone for 3 1/2 hours, and that is how long I was watching the Hallmark Channel."
Which one was it? "It was something upbeat and happy," Underwood affirms. He thinks it starred the girl who played Winnie on "The Wonder Years." He turns to Google.
"It looks like it was called, 'Coming Home for Christmas,' " Underwood says. "The description says, 'After their parents separate, two estranged sisters reunite in hopes that having a family Christmas all together will bring their Mom and Dad close again.' So that must have been what I was watching?"
(That wasn't what he was watching. We checked. Google had given him the description for a different made-for-TV Christmas movie, one from 2013 that was also named "Coming Home for Christmas." What Underwood had actually watched was the 2017 "Coming Home for Christmas," in which Danica McKellar plays a party planner falling for the heir to a manor in Virginia horse country. It was filmed in Vancouver.)
But this, after all, is the point of Hallmark: it can blend together so seamlessly, and a few hours after turning off the TV, you might have no idea what you just watched. Escapist television is a well-known commodity, but by God do we need it this year. Lobotomy television, even.
A cohort of Jewish Hallmark fans on Twitter are forever wondering when the channel will add a Hanukkah reference or two. Gay viewers are still waiting for a same-sex romance to blossom, though they're working with what's available. As one devoted viewer tweeted: "Watching a Hallmark Christmas movie where Angela Lansbury is Mrs. Claus and gets involved in women's suffrage and it's a musical. Why is this not a gay icon?" City viewers are still waiting for the heroine to realize that happiness can exist in a studio apartment in Queens and not just in an upstate village named Cookie Jar.
Watching Hallmark in December this year feels like a metaphor for all of the good citizenship questions we've been asking ourselves: Must we watch yet more CNN guests debate the tax bill? Must we have yet another fight on Facebook about Roy Moore? Must we always remain alert, in case the country just curls up and dies?
Should we be watching a climate-change documentary instead? Or is there time in the middle of all of that to just ... watch Hallmark?
Ginger Christ, a journalist in Cleveland covering health care, had been feeling like work this year was an everyday battle. She took up yoga. She started volunteering. She found Hallmark.
"I've watched in the past, but this is the first year I've kind of become obsessed. I don't even know who I am right now. I know the schedule of Hallmark movies. Who is this person?"
What gets her, really, is the kindness. How the channel is just a steady stream of people doing kind things for each other and being nice. How that seems, right now, almost like a fantasy.
"You watch Hallmark, and you think, this will all be all right," says Miner, who runs the Hallmark movie fan page. "Like, we'll watch Hallmark, we'll bake cookies, this will be amazing."
Her personal favorite Hallmark movie is "Let it Snow," in which Candace Cameron Bure plays an executive sent to overhaul an inn in Maine.
"If you get to talk to CCB - that's what her fans call Candace Cameron Bure, CCB - tell her we all say hi."
Ring, Ring. "Hello? This is Candace Cameron Bure."
Yes. It's her! The long-ago "Full House" child actor, the current "Fuller House" lead, the conservative Christian culture icon - and the reigning star of Hallmark.
"Let it Snow," released in 2013, was Hallmark's most-viewed movie ever. Her "Switched for Christmas," which premiered this year ("The Parent Trap" + Christmas) was the channel's second-most-viewed movie. She's been in seven Hallmark Christmas movies total.
"I'd taken a 10-year break from acting to raise my kids," CCB explains. "And when I came back, and my agent was telling people I was available to work again, 'Moonlight and Mistletoe' (2008) was the first thing I did. After that, Hallmark kept calling, and I became - oh, I hate saying Christmas Queen, but other people have said it - the Hallmark Christmas Queen."
This year, people have been coming up to her on the street and telling her how much they needed her new Christmas movie. "People are finally saying, look, this isn't my secret guilty pleasure," CCB says. "People are coming out of the closet as Hallmark fans."
She knows the movies are a little formulaic - "someone grumpy, someone else who really loves Christmas" - and she knows that the titles can run together, "But I love pretty much anything that Lacey (Chabert) is in."
"You just get tired of the bad news, you know?" she says. "You just want something that feels genuine, and heartwarming, and loving."
Oh, we know.
And now we have to hang up, because a movie is starting in which Jodie Sweetin (CCB's "Full House" little sister, as it happens) needs to save her town by persuading a blandly handsome man to play Santa Claus in the annual parade.
News headline: "Ferocious wildfires force thousands to evacuate California."
"The thing is," says Mac Cohn, who runs the Ohio sports website. "I really don't know what I'm going to do when December is over."