The made-for-TV Christmas romance is not a complicated animal. About five different plotlines are reused over and over again, mostly involving princes from made-up quasi-European countries, career women from NYC finding love in the American heartland, and people who own kitschy small-town niche businesses that are struggling financially but make up for it with a lot of heart. But lately, there’s been a new addition to the Hallmark/Lifetime canon : the time-traveling Christmas romance.
For the most part, these revolve around men from olden times being transported to present-day America. Sometimes they have questionable accents, and sometimes they have anachronistic speech patterns, but they’re always very genteel and charming. The purpose of these historical dreamboats is to capture the chivalry of men from the past (while trying desperately to make us forget that they probably weren’t super into the idea of women voting or having their own bank accounts). They’re strong and masculine, yet conveniently adaptable to the realities of modern life.
When Sir Cole (Josh Whitehouse) from A Knight Before Christmas is transported from medieval England to modern America, it takes him all of two hours to come to terms with twenty-first century life. He goes from a society that legitimately believed cutting up a pigeon and rubbing it on open sores could cure the plague to operating an Alexa and using the expression “lit AF,” all over the course of one evening. After a magical clock (yes, really) sends mill owner Charles Whitley (Ryan Paevey) from 1903 to 2020 in A Timeless Christmas, he’s surprised and all, but he also gets into a police car that very afternoon without saying a word about, you know, the fact that he’s seeing a modern automobile for the very first time. A Spirit for Christmas, though not technically a time-travel film by the strictest definitions, follows the same patterns. It revolves around a turn-of-the-century ghost who only takes corporeal form during the twelve days of Christmas and thus doesn’t have a tremendous amount of time to get acquainted with modern culture. (Still, he’s hardly shocked by the idea of a high-powered female real estate agent, or the fact that she’s been in relationships that didn’t go on to include a white wedding.)
So essentially, what these films are creating is a fantasy for viewers that allows them to experience the best of both worlds. They get the idealized version of men from the past, who are apparently eloquent, romantic, and have frankly unrealistic levels of dental hygiene, without any of the inherent complexities of how a man from the past would actually react to the modern world and, most importantly within the construct of a romance, the role of women in our society. In these time-traveling romances, the powers that be are apparently going to great pains to send only the most forward-thinking and socially progressive of men to the present day. After all, it would hardly set the right tone if our Prince Charming hurtled forward through time, met the modern-day woman of his dreams, and then demanded that she bear his children and pour him a hearty pint of ale because her place is in the home.
We can be as cynical as we want about these films and their rose-colored interpretations of men from the past; there is undeniably something about them that captures the imagination of the viewer. And as each new time-traveling Christmas romance is met with a positive reception from audiences, it seems likely that these are going to become a new staple of the genre, with at least one coming out every holiday season (probably starring Vanessa Hudgens.) This is partially a result of ratings, but also because it represents a hugely cost-effective production opportunity for the three big players in the niche market of Christmas romances: Lifetime, Hallmark, and Netflix. Think about it: when you make a time-travel drama, you get all the period charm to appeal to the Jane Austen crowd, but none of the pesky production requirements.
Filming an actual, honest-to-goodness historical romance, with sets, costumes, and appropriate hair/makeup is expensive. Netflix may have that kind of money, but Lifetime and Hallmark are not about that life. If there’s a way for them to have a swoon-worthy, discount Mr. Darcy character in a narrative that takes place in East Wherever, Ohio, and can be filmed somewhere in Canada on the cheap, that’s what they’ll do. And really, we all kind of want the heroine to be more modern, anyway. So with this time-travel premise, we get the independent (usually) and feminist (sort of) female lead as a cipher character that we can imagine ourselves as, right alongside a dashing hero who declares his love with ardent romantic flourishes that are relics of a bygone age – but we apparently all secretly want back.
Other pragmatic concerns make this type of storytelling an ideal solution. For example, writing historically appropriate dialogue for just one character is certainly less of a burden on the writing staff, and when your story is primarily set in some random suburb of Cincinnati, it’s not like there’s a huge amount of world-building to do. Fact-checking also becomes less of an issue, and insofar that Christmas romances concern themselves with historical accuracy, it’s much easier to keep your story straight with a bare minimum of period sequences. It represents something a little more sophisticated than the standard fare about rival Christmas tree farm owners who fall in love that we’ve been inundated with for years, but it’s still safe and reliably bankable for producers concerned with their bottom line.
We’re probably never going to say goodbye to the Hallmark romances where the big-city lawyer has to choose between her hedge fund manager fiance and her high school ex who now custom designs lawn gnomes. They’re just a part of the fabric of the culture at this point. But as made-for-TV Christmas movies gain more than just a veneer of respectability, networks find themselves able and willing to step outside the box a tiny bit. The result is a move that feels surprising in its reliance on genre tropes, but also somehow incredibly low-risk. After all, chivalric male heroes have been wooing audiences for generations, so it only makes sense that someone would eventually stop trying to update the archetype and just simply plop them in the present-day as is. No muss, no fuss.