The Hallmark Channel isn't waiting for the 12 days of Christmas to share the holiday spirit. Starting tonight, the network continues its tradition of original holiday programming with the premiere of the first of 12 new movies. These films will debut at 8 p.m. Saturdays and most Sundays through Dec. 15.
Also in keeping with the Hallmark tradition, the movies feature familiar faces (Teri Polo, Lacey Chabert, Andrew McCarthy); are big on family, romance and the meaning of the holidays; and are as cozy and comforting as a cup of warm cocoa on a cold winter night. To that end, Hallmark is again using its sentimental Christmas TV ratings system, with the movies designated S for Santa, T for Christmas Tree, J for Joy, F for Family, H for Hope and P for Presents.
Starting things off at 8 tonight is "Christmas Song," starring Natasha Henstridge and Gabriel Hogan as Diana and Ken, music teachers fighting for their jobs at a recently merged private school. They are, of course, opposites. The restrained Diana teaches classic fundamentals to her girls ("B-minor is the key of patience," she stresses); the outgoing Ken appreciates modern rock as he helps his guys find the music in themselves. (They often pound out their feelings on percussion instruments, much to the chagrin of the girls and their teacher in the neighboring classroom.)
Only one of their jobs can be saved and that will be the winner of a televised Christmas Carol contest, with a top prize of $10,000 going to the school. Of course, the pair of two-student teams are as opposite as their teachers: the party girl is teamed with the shy girl; the rich, arrogant jock is with the reserved new kid in the wheelchair. By the end, teachers and teens alike will learn not to judge people, the benefits of working together and possibly enjoy a touch of holiday romance.
Premiering Sunday is the sweet charmer "Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade."
The likeable Autumn Reeser is Emily, the energetic coordinator of the Chicago Thanksgiving parade. She is rattled by rich development consultant Henry (Antonio Cupo), who was hired to increase the parade's profits. Emily sees the parade in its joyful role of a holiday tradition, uniting family and community; for Henry, it all comes down to dollars and cents.
Though it's set in modern day, this movie has a decidedly old-fashioned touch thanks to Emily's penchant for wearing vintage clothing (for a surprisingly touching reason) and the fun, retro score.
It's not the holidays without the requisite new take on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Hallmark's latest comes in "It's Christmas, Carol" on Nov. 18. Emmanuelle Vaugier is Carol, the tough CEO of a publishing company who is visited by the ghost of her former mentor and boss Eve (Carrie Fisher).
Of course, we've seen it before, which is why this version is refreshing: It not only has a good sense of humor (including a "Star Wars" joke), but it pokes fun at itself by acknowledging the myriad versions of the Dickens' tale. "People have been coming down to help for generations, Chuck was just the first guy to write about it," Eve says to Carol who proclaims Scrooge was "bullied" into changing.
For the truly sentimental, "The Christmas Heart" on Dec. 2 is a close relative of those serious dramas produced under the Hallmark Hall of Fame banner. Just days before Christmas, a family faces tragedy when their teen son is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and needs a heart transplant. Teri Polo gives one of her most dramatic performances as the mother praying for a miracle.
This script is strongly based in faith, and also posits the ideas of goodness in all people and self-sacrifice – all fitting for the Christmas season. But, even though we forgive holiday films when they become too outlandish, this movie has an unecessary "jump the shark" moment that is truly unbelievable.
Here's a quick look at the other new Hallmark films:
"The Wishing Tree," next Saturday: Jason Gedrick plays a teacher who helps some of his troubled students regain their confidence by volunteering at the Wishing Tree, a fundraiser for families in need.
"Matchmaker Santa," Nov. 17: A young baker (Lacey Chabert) becomes stranded in a small town with her boyfriend's assistant (Adam Mayfield) and, with the "help" of a mysterious mall Santa and an odd cast of locals led by Florence Henderson and John Ratzenberger, might just rediscover Christmas magic.
"Naughty or Nice," Nov. 24: Humbug Krissy Kringle (Hilarie Burton) accidentally gets Santa's "Naughty or Nice" book and uses it for the wrong reasons. Will she learn the errors of her ways? Gabriel Tigerman, Matt Dallas, Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross co-star.
"Hitched for the Holidays," Nov. 25: File this in the "hiring a temporary girl/boyfriend to take home for the holidays genre." Joey Lawrence does the hiring; Emily Hampshire is the young woman who takes him up on the job. Will their fake feelings lead to real love?
"A Bride for Christmas," Dec. 1: Jessie (Arielle Kebbel) is a thrice-engaged woman who swears off serious relationships – until she meets charming ladies' man Aiden (Andrew Walker). But this could be another heartbreaker: it's all part of a bet Aiden has with co-workers.
"Come Dance with Me," Dec. 8: A financial investor (Andrew McCarthy) trying to make a good impression on his girlfriend and her wealthy father signs up for ballroom dancing and learns more than he bargained for from his instructor (Michelle Nolden).
"Help for the Holidays," Dec. 9: When one of Santa's elves (Summer Glau) is sent to Los Angeles to give a family a holiday wake-up call, she'll learn a lesson or two as well. Co-starring Eva La Rue and Dan Gauthier."Baby's First Christmas," Dec. 15: Casper Van Dien and Rachel Wilson play feuding colleagues who have to learn to get along in time for their nephew's birth on Christmas.