19 MOVIES AND TV SPECIALS TO WATCH THIS HOLIDAY SEASON
BY ROBERT LLOYD
Someday when you are recalling Christmases past, you will not look back fondly on a holiday-themed Tiktok or Instagram post. But you might remember how you watched “A Christmas Story” 11 times in a row with your friends or “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with your parents, then your kids, then their kids.
‘Tis the season for much more than gift exchanges, cocktail
parties and cozy sweaters: The holidays bring with them a bumper crop of films and TV shows. We’re covering the key titles to watch this season, from late-breaking Oscar contenders and acclaimed TV dramas to holiday classics old and new.
So let’s take a look at what’s waiting under the tree and see what might be worth watching.
Disney+ leads the pack in original scripted content. This year brings a second season of “The Santa Clauses” (in progress), with the question of who will succeed the Big Man in Red (Tim Allen) still up in the air.
As in nine of 10 stories in which Santa appears as a character, including the first season of this show, it’s a save Christmas plot, with Eric Stonestreet very funny as a mad medieval predecessor magically brought into the 21st century, and little Marta Kessler quite frightening as his sidekick, an angry gnome named Olga. Allen, as always, is comfortable in his fat suit, and as before, the television series is better than the movies — just as silly but much wittier.
Also from the House of Mouse is “The Naughty Nine,” a B-grade heist movie for kids in which a crew of abnormally talented small fry break into the North Pole to steal the presents they consider rightfully their own, held back on account of their being on the naughty list. “Dashing Through the Snow” gives us Lil Rel Howery as Santa Claus and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as a divorced dad who doesn’t believe.
In the same vein, but from Prime Video, is “Candy Cane Lane” (Friday), a fantasy twist on the popular “suburbanites competing for the best decorated house” theme. Eddie Murphy is your obsessed family man, whose encounter with Jillian Bell as a “mischievous elf” leads to chaotic hilarity when the creatures of “The 12 Days of Christmas” come alive. (A marvelous 1955 short film on that idea, “On the Twelfth Day,” can be found online.) Tracee Ellis Ross plays Murphy’s wife. You can tell this’ll be fancy even before you shake the package, and however good or bad it turns out, it’ll give you a chance to watch some strong comic character actors, including Robin Thede, Nick Offerman and Ken Marino.
As always, the yuletide content offered by Hallmark, Lifetime and Great American Family comes in overwhelming legions like the marching wooden soldiers in “Babes in Toyland.” I wouldn’t go so far to say that they’re all the same — there’s like four or five, well, four templates — but they are all in the business of giving you what you came for, with cosmetic variations.
Not even an exception, to judge by the trailer, is Lifetime’s “Ladies of the ’80s: A Divas Christmas” (Saturday), with Donna Mills, Loni Anderson, Morgan Fairchild, Linda Gray and Nicollette Sheridan as a quintet of daytime soap stars reunited for a reality TV weekend, during which they will certainly engineer a match between their producer and director.
Their success has led inevitably to various knockoffs, from old school broadcasters to big-name streamers. This year’s unusual suspects (all now available) include Freevee’s “Exmas,” which gives you Leighton Meester and Robbie Amell as a formerly engaged couple competing for the affection of his family; ALLBLK’S “Christmas Holidate,” a dating app comedy with Jasmine Burke and Iroko Anyogu; and QVC+ and HSN+’S “The Recipe Files,” a product placement mystery starring Ashlee Simpson.
There’s a sense in which new Christmas specials are expressions of nostalgia for old Christmas specials, and that’s never more the case than when music, which rings so many emotional (sleigh) bells, is in the mix. Quite delightful is “Hannah Waddingham: Home for Christmas” (now available) on Apple TV+, a sparkly, black-tie hour wrapped tightly around the “Ted Lasso” — and musical theater — star from the stage of the plush 1904 London Coliseum.
Waddingham, who has the effect here of a sexy human Christmas tree, would be a bad host had she not invited some of her “Lasso” castmates, and you’ll find them here, on and offstage or in comic backstage bits. After three seasons of watching him as Jamie Tartt, we shouldn’t be shocked to find that Phil Dunster can dance, but the singing comes as a bit of a surprise.
From Las Vegas hails Barry Manilow’s “A Very Barry Christmas” (NBC, Dec. 11; Peacock, Dec. 12), in which Bette Midler’s old music director wassails you with yuletide favorites and his own hits. What they call country nowadays is on display in “Christmas at the Opry” (NBC, Thursday, Peacock, Dec. 8), hosted by Wynonna Judd, with Kelly Clarkson, Brenda Lee and Mickey Guyton among the guests, while down the road in Memphis, Tenn., “Christmas at Graceland” (NBC, Dec. 21; simulcast on Peacock), where the 1970s are preserved in amber, will pay tribute to the King and the King of Kings. And though not branded Christmas, or altogether country, “Willie Nelson’s 90th Birthday Celebration” (CBS, Dec. 17), recorded in April at the Hollywood Bowl, merits a mention because it’s Willie. The smorgasbord of talent includes Keith Richards, Gary Clark Jr., Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Miranda Lambert, George Strait, Chris Stapleton, Beck and Snoop Dogg.
Selena Gomez’s “Selena + Chef: Home for the Holidays” (streaming on Max) is a special four-week edition of the star’s irresistible teachme-to-cook-that series. Sharing its subtitle is the two-part “Masterchef Junior: Home for the Holidays” (Fox, Dec. 10), from the greatest of all American cooking competitions, which, along with the miracle of tots with knife skills, will bring you fake snow, Gordon Ramsay in a Santa suit, and the Hanukkah and Kwanzaa content elsewhere missing. And the Roku Channel’s “The Great American Baking Show: Celebrity Holiday 2023,” with judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith establishing its “Great British Baking Show” bona fides, tests whether Joel Mchale, Phoebe Robinson and Arturo Castro, among others, can cook as well as a fifth grader.
This is all just to scratch the surface, of course, to tear the corner off the wrapping of a box that contains decades’ worth of holiday programming, and decades more if you factor in all the old movies that are part of the parcel, a considerable amount of which will still be available through some cable or streaming platform, or hanging around the internet.
And because you have been wondering since the first paragraph, 24 hours of “A Christmas Story” plays Dec. 24-25 on TBS and TNT.
And “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which remains as fresh as new snow nearly 60 years after its debut, can be seen on Apple TV+, for subscribers anytime and, in the spirit of the season, free for everyone else Dec. 16 and Dec. 17.
Linus would approve.
The Gazette, Colorado Springs