Get the THINK newsletter.
There is a hierarchy of canonical Christmas movies.
On top, you have those that you could’ve watched with your parents and even grandparents, and may watch with your children and eventual grandchildren, like “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “Miracle on 34th Street” — classic Christmas films that deliver the warm fuzzies across the decades. Then there are the standard Christmas-themed rom-coms with A-list stars like Reese Witherspoon, Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker or Kate Winslet (see: “Four Christmases,” “Love Actually,” “This Christmas,” “The Family Stone”), which are usually pretty decent, or at least good enough to play on in the background while wrapping presents. And there are the Christmas comedies — “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Elf,” “The Santa Clause,” “Scrooged” — that tickle the funny bone without being too inappropriate (looking at you, “Bad Santa”) to have on with kids around.
Bad Christmas Movies are different: these are the straight-to-video or -television Christmas movies that are so bad, so sappy, so poorly written and so poorly acted that they’re actually good. (People who think “Love Actually” is a Bad Christmas Movie have no idea how campy Christmas movies can get on cable TV or Netflix.)
In a Bad Christmas Movie, predictability is permissible and even encouraged. The lack of originality, particularly the rehashing of quasi-problematic tropes, in Bad Christmas Movies is intentional: Similar to romance novels, soap operas and porn, the appeal to these movies is that the viewer knows what she (and, except for the occasional male viewer, possibly dragooned into watching by his wife, it’s clear that these movies are aimed at women) is getting every single time. It’s always a story about a woman, who is either nursing a broken heart or too busy in her career to find love, who meets the man of her dreams in the unlikeliest of places. And, of course, everything ultimately works itself out by Christmastime, after which they live happily ever after.
Though ridiculed by some viewers and dismissed by critics, Bad Christmas Movies endure in popularity because they fill a need. (Lifetime debuted six original Christmas movies this year alone.) Emotions — particularly the ones that get stirred up during a time of year when we examine by whom we are loved and how much — are scary.
The conflicts, climaxes and resolutions of Bad Christmas Movies give voice to every anxiety we possess about the unattainable promises — consumerist, familial and romantic — of the holiday season. This time of year, we are frequently reminded of everything we don’t have, be it a husband or an iPhone or a family that can eat dinner together without an argument breaking out. The tidy resolution of these anxieties is pure fantasy fulfillment, but we need both that fulfillment and the fictional but emotionally resonant worlds in which it is depicted.
And truly, by these standards, Netflix’s pitch-perfect mimicry of a Bad Christmas Movie, “A Christmas Prince” is impressive — anything Lifetime can do, it seems to say, Netflix can do just as badly.
The streaming service’s introduction to the genre, as others have pointed out, is basically the plot of “The Princess Diaries” with the wolf attack scene from “Beauty and the Beast’ mixed in for good measure. Its protagonist is Amber, a gossip reporter, and her eventual love interest, Prince Richard, the handsome heir to the throne of “Aldovia.” Desperate for a scoop about Richard’s alleged womanizing, Amber pretends to be a royal tutor for his wheelchair-bound little sister. But Richard is, of course, actually a sweet guy who loves snowball fights with orphans and just wants to be loved. He and Amber grow close and, together, they overcome his power-hungry cousin, a scheming ex-girlfriend, a wolf attack and a ham-handed adoption storyline to get engaged on New Year’s Eve during a snowfall and fireworks.
But Netflix did misunderstand one thing about the genre: People don’t watch these movies ironically. So, it mocked its own viewers in an arch Tweet.
The tweet made a joke out of the many, many people who gladly pour 92-minutes of their lives — 18 times, even! — into a movie that with wooden acting and an abysmal script.
I mean, having watched it, “A Christmas Prince” is possibly the best Bad Christmas Movie of all time — and yes, I have also watched “Holiday in Handcuffs,” the 2007 film in which Melissa Joan Hart is so desperate to avoid showing up to her family’s Christmas alone that she kidnaps a hot guy at gunpoint and forces him to pretend they are a couple.
The thing is, the 58 people who have binged “A Christmas Prince” over and over aren’t looking for tips on how to marry a fictional prince who can charm orphan children and defeat rabid wolves, any more than a “Handcuffs” viewer is trying to figure out how to kidnap a hot guy at gunpoint and pretend that he’s her new boyfriend.
But there is some relief in watching Melissa Joan Hart navigate the stress of enduring a family Christmas as the only sibling who isn’t married. And there’s something soothing about the idea that you could make a terrible, even mean-spirited choice in service of your career without sacrificing your chance for happiness with a partner. Our anxieties can be hard to discuss with parents, partners or even therapists, and our troubles can be particularly difficult to broach with anyone during a time of year that has such an emphasis on gratitude.
A cheesy Christmas film lets us watch a daffy heroine confront our real-world troubles head-on. Sandwiched between Lean Cuisine and tampon commercials, it’s an unthreatening form of catharsis that wraps it up in under two hours and doesn’t cost a dime.
For some viewers, watching a Bad Christmas Movie may just help make an afternoon go by. For others, these movies — and the sheer volume of these movies — truly resonate. Maybe they’re not your cup of tea (or hot cocoa, which almost always has a cameo in a Bad Christmas Movie), but there’s nothing wrong with giving people a little wish fulfillment by proxy in a time of year when even Santa can’t make every wish come true. And nobody has to hurt you to enjoy it.