Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 2 2019 02:00PM

My husband seems befuddled, even a tad shell-shocked. His maiden viewing of a Jane Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movie – Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen, which premiered last Saturday night – has paused for its first commercial break, and he has a question.

“People watch this?” he says. “For fun?”

After nearly four years of Austenesque Hallmark movies, my expectations of each new offering have hit rock-bottom. Seventeen minutes into Saturday’s broadcast, it is no surprise to me that SS&S bears almost no relationship to Austen’s work. I don’t flinch – well, not much, anyway – at the predictable storyline, the limp writing, or the bargain-basement acting.

But my husband, poor lamb, is new to it all. “The acting in the adverts is better,” he points out plaintively a few minutes later. (He’s a Brit. Over there, they say “adverts” instead of “commercials.”)

Arguably, his statement is true, but still, as mediocre Austen spinoffs go, SS&S is no worse than average. For plot: a (sort-of) Enemies to (tepid) Lovers tale, wherein a driven workaholic (here, a staid toy-company CEO named Edward Ferris) falls for a creative free spirit (here, a winsome event planner named Ella Dashwood) while they jointly plan a communal Christmas gathering (here, a last-minute holiday party for important clients).

In place of Austen’s plot, we get name-dropping: Ella’s sister, the cautious and conservative Marianne, exchanges an off-stage ex named Willoughby for a nice-guy lawyer named Brandon. Edward’s high-school-girlfriend-turned-company-VP is Lucy Steele. Brandon’s law firm, we learn from a nameplate on a lobby wall, is Morton, Middleton & Jennings. (OK, that one makes me laugh.)

Wait – what? Marianne is cautious and Ella is free-spirited? “I’m confused,” my husband says, as the second commercial break dawns, a mere nine minutes after the conclusion of the first one. “Why did they swap the names? They could have the original names and it would be exactly the same. Now it’s just confusing.”

“Only if you’ve read the book,” I point out. (And actually, he's wrong: more has changed than the names alone. In the original, it's the wild sister who gets Brandon and the staid one who gets Edward.)

The film winds on. Edward tells Ella that his company has discontinued its signature teddy bear because it is “no longer marketable.” (What? A teddy bear no longer marketable? In what universe?) Ella introduces Edward, who has allegedly grown up in the toy business, to the revolutionary concept of testing toys on focus groups of actual children. A pair of French toy-store owners named Jacques and Vivienne arrive in town. Their accents wax and wane, like the moon in December.

“I think they’re not really French,” my husband opines darkly.

Ella chides Edward for his lack of Christmas spirit, as evidenced by his boring, solid-color ties. Edward ribs Ella over her corny, Yuletide-inspired scarves. Ella suggests the party theme should be “Winter Wonderland.” I note that this was also the theme of the party in Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe, one of last year’s Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movies. (That’s what we English-major types call intertextuality, boys and girls.)

My husband shows signs of bailing. Hang in there, I urge him. Before long, our protagonists will decorate a Christmas tree together! They will have a snowball fight! They will bake cookies and drink hot chocolate!

Ella offers to help decorate Edward’s home for the holidays, as “an extra service.”

“Ooh. . . extra services. . .” my husband comments wolfishly. Apparently, he has forgotten the movie’s TV-G rating.

Forty-seven minutes into our evening, as the third commercial break concludes, my husband leaves for the home office adjoining our TV room. I try to guilt him into staying. I fail. “It’s really bad,” he says. He sounds apologetic. Well, half-apologetic, anyway.

Three minutes later, Edward and Ella are decorating a Christmas tree. I announce the milestone in a voice loud enough to be heard in the room next door. My husband grunts. He seems curiously unimpressed. Five minutes later, an onscreen snowball fight breaks out. I report that, too. “You called this half an hour ago,” he says. “I still think the Big Reveal is the French people aren’t really French.” Then he goes to bed.

Edward and Ella decorate a gingerbread house together, which I decide is close enough to count as cookie-baking. Hot drinks are distributed – but do the cups contain cocoa, or just coffee? Hard to tell. The French characters hop into a sleigh. “Salut!" Jacques exclaims, Frenchly. "Joyeux Noel!”

Edward’s company relaunches its signature teddy bear. The big party goes off without a hitch, even though the servers are dressed as elves. The Dashwood sisters have a small, implausible tiff. The lovers have another. The sisters make up and agree to expand their business together.

The lovers go for a walk through a quaintly snow-covered town center. Edward is wearing a corny, Yuletide-inspired scarf. He and Ella kiss and make up. My heart leaps, but not because of the kiss, which is Hallmark-chaste. No, I’ve spotted a hot chocolate stand in the background! Will they. . . .?

But no. Onscreen, it is Christmas Day, and so the stand is unstaffed. I retire to bed.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 21 2019 02:00PM

Disaster averted! Collision avoided! Christmas catastrophe curtailed!

Last month, as blog readers will recall, it appeared that the Hallmark Channel’s latest Jane Austen-themed Christmas movie – Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen – had been scheduled in a pre-holiday time slot that overlapped with that of a different saccharine Christmas confection. How was this possible? What could be done?

Reader, they changed it. Instead of airing at 9 pm on Friday, November 29, a mere hour after a non-Austen movie entitled Christmas at the Plaza, SS&S will instead premiere at 9 pm the next evening. In case you want to make a night of it, Triple S will be preceded at 7 pm by A Godwink Christmas: Meant for Love (woman nursing broken heart meets hunky out-of-towner and Learns to Love Again) and followed at 11:03 pm by A Christmas to Remember (woman crashes car on way to small-town retreat and is nursed through her amnesia by hunky local).* For an extra Janeite bonus, the star of A Godwink Christmas is Cindy Busby, who was so memorably terrible as the heroine of Hallmark’s first foray into Austen spinoffs, Unleashing Mr. Darcy.

Meanwhile, Christmas at the Plaza (woman works with hunky local on Christmas event at New York landmark) has been rescheduled for Thanksgiving night. Once again, however, Janeites have a special incentive to finish up their turkey in time to watch: the role of hunky local is played by Ryan Paevey, who was so memorably unmemorable as the eponymous hero of Unleashing Mr. Darcy.

Two Janeite crossovers and a new Austen-themed Hallmark movie, all in one long weekend! It really is the most wonderful time of the year, isn’t it?

* On the other hand, this movie stars a for-real Oscar winner, Mira Sorvino. Might that make it worth watching?

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 17 2019 01:11PM

Last month, as blog readers will recall, we jointly pondered a Jane Austen Christmas mystery: why a made-for-TV movie named Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen – allegedly based on Austen’s novel of the same title, minus the snowmen – had vanished from the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas schedule.

But thank goodness! In keeping with the spirit of the season, joy can now spread across the land! The movie will air after all, albeit as part of Hallmark’s Miracles of Christmas schedule, which features seven new sappy romcoms, as opposed to Countdown’s busier slate of twenty-four.

Last year, as blog readers will recall, Hallmark aired not one but two nominally Austen-inspired Christmas movies. Both claimed to be based on Pride and Prejudice but turned out to have essentially no connection to Austen’s novel. Instead, as I pointed out at the time, both told “the story of a driven workaholic named Darcy who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.”

Judging from the video preview available on the Hallmark Channel website, this year’s Austenesque offering, Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen, represents a radical departure from that model. It’s the story of a driven workaholic named Edward who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.

And get this, you stick-in-the-mud Janeites with your purist notions of literary fidelity: While the movie centers on two sisters who co-own an event-planning company, the free-spirited one is named Ella, while the staid, responsible one is named Marianne.

Mind-blowing, I know. I’m reeling, too.

Still, a mystery remains – and I don’t mean the mystery of why people with no actual interest in Jane Austen keep slapping her name onto properties bearing only the most tenuous relationship to her work. That’s a puzzle whose solution is a five-letter word beginning with M.

No, the mystery I have in mind concerns the scheduling of the new movie, which, according to Hallmark’s publicity, will premiere on November 29 at 9 pm. Meanwhile, over at the Countdown to Christmas schedule, a film called Christmas at the Plaza is scheduled for the same night at 8 pm.

Unless Plaza is an hour-long divertissement, which seems unlikely – Hallmark’s hour-by-hour schedule for the end of next month doesn’t appear to be available yet, so I can’t check for sure – we may be facing a veritable Clash of the Titans, or at least of the Titanically Mediocre Christmas Movies. How can two films occupy the same hour of air time? Making that work may take a true Christmas miracle.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 23 2019 01:00PM

See that headline? The one right above this blog post? I’m kind of proud of it. Doesn’t it totally sound like it could be the title of a new Hallmark Christmas movie?

Which is appropriate, since the mystery in question concerns the strange disappearance of a Jane Austen-themed movie from the Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” schedule.

“Countdown to Christmas,” now in its tenth year, is Hallmark’s annual saccharine-laced marathon of cookie-baking, hot-chocolate-drinking, snowball-tossing, small-town-holiday-visiting made-for-TV romcoms, which begins airing right before Halloween and stretches on until a few days before New Year’s.

Last year, as blog readers will recall, “Countdown to Christmas” included not one but two nominally Pride and Prejudice-inspired movies, although in both cases fidelity to Jane Austen’s original was pretty much nil. So when I learned recently that Hallmark planned to include a new Austen-themed outing this year, my expectations were low.

They got lower when I learned that this year’s offering, Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen, was apparently based on a book by Melissa de la Cruz, the author of the stupendously terrible Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, allegedly the inspiration for one of last year’s movies.

And then things got a little odd.

The buzz for Sense, Sensibility and Snowmen began over the summer, when Entertainment Tonight reported that the movie would star Erin Krakow, who plays the protagonist in Hallmark’s beloved period drama When Calls the Heart, set in the Canadian West in the early twentieth century.

In June, de la Cruz – who actually hasn’t published a book called Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen; maybe she just worked on the screenplay? -- tweeted about the cast. In July, Krakow tweeted pictures from the set. A couple of weeks ago, the movie was all set to air on November 27 – at least according to Passion for Savings, a thrifty-living website, which posted the full "Countdown to Christmas" schedule, along with a visual of Hallmark’s own suitable-for-printing one-page version, featuring a photo of an adorable little dog wearing a red scarf.

But last week, when I went to the Hallmark Channel’s website and found my own copy of that printable schedule with the cute little doggie, SS&S was nowhere to be seen, its slot on the roster apparently taken by something called Christmas Under the Stars. Although air dates had changed for a number of films since the posting of the earlier schedule, Triple S was the only one of the twenty-four that had vanished entirely.

Hmm. Was the movie not finished in time? Was its tale of party-planner sisters named Ella and Marianne who tangle with an irascible toy-company CEO named Edward insufficiently faithful to Jane Austen? (OK, probably not that.) Did the finished version fail to meet the standards of excellence expected of a Hallmark Christmas movie? (Stop laughing!)

I emailed Hallmark to see if they’ll tell me. Meanwhile, we’ll just have to hope – if that’s the right word – that the movie turns up sometime later on the Hallmark schedule.

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