Real-life husbands Blake Lee and Ben Lewis, Lifetime’s first LGBTQ+ main characters, star in “The Christmas Setup,” which hit TV screens in early December.
In 2020, Lifetime has expanded the diversity of its main characters, producing a number of movies starring Black actors and the first-ever Lifetime movies to cast leads who are Asian American and disabled. Hallmark also introduced its first Christmas movie with LGBTQ+ leads earlier in November, titled “The Christmas House.”
Amy Winter, head of programming for Lifetime, told NPR, “People see themselves in our programming and feel welcome here. We have over 20 diverse leads and over 80 diverse characters in the course of this premiere season.”
The plot of “The Christmas Setup” is typical of a Lifetime Christmas movie, following New York City lawyer Hugo as he travels back home to Milwaukee with his best friend, Madelyn, to visit his mom and brother for the holidays. His mother, played by Fran Drescher, acts as the not-so-subtle matchmaker for Hugo when he meets Patrick, his secret crush from high school. She often pushes them to do things together or invites Patrick over without notice. Hugo receives the promotion he has been longing for, but finds out it will take him to London, just when he finds his love for his hometown by saving the traditional train station, rekindling his love for woodworking, and falling (literally falling down the stairs) for Patrick.
Patrick Serrano from Oprah Magazine wrote, “There is no coming-out story here. There is no traumatic event that’s a catalyst for change. There’s just a quaint, satisfying love story — the kind straight and queer people have been enjoying for centuries, but have predominantly only depicted straight couples.”
Queer characters usually play the best friends, bosses and eccentric assistants. Side characters. This year has been big in introducing diverse characters as leads with many networks and streaming services taking the lead in casting queer roles, like Hulu’s lesbian-centered “Happiest Season.” Representation is important in media, but the representation of happy endings and cheesy romance is equally as important and needed in queer media. For people in the LGBTQ+ community, seeing themselves as the lead roles rather than the funny sidekicks is crucial to their sense of self in a world that is known to exclude them.
Blake Lee, who plays Patrick, wrote on an Instagram post, “My hope is that next year we have holiday movies centered around queer people of color, trans people, non-binary people, everyone deserves to see themselves represented with a happy ending.” Lifetime movies act as a tradition for families during the holidays, and “The Christmas Setup” normalizes and celebrates a gay couple in a movie that is made to be seen on family TVs. No longer do viewers have to solely relate to straight white people when watching TV holiday movies.
Lee went on to say, “I feel so proud to be part of this movie, a movie I could only wish existed when I was a little kid, too nervous to come out.”
In order to save Milwaukee’s beloved train station in the movie, Hugo and Patrick dig into the history of its creator. To their surprise, he was also gay, hiding the truth of his lover in old pictures and letters. The movie pays homage to the struggle that the LGBTQ+ community faced in the past while simultaneously celebrating the progress made with the main couple being openly and confidently gay with supportive families by their sides. Patrick reflects on the future of the queer community with centers for the youth, and he also helps the future of the community with donations. The spirits of queer past, present and future are all depicted in one movie.
Not only does the movie have gay leads, but the production team was composed of members of the LGBTQ+ community and its allies, such as the director Pat Mills making his rom-com debut and drag artist Lucinda Miu, who made a special appearance. The representation both in the cast and the production makes the movie even more special, putting the lives of the community at the forefront of the film. Also, casting actual community members allows the actors to tell the story through their perspective and work with roles similar to themselves.
“I don’t think either of us in our careers have ever been on a set where a majority of the key creatives were queer or allies,” Ben Lewis told Out Magazine. “It was a great sort of inversion of what you normally experience on set.”
Overall, the movie followed the mold set by the many Lifetime movies before it, which allowed the story and characters to remain wholesome and comfortable for viewers familiar with the network. The main character is an organized, family-oriented and easily flustered lead, which is the typical prototype for Lifetime movies. The slow-burning love between the main couple starts with awkward encounters and mistaken sexuality before they exchange high school stories under romantic fairy lights while drinking wine.
“The Christmas Setup” is the classic, cheesy Lifetime movie with subtle gay jokes added into the mix. When Hugo and Patrick first reunite it’s to put up the Christmas tree Hugo’s mom ordered from Patrick’s dad — Hugo’s mom’s initial act of matchmaking. While putting up the tree, Hugo asks, “Straight?” to which Patrick responds, “Excuse me?” After a short pause and a quieting of the music, Hugo says, “The tree,” before the music’s volume increases and Patrick straightens the tree. The movie also adds special nods to drag culture, such as the main couple dressing up the tree in “drag” and Lucinda Miu’s performance of Ana Gasteyer’s “Sugar and Booze.”
The movie ends on a happy note with the main couple coming together and even Hugo’s best friend and brother ending up together. After deciding to stay in Milwaukee, Hugo confesses to Patrick, “I’m saying that anything worth having is worth fighting for. There are always gonna be obstacles, but I really wanna try and make this work.” And in classic Lifetime movie fashion, the movie ends with a kiss under the falling snow.
Movies like “The Christmas Setup” are not only necessary for LGBTQ+ youth just coming out, but for older members of the community who have never seen themselves represented in the cheesy and festive movies that emphasize love and family. “The Christmas Setup” is a heart-fluttering, queer holiday movie that’s perfect to watch this holiday season.