When Jonathan Bennett was first sent the script for "The Christmas House," his initial thought was, "Who's my love interest? Who's my girl?"
It's an understandable instinct. After all, the project hails from Hallmark Channel, whose annual "Countdown to Christmas" lineup of original movies — a seasonal mainstay both lucrative and beloved — included 23 titles in 2019, none featuring a gay couple. (Prior years' holiday slates, both on Hallmark Channel and its sister network, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, were similarly straightforward.)
As it turned out, Bennett's love interest wasn't a woman at all: Instead, he'll play half of the first gay couple highlighted in the network's heavily watched holiday programming. "My jaw practically hit the ground," he recalled. "And then I read the script, and I was in tears. I thought, is this really happening? This is groundbreaking."
"The Christmas House," which premiered Sunday, is part of a bumper crop of queer-inclusive holiday fare this season, alongside Netflix's "A New York Christmas Wedding" (now streaming), Hulu's "Happiest Season" (Nov. 25), Lifetime's "The Christmas Setup" (Dec. 12) and Paramount Network's "Dashing in December" (Dec. 13). It debuts nearly a year after Hallmark Channel pulled ads for a wedding-planning website that featured a same-sex couple kissing, then swiftly reversed the ban following public outcry. (This August, Hallmark included its first portrayal of a same-sex union in one of its original movies.)
Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity, told The Times via email that the movie was written "to reflect the reality of countless families all over the world" and "signals our commitment to expanding our programming through modern storytelling in a way that allows everyone to share in the Hallmark experience. We aim to produce programming that resonates in a powerful, emotional way and reflects the experiences of viewers from all cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, belief systems, and lifestyles."
Notably, the LGBTQ representation in "The Christmas House" isn't simply focused on coming out, which has frequently — and rather dully — been the central tension of films and TV series built around queer characters. The movie centers on three pairs of characters coming together for the holidays, including Bennett and Brad Harder as a married couple long since accepted by their parents and siblings. In the first scene with the entire family, Bennett's onscreen mother tells Harder's character with a smile: "Have I told you lately, you're my favorite son-in-law?"
Though Bennett and Harder are not the sole leads of "The Christmas House" — the film is an ensemble piece — this structure allowed director Michael Grossman to approach the pair as he would any other Hallmark movie couple, rather than define the characters only by their sexual orientation. "They're just people, they love each other, they're part of this family and they're loved, period, full stop," Grossman said. "I thought it was a wonderful way to introduce this topic into a space where it really didn't exist before."
Indeed, the couple is in the midst of trying to adopt their first child. One scene has Bennett's character venting his frustrations with the stressful process; Harder's character comforts him with optimism about their future. And, of course, such a tough conversation between spouses ends with a reassuring and romantic kiss.
"This scene is so beautiful and intimate because this couple has so much love for each other," Harder said of filming the moment last fall. "It was magical. We were so honored to get to make history and represent LGBTQ couples just like in our personal lives."
Afterward, Bennett recalled that crew members of the Vancouver shoot approached them with tears in their eyes. "They said, 'Hey, thank you for doing this. We work on a lot of these Christmas movies, and for the first time, we feel like we're part of the family too.' "
The milestone won't be achieved without its naysayers, though. One Million Moms, the same conservative advocacy group that pressured the network to pull the ad last year, launched a petition to have the movie removed from the schedule and to boycott the company "as long as Hallmark pushes the LGBTQ agenda."
Grossman — who is gay, as are Bennett and Harder — understands where they're coming from and hopes to meet some of these Hallmark fans halfway. "Look, I know what the reputation of the Hallmark Channel is, and what a lot of people across the country expect it to be," he said. "I'm hoping that some percentage of these people might just be able to squint their eyes a little bit and learn something about people being people, and people loving each other. And that it isn't all the things they might imagine it to be."