It’s the most wonderful time of the year. After answering renewed calls for diversity and inclusion in its end-of-year programming in 2020, the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime are getting back in the holiday spirit with two new movies that bring queer characters — and actors — to the forefront of the narrative.
Premiering Sunday on Hallmark, “The Holiday Sitter” follows Sam (Jonathan Bennett), a workaholic bachelor who reluctantly agrees to babysit his niece and nephew before his solo vacation. Completely out of his depth, Sam enlists the help of their dashing neighbor, Jason (George Krissa), who is in the process of adopting a child of his own, and soon finds himself caught in an unexpected romance.
The made-for-TV movie is Hallmark’s first holiday rom-com to center an LGBTQ couple. But from the outset, Bennett was insistent on telling a story that was rooted in love and family — whether that be one’s chosen or biological family — that would resonate with a wider audience.
“It is not a movie for just the queer community; it’s a movie for everyone — that happens to have two men as the leads,” Bennett told NBC News.
Bennett, as an executive producer, originally came up with the idea of a “gay ‘Uncle Buck’ for Hallmark” on the set of another holiday movie three years ago. He played a key role in all areas of the production, especially the casting of Krissa, a Toronto-based theater actor who brought the right combination of humor, charm and physicality to his self-tape audition.
“It was important that the actor was openly gay and out; it was important to me that we were able to tell the story loud and proud,” Bennett said.
Likening the shoot to a kind of “gay summer camp” with queer creatives on both sides of the camera, Bennett and Krissa both recalled a day on set when they understood the power of positive representation.
“We’d look at each other and [be] like, ‘We’re about to shoot two boys meeting and falling in love in a Christmas rom-com on Hallmark,’” Bennett said, tearing up. “We knew how much it was going to mean to so many people watching it.”
While “The Holiday Sitter” contains an abundance of holiday hallmarks and tropes, the film also touches on the challenges of adoption in general, with a special emphasis on queer people who might want to start a family with or without a partner.
“Families look different for everyone,” Krissa said. “They come together in a different way, but they’re all just as valid and all just as loving.”
And for the queer community, in particular, "chosen family" is crucial, Bennett added.
“We’ve had to choose our families in many ways. Part of that is having choices like adoption, where you can start your family and make the family that you want,” said Bennett, who admitted that working with child actors every day opened up conversations with his husband, Jaymes Vaughan, about “maybe adopting kids” of their own “that were a little bit older.”
Having risen to fame nearly two decades ago in “Mean Girls” — a movie that Krissa considers one of his all-time favorites — Bennett revealed that he is also responsible for sneaking a line from the teen classic film (“Stop trying to make fetch happen”) into the final cut of “The Holiday Sitter.” Bennett admits that he would love to reunite on screen with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Lacey Chabert, who both starred in new holiday movies this year, but with an added twist.
“I think it would be so much fun to tell a Christmas story with them, but change up our roles, like what if Lacey and I were boyfriend and girlfriend, and Lindsay and I did a movie where we played brother and sister?” Bennett suggested playfully. “I think it’d be fun to take what we know and turn it on its head, so that way we’re not telling the same story.”
Premiering Friday, Dec. 16, on Lifetime, “A Christmas to Treasure” follows six childhood friends who reunite in their hometown for one final holiday treasure hunt, where sparks fly once more between Austin Craig (Taylor Frey), a guarded brand strategist, and his former best friend, Everett Matthews (Kyle Dean Massey).
The movie is a family affair in more ways than one: Massey and Frey are married in real life, having tied the knot in 2016, and their new daughter, Rafa, was frequently on set during the monthlong shoot. And although they recently co-founded and work together at Elevate, a surrogacy and egg donor agency in California, the actors had never worked together in front of the camera until writer-director Jake Helgren approached them last winter with an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“We’ve watched so many of our friends in the industry — straight couples — get to play opposite each other as husband and wife, because so many of those stories are told on stage and on screen,” said Frey, “so it just feels like a really lucky moment for us to be able to both play such an authentic role and do it together.”
“If there was anything that I identified with, it’s that whole idea of Christmas traditions and being around people that you love,” Massey said. “We both love the Christmas holiday. We’ve been together for well over 10 years, so at this point, we have shared traditions … and now that we have a young daughter, I think we’re excited about passing those traditions to her as well.”
For Massey, being able to co-lead a Lifetime movie with his husband, whom he met at a gym in Times Square while they were doing Broadway shows across the street from each other, is a testament to the significant strides in LGBTQ representation and acceptance in the two decades that they’ve both worked in the business. However, Massey said, a disparity still exists: While straight actors can always play gay, openly gay actors are not always considered for straight roles.
“I’m really more excited about LGBTQ characters being at the forefront of a story rather than being sidekicks or comedic relief, because for anyone who’s part of this community, you are the star of your own life,” Massey said. “Your life is more than just you coming out or grappling with your sexuality. … You have a real life with real relationships, and I’m happy to see that that’s being portrayed more, even in Christmas movies like ours.”
Not everyone, though, is celebrating the increase in LGBTQ representation on television and in movies.
Last month, actor Candace Cameron Bure revealed that her move from the Hallmark Channel to the Great American Family network stemmed from a desire to portray more “traditional” marriages in her TV projects, which, critics believe, implied the exclusion of same-sex couples in leading roles.
When asked about Bure's remarks, Massey noted that, out of more than 140 new films to debut this holiday season, there is still a dearth of LGBTQ representation in a genre that should be meant for everyone.
“It’s such a small, small number. It’s not like we’re taking away Christmas from the straight people," he said.
In response to Bure’s comments, Bennett said the message of “The Holiday Sitter” is one of “love and inclusion," and he applauded Hallmark for creating "one of the most safe places for queer filmmakers to be able to exercise their art and create in an environment where, from the beginning until the end, you feel supported."
After watching “The Holiday Sitter," people are “going to feel that the Hallmark holiday table is bigger than ever,” Bennett added, "and that no matter who you are, there is a seat for you."