‘The Christmas Setup’ and other LGBTQ stories light up the holidays
Married actors Ben Lewis and Blake Lee are making TV history co-starring in Lifetime’s inaugural Christmas movie centered around LGBTQ+ characters.
Premiering Saturday, Dec. 12 (at 8 p.m.), “The Christmas Setup” follows New York lawyer Hugo (Lewis, “Arrow”) as he visits his mother Kate (Fran Drescher) in his hometown of Milwaukee — where he reconnects with his high school crush, Patrick (Lee).
This is a big deal in the wdorld of holiday TV movies, which have garnered criticism in recent years for their lack of diversity. The industry’s answer, at least for the 2020 season, has been to produce a slew of movies that don’t adhere to the genre’s traditional template.
In addition to “The Christmas Setup,” this year’s slate included Hallmark’s “The Christmas House” starring Brad Harder and Jonathan Bennett; Hulu’s buzzy “Happiest Season,” starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis; and Paramount Network’s “Dashing in December,” a gay cowboy Christmas movie co-starring Andie MacDowell, Juan Pablo Di Pace and Peter Porte and airing Sunday (Dec. 13) at 7 p.m.
“They were hoping to cast a real-life couple [in ‘The Christmas Setup],” says veteran actor, Lee, 37, whose resume includes “Parks and Recreation,” “Fam” and “Wisdom of the Crowd.” “Because of COVID reasons they were like, ‘That would be fantastic.’ And obviously our chemistry would translate onscreen.”
“The Christmas Setup” includes the typical plot staples of holiday rom-coms, including misunderstandings (Patrick initially thinks Hugo is married to his female best friend), a subplot involving a demolition threat to a beloved local building and Hugo’s inner struggle between high-powered career aspirations and a small-town romance.
“The fact that it’s so unremarkable that it’s two men in the lead roles is sort of the most progressive thing about it,” says Lewis, 35, who’s been married to Lee for nearly five years (they’ve been together for a decade). “We’re not breaking the mold in terms of story or structure. It’s just the fact that the two leads happen to be gay. I think Lifetime is making even more of a statement by just making it like a classic Lifetime movie.”
Jake Helgren, the gay 39-year-old writer/director of Paramount Network’s “Dashing in December,” agrees with Lewis’ assessment.
“That was a fun story for us to be telling in Americana, because LGBTQ people are everywhere,” he says. “We have all kinds of walks of life — not just coming out of the woodwork to celebrate Pride during the summer! We have been underrepresented in this arena.”
Helgren says that he doesn’t think the lack of diversity in previous years stemmed from any malice on the part of the networks.
“It’s not that nobody wanted to do it. It’s just that for whatever reason, in the environment, it wasn’t happening,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot more of it come to the forefront now. We celebrate Christmas just like everybody else.”
“For so many years, it was one group of people being represented in holiday movies across the board,” says Lee. “There’s a few LGBTQ+ centered holiday films this year — and had any of them been around when we were kids, I think it would have been life-changing.
“As a gay young person, even though you could have the most incredible loving accepting family, you still have that fear, ‘What if this is what’s going to make them not love me?’
“Had I seen a movie where it wasn’t about the coming-out story or the trauma around being queer — but about the love of these two people and a happy ending and this family surrounding them with love and acceptance — that would have been huge to see.”