Get ready for TV's yuletide-special season

Heavy flows the nog.

While conventional TV goes into hibernation every December, an ever-expanding catalogue of holiday-themed movies and specials fills the void.

Two channels in particular - Hallmark and ABC Family - always seem to stockpile enough new made-for-TV movies to light up primetime through the entire yuletide season. It's like having a pair of Advent calendars to open every night.

Even Lifetime gets into the act in December, with a stocking full of original movies like Finding Mrs. Claus and The Real St. Nick. (Of course, as soon as the holiday is over, Lifetime reverts to its trademark programming: TV movies about women who are either victims or perpetrators of incredibly heinous crimes.)

Obviously, you can't watch all these holly-jolly TV movies. Even if you had the time and inclination, they're all so thick and treacly with sentiment that sustained viewing would be like trying to eat a house made entirely of fruitcake.

So let us examine one Hallmark movie, The Christmas Heart (Sunday at 8 p.m.) that is representative of all the genre's pleasures and problems.

In this Rust Belt fable, Matt Norman, a teenager in Cleveland, collapses on a basketball court with a grave but previously undetected heart ailment.

It's five days until Christmas, and the cardiolgist informs Matt's parents (Teri Polo and Paul Essiembre) that their son may not survive to see Santa.

Meanwhile, 170 miles away in Detroit, Jimmy (Adam Hurtig) a petty thief, is in desperate straits. He's in hock to some bad criminals, his girlfriend is very pregnant, and his long-suffering mother (Tess Harper) has given up on him.

These two lives will overlap in a miracle. But it will take the goodwill and sacrifice of numerous ancillary characters - and a Christmas eve blizzard over Lake Erie - to make that happen.

All these basic cable holiday weepies are shot on a tight budget. To beat the salary cap, they will hire one or two name actors and cobble together the rest of the cast with thespians straight out of Waiting for Guffman.

The Christmas Heart, produced by sitcom staple Patricia Heaton, and written by her brother Michael, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, uses Polo, and to a lesser extent, Harper, as the plot's emotional draft horses.

The rest of the ensemble is anemic, but at least they don't all look like prototypical actors, which adds a welcome hint of realism to the film's subtext: working people struggling in tough economic times.

The story is as sappy as an episode of Lassie. The formula would work better if we were a little more invested in young Matt and his survival. But we only get to see him for a minute prior to his collapse, as he walks his newspaper delivery route. (Is that still a thing?)

The Christmas Heart drags us through considerable despair on the way to its feel-good ending. But it gets there satisfyingly and just in the (St.) Nick of time.

Now, dry your eyes, blow your nose, and let's hit the mall.


Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv.