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From 'Dash And Lily' To Dolly Parton: These Holiday Specials Will Bring On The Cheer


I'm just going to be honest here, during even a normal holiday season, I spend a lot of time with my television. There's football. There are movies - "Die Hard," "Love Actually." Go ahead, fight me. Go ahead. Also, I love holiday specials, and I feel like this year, with no big parties to go to, we're going to need all the recommendations we can get, right? Because what else do we really have to do? Well, we have NPR critics Linda Holmes and Glen Weldon, who co-host NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, with us. Hello, Linda. Hello, Glen. How are you both?

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: I'm good, David. I'm good. This is my time of year.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Yeah, it's not necessarily mine, but I'm here anyway.



GREENE: Well, good. Well, let's enjoy this time of year together. I want to focus with you both on holiday specials that we should really have on our list in this strange holiday season. I guess I wonder, like, are there categories we can put these kinds of specials in or is it just, like, listing them?

HOLMES: Yeah, I think you can generally sort them into a few categories. You have, like, the romantic comedy, which is the two people meet in a small town at Christmas, right? They make probably 50 of those as cable movies every year, literally.

GREENE: Yeah. And we love them all.

HOLMES: You have, like, the celebrity musical kind of thing, which is, you know, Mariah Carey or whoever comes out and makes a big splashy Christmas thing. You have your pure family warmth. That's your "A Christmas Carol" adaptations and - but every now and then - and I think we're going to bring you a couple of these - every now and then, something comes in kind of at an angle.

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: And so...


HOLMES: ...Those are fun, too.

WELDON: Yeah. Generally speaking, there is always a lesson to be learned. And the lesson is usually that we are focusing on the wrong thing - capital W, capital T. And Christmas comes along to remind us of what's really important.

GREENE: What's really important - I love that. Let's talk about what's really important. So give us your picks for holiday specials we should watch.

HOLMES: OK, so I will offer you first the movie "Happiest Season," which is available on Hulu this week. And it stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a couple who goes home to the Mackenzie Davis character's parents' place for Christmas. But she's not out to them yet. So she brings home Kristen Stewart and says, this is my roommate. And so there's a certain amount of, like, wacky misunderstandings. But there's also this very heartfelt story about the character trying to come out to her parents. There's a lot of stuff kind of between the couple about how does the Kristen Stewart character feel about the fact that her girlfriend's not out to her parents? And it's a lot of fun. It's not perfect. I have some nitpicks. Don't you always? But it is your basic kind of warm holiday rom-com-family movie. And I appreciate it very much on that level.

GREENE: That sounds perfect. OK, I'll watch that. And I want to hear about your nitpicks. Glen?

WELDON: Yeah. Well, my first pick is the "Lego Star Wars Holiday Special" on Disney Plus.

GREENE: Oh, nice.

WELDON: Yeah. And what it is, David, it's right there on the label. It is a computer-animated Lego version of all the characters from the most recent trilogy in the main "Star Wars" franchise. So we're talking Rey, Finn, Poe, Rose, BB-8. Rey goes off on a journey through time, which has her meeting a bunch of the main characters from all nine "Star Wars" movies and reenacting a lot of the climactic moments from them along the way. Does she learn a lesson about the true meaning of friendship? Yes, she does. If you or your kids are familiar with the Lego video games and Lego movies, this is gently satirizing the franchise in much the same way. I really dig its version of the Emperor, who is less a creature of ultimate evil and more the worst boss you've ever had.


WELDON: Also not for nothing, 44 minutes long - in and out, surgical strike.

GREENE: Perfect. I'm loving this list so far. Well, Linda, you said you were coming into these suggestions with, like, new angles. Is there ever anything actually fresh and new holiday season? Like, is that important? Is that what we should be looking for?

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, I think - look, traditionally, particularly in the cable realm, these stories have been extremely white. They've been extremely straight. There are some moves toward making some of these casts more diverse, particularly Lifetime as opposed to Hallmark. Lifetime has diversified its casts a little bit more. And there are a couple of things to be happy about this year. I think on that front, you know, Lifetime has a film that's starring as the female lead a woman named Ali Stroker, who won a Tony for playing Ado Annie in "Oklahoma" on Broadway. And she uses a wheelchair. And I don't think I've ever seen kind of one of these big movies give that role to someone who uses a wheelchair. I think that's an interesting move. And Hallmark - Hallmark - the Hallmark Channel has a couple of gay couples that they're featuring this year kind of as B plots, not the main story. And then you also have some that I think are just interesting structurally. There's the - Netflix has a series called "Dash & Lily," which is a miniseries that I liked a lot. It's based on a YA novel. You know, two kids meet through a mysterious book that they write each other notes in. It's very, very sweet, and she has a family that is Chinese American. So I do think there are small steps. They are small, but they are, I think, happening to some degree.

GREENE: That's some sort of progress.

HOLMES: A little bit. A little bit.

GREENE: Glen, the final word to you.

WELDON: Yeah. Well, I'm going to go real traditional - ultra traditional. I'm going from "Lego Star Wars Holiday Special" to Dolly Parton's "Christmas On The Square." That's right, David, "Star Wars" to Dolly because you know what I got is layers. So this thing's on Netflix. And it's also right there on the level (ph) because this thing is really square, unapologetically so. This is an old-school musical. I mean, the dancing chorus boys show up one minute in. You can check your watch by them. Big splashy musical numbers of original Dolly Parton songs - it's choreographed by Debbie Allen. You know what you're in for and you get it. But, I mean, I think reasonable people can agree Dolly Parton is a fundamental force for good in the universe. She's playing an angel here, so right away redundant. To some of us, Christine Baranski is a pretty solid argument for a just and benevolent god and particularly when she gets to sing, as she does here, and particularly when she's playing a snobby, rich, imperious businesswoman who is dead inside and who hates Christmas and hates her small town. This thing does suffer from the classic Scrooge-Grinch problem, which is that your main character is just a lot more fun to watch while they hate Christmas than when they go all soft and squishy at the end.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

WELDON: But...

HOLMES: This is such a Glen Weldon thing.

GREENE: Such a Glen Weldon line.

HOLMES: I liked Scrooge better at the beginning (laughter).

WELDON: He had a better world view. He was just more practical. Now, she does - but, you know, the formula - this is the thing, David, that we're talking about here - the formula is unforgiving. She will learn her lesson. She will learn to embrace Christmas and God and Jesus and, you know, town square gazebos because that's it. That's the deal. And nobody can get away from it.

GREENE: Well, Glen, Linda, happy watching. Thank you both so much, as always.

HOLMES: Thank you, David.

WELDON: Thank you, man.


DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Christmas on the square, everybody's there.

GREENE: Linda Holmes, Glen Weldon, they co-host NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly refer to Lily’s family in "Dash & Lily" as Chinese American. In fact, the family is Japanese American.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 28, 2020 at 11:00 PM CST
In this report, we incorrectly refer to Lily's family in Dash & Lily as Chinese American. In fact, the family is Japanese American.
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.