TV preview: 'Christmas With Holly' lacks magic

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In the new Hallmark Hall of Fame production, "Christmas With Holly," a radiant young woman who has just bought a toy store meets a handsome young man who runs the nearby coffee shop. She has a beagle named Olive. He is raising his 6-year-old niece, Holly, who is unable or unwilling to speak after the death of her single mother.

They all live on a small island in Washington State, and the movie takes place mostly between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

'Christmas With Holly'

When: 9 p.m. Sunday, ABC.

Starring: Sean Faris, Eloise Mumford.

If you can't figure out how the story will end, you haven't watched many recent Hallmark Hall of Fame episodes, especially those that conclude at Christmas. In terms of the tears that the creaky plot tries to evoke, several dozen angels must have earned their wings making this show.

On the credit side, the lead performances of Eloise Mumford (as Maggie Conway) and Sean Faris (as Mark Nagle) are appealing, and the two have chemistry. (She was in TV's "The River"; he was in "The Vampire Diaries.") As his brothers, Dana Watkins (Scott) and Daniel Eric Gold (Alex) make a convincing set of squabbling siblings and loving uncles. The movie, filmed in and near Halifax, Nova Scotia, is travel-poster-pretty.

But on the debit side, little Holly (played by Lucy and Josie Gallina of "Boardwalk Empire") seems more sullen than adorable for most of the movie, and it's a mystery why everyone finds her so endearing.

The movie is tolerably watchable in the worst Lifetime/Hallmark Channel sort of way, more icky than heartwarming.

The Hallmark Hall of Fame series, which debuted in 1951, is the longest-running prime-time series in TV history. Sponsored by Hallmark Cards, the shows have won 80 Emmys, according to the official website, which also says that one-fourth of all Oscar winners in acting categories -- 64 performers -- have appeared in a Hallmark Hall of Fame.

The first production was "Amahl and the Night Visitors," Menotti's now-classic opera written for television, a huge success which Hallmark restaged several times. Other early shows had prestige written all over them -- at least five Shakespeare classics, biographies of personalities from Joan of Arc to Florence Nightingale, adaptations of popular plays such as "Harvey" and "Kiss Me Kate."

The early shows brought Broadway legends to TV -- Laurence Olivier, Helen Hayes, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Julie Harris, Katharine Cornell, Maurice Evans, Judith Anderson -- sometimes in classics, sometimes in plays by distinguished playwrights. For much of the 1970s and early '80s, the emphasis was on adaptations of literary classics.

In the mid-1980s, the series changed its focus toward original and more contemporary material. At least once a year, you could usually count on a great show, such as "Love Is Never Silent" (1985), "Promise" (1986), "Caroline?" (1990), "Sarah, Plain and Tall" (1991), "Skylark" (1993), "To Dance With the White Dog" (1993) and "What the Deaf Man Heard" (1997), and some of the best-remembered TV specials of the era.

Sadly, for about a decade, even with fine casts, Hallmark Hall of Fame productions have been mostly undistinguished -- syrupy, safe and square. The last excellent Hallmark Hall of Fame productions were seven years ago -- "The Magic of Ordinary Days" (with Skeet Ulrich and Keri Russell) and "Silver Bells" (with Tate Donovan and Anne Heche). Since then, the shows -- with few exceptions -- have been increasingly critical and popular flops.

The series didn't start out this way, and it would be a tragedy if it ended this way.


Jim Heinrich:; 412-782-1313.


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