Saturday, December 16, 2023

SK8 the Infinity Review

SK8 the Infinity Review

Warning: The following review will contain spoilers for SK8 the Infinity. If you want to stay clear of what happens in this show's story, please exit the tab and join me once you've watched said show. Or you can take that warning with a grain of salt and read on. Whatever floats your boat.

With that said:

Growing up as a burgeoning ace boy in the 2000s (we've graduated from not 100% bonafide straight) has given me a lot of insight as I've gotten older. I wouldn't be who I am today without the interests I discovered and devoured, most of them being tailored for tween girls. A superhero swopping in despite the odds and rescuing his damsel in distress? Hard pass. A fashion doll who looked confident in herself and ready to (hopefully) rock her first year at a monster high school? Count me in. It was easier to tap into my femininity when "girls media" had more fun. I didn't see any Hannah Montana, Winx Club, or Strawberry Shortcake over in Tween Boy Land. I'd get into some properties here and there (incidentally all video game franchises, the toy anomaly the problematic Kung Zhu line of Zhu Zhu Pets), but they still had this sheen of masculinity that I didn't feel comfortable with. Aspects like "toughing up" and being a "manly man" felt too rigid, too Elfman.

I've brought up my relationship with sports in past reviews (to recap: I did cross country for all of junior high and two years of high school), but I neglected to mentioned what I did as a kid. My brother and I were in a intramural soccer group and took gymnastics and tennis lessons for a few years prior to becoming teenagers. While the sports scene can feel like gender pigeonholing at times, taking part in these didn't feel as restricting. There wasn't this underlying current of donning masculine armor and being the best that ever was, whatever that means outside Pokemon. I was able to tap into my emotions and experience the game in ways that didn't make me lose interest. The tears weren't fun, but the glee I'd only felt messing around in the Backyard Sports CD rom games was.

That's likely a latent reason why I was initially attracted to SK8. Skateboarding had felt restrictive in some of the titles I'd seen growing up, but here was a franchise that put a little colorful spin on it. Helmed by Hiroko Utsumi, who wasn't a stranger to queer leaning shows, SK8 the Infinity promised fun, laughs, and a ride I wouldn't want to end. Promise of an iconic simuldub and subtextual gay couple followed, and I was waiting for that day for the light to turn green. Skateboarding wasn't a "man's sport" here. It could be for everyone. Now that I've collected those $200 and went into another series without my emotional support Bratz doll (iykyk in both cases and, again, with his blessing), did it live up to its potential?

Not completely. Granted, SK8 the Infinity was still an enjoyable show. I felt drawn to how the anime was able to combine a set of aesthetics I'd get in bits and pieces growing up effectively in one place. The main plot was engaging, S was able to display skating in a multifaceted way, the characters were intriguing, and the animation and music vibrant like a perfect summer day. The story and character framing had its falls, plus the content covered beyond the course felt overambitious. However, SK8 is able to make up for much of it in its successful queer subtext moments, exciting beefs, and character arcs that gives it is distinct place in the sports anime canon. It's worth a watch if it whizzed by you.


Skating is Reki Kyan's passion. He breathes it, lives it, and competes in it. He may not be the best skater on the block, but that hasn't stopped him from competing in the skate competition S. At dusk, skaters who've gotten the green light (in the form of a sticker) gather in an abandoned factory lot in the Okinawa outskirts. They go head to head in duels, also known as beefs, where they put what's important to them on the line in order to taste sweet, sweet victory. Reki has recently lost to S's resident antihero, Shadow, and is a little perplexed on where his skateboard will take him next. Enter Japanese Canadian transfer student, Langa Hasegawa, from stage left.

Langa has recently moved back to Okinawa following the death of his father. Reki is intrigued by him, and when the two meet after school one day, they become friends. Langa is eventually convinced to join Reki at his part time job, working at the skate shop Dope Sketch. The two are quickly tasked by their manager, Shokichi, to deliver a skateboard to a S skater before a big race of his. Unfortunately, Reki accidentally grabs his damaged board from his race with Shadow because both bags looked the same in the dark. Embarrassed by the mistake, Kazu, the skater, orders Reki to compete on his behalf. Who's the challenger? Shadow, obviously.

Langa volunteers to skate in Reki's place despite not having any skating experience. Despite a shaky start, Langa is able to beat Shadow using his past in another sport that lends itself surprisingly well to his skateboarding: snowboarding. The blue haired boy experiences an exhilaration that's been missing from his life post his father's demise, and he and Reki work together to improve Langa's skillset, combining the two sports and getting a slick custom board in the process (thanks, Reki). Langa's beef with Shadow, and later beef with young star MIYA get the attention of several prominent S racers, including its founder, ADAM.

ADAM is dazzled by Langa's skills, wanting a worthy challenger who will be able to rise to his level and become his EVE. After two beefs where he's able to win against Reki and draw with Langa (the police intervened on that one), he decides to declare a tournament under the sham of wanting to see who S's best talent is. In the process of bringing said prominent S racers back in the ring, Reki's confidence begins to waver amidst the talent everyone seems to have but him. Political scandal breaks out in ADAM's personal life, his subordinate, Tadashi, wants him to stop pursuing his style of skating (and skating permanently), and the friendship that's blossomed between the two leads, MIYA, and other racers is called into question. Who will come out on top in this tournament? Will it be an individual racer, or the undying power of nakama?

Right off the bat, what strikes me the most about SK8 is how vibrant it is. I'll go more in depth on the animation front later, but from a plot standpoint, there's never a dull moment. Compared to its sports peers (I'm referencing WAVE and Backflip specifically, given that they aired around and after this anime), SK8 fuses a lightness and grit to capture its audience. A tense beef will fade to a comedic interlude. Whether that's Reki and Langa fanboying over skating (and subtextually, each other), a training jaunt to Miyakojima, ADAM saying something suggestive, or Matchablossom bickering like they've been together for years (they have, but not romantically), there's a nuance that grounds SK8 in context that's been challenged since Yuri on Ice, but arguably, started when Free crashed onto our shores.

I haven't watched the entirety of Free outside of the first three episodes. Part of why it has resurfaced for me is in part due to my time at Half Price Books, but also because it was Utsumi's breakout show. Masculinity and femininity find a way to coexist to make swimming look like more than a sum of its parts on the school or Olympic front. Glazing over the fanservice and homoeroticism that's inspired discussion, doujin, and fanfiction, how the lead express themselves in the pool fights against the shallow end of the sport's appearance. SK8 achieves the same thing. A sport that feels like it can only be for the tough men and scene crowd grows its own set of wheels, showing skateboarding as a place where everyone can belong. There's a great crop of athletes who occupy different spaces of the sport, and they all come together to make skateboarding a rush, both in the tricks they do and the injuries they receive. It's about more than Tadashi's stance of skaters being delinquents in his attempt to steer Reki further away from his passion. Here, skating is pure adrenaline and fun.

The anime is also able to fuse its masculinity and femininity to bring me back to several media forms I took in when I was young. The beefs themselves hurtle me into a Need for Speed game, where street racers dominate the night (at least in the 2015 game). The personas call to mind magical girls in all their forms. Whether it be the Sailor Senshi or the Winx, the disguise is another way for the characters to express themselves with a little tell. ADAM almost doesn't count. Mix these two together, and other memories dance in the front of my thoughts (including, but not limited to, Totally Spies, Horseland, W.I.T.C.H., and DRAMAtical Murder). I don't feel like I've connected to an anime on this much of a thematic level before. It only makes me appreciate its content more. Seeing SK8 have fun with itself makes me want to interact with it in a deeper way.

What about the actual plot, you ask? It may not hit all the tricks the show does aesthetically, but I do have to give Ichiro Okouchi props for constructing the story in a way that lets it build at a great pace. Langa's close to fish out of water exposure to the world of S is endearing. While his dynamic with Reki starts off in the mentor-mentee lane, we see them develop as comrades and potentially more if Langa finds skating more fulfilling with the former joining him for the ride. ADAM serves a great role in attempting to fracture this bond even before it becomes a "thing." It doesn't stop with our leads, though. Okouchi is able to seamlessly weave ADAM into the lives of our other players. Directly or not doesn't matter. It helps establish his ego and why his skating ideal isn't as rewarding despite it coming with great power. It makes for seamless continuity and an engaging villain. Add in a surprise twist with his subordinate? I'm all eyes and ears.

That includes the queer subtext. SK8 loves a good moment to flaunt something queer. At the same time, its acknowledgement of this doesn't hit as hard as it could. Women are hinted at frequently. Shokichi is referenced to have a date in the first episode. JOE is a flirt. Reki acknowledges some people are motivated to skate because they like the attention of women. ADAM's aunts are hoping he'll marry so he can continue the family legacy. SHADOW hopes to admit his crush on the owner of the flower shop he works at (incidentally, Langa isn't involved of the teen and adult characters). From one angle, you could play it like the skaters trying to conform to societal expectations. From another, it's jarring to jump back into this lane when you have several moments like this:

I think part of me is now starting to see what some Yuri on Ice fans were getting at when the final episode aired and they still weren't happy with how the queer representation ended up. SK8's art of baiting steers into the two lanes of giving its target audience what it wants and mild hesitation. An anime being self aware is never a bad thing, yet SK8 tries to have it both ways and isn't able to make it gel. Much of the hesitation goes once Langa and Reki have That Scene in Episode 10, yet it lingers with JOE, with SHADOW, and the unanswered questions that get brought up once ADAM's real life investigation is brought to a halt. It's not like I'm a queer fan vying for content drippings, perched in the corner going:

SK8 just happens to get 80% of the way there before having an about face, thinking, "Now are we sure that isn't going to be too much?" The confidence in the aesthetic doesn't fully step up to the plate thanks to our good friend: Homoeroticism.

The main group dynamic is also established under unfortunate circumstances. Most properties I'm familiar with revolve around a main character becoming a part of a group, or a group being preestablished prior to their starts. There's no place to belong Reki and Langa have to hunt for. Their bond with MIYA, SHADOW, CHERRY BLOSSOM, and JOE unfolds (almost) naturally. They each fit into a role naturally, CHERRY and JOE the "parents" throughout it all. Their group officially gets together in Episode 6. However, the dynamic starts in Episode 4 when Reki, Langa, and MIYA attempt to convince SHADOW to take them to S for Reki's beef with ADAM.  What makes SHADOW relent after initially refusing? MIYA blackmails him by stating he'll tell SHADOW's non skating work boss at the flower shop his skater identity. 

The consequences of this aren't far reaching beyond this episode character wise. Viewer wise, it made aspects of this friendship form a sour taste in my mouth, especially given one of SHADOW's main components in the story (again, more on this later). There's a lack of equality, and it doesn't only apply to SHADOW. We don't get to know as much about CHERRY, JOE, and MIYA despite some focused flashbacks on their pasts. Due to the twelve episode count and interest in prioritizing what the production team wanted to be their round characters, I get it. However, I wasn't able to feel the love SK8's fanbase has for these three as effectively because they didn't feel as fleshed out to the series. Okouchi tries and is more successful with MIYA and the pressure he faces as a young athlete. As for CHERRY and JOE, they lack depth that would garner more of my interest beyond when they were once friends with ADAM, their skating personas (we get only a lick of them as professional adults), and their rivalry/ship fodder. Side note: Matchablossom is now one of my new favorite ship names.

Reki's role in the story is also odd. Langa takes up much of the show's focus given his entrance into the Big Bad World of S. The peanut gallery can't stop talking about him, christening him SNOW. His aptitude to learn new skills thanks to snowboarding is impressive (he nails an ollie in two weeks vs. the other's two months). His sheer existence and mAsSiVe AmOuNtS oF pOtEnIaL is enough to send S's founder into a tizzy. It's understandable why Reki gets insecure and finds his skating to be inferior to the other skaters he's come to meet. After losing his beef with Adam, his worry about getting stronger clashes with hearing about Langa being propped up on his pedestal, in S or otherwise. There's even tension within the group as well (it had me thinking we had a shift in writers on the Japanese side of things. We didn't). The emotional gaslighting Reki endures works well. Maybe too well. It doesn't feel like his character has the same amount of clout or drive pushing him forward in the story. When Reki's able to re-discover why he enjoys skating, the revelation doesn't feel nearly as important as it could be given his absence. This move feels intentional on production's part. Does Langa being the person more things happen to as opposed to around still feel off? Absolutely.

Last but not least, SK8's ending doesn't tie together perfectly. Did we need ADAM to be viciously disgraced, never to show his face around S again? No. However, there's a loss in having him only start to see how his specific form of skating has distanced himself from others and even the sport itself. An unfamiliar world is opening up to him again after years of being sealed away. That's good for his character and how he'll skate going forward. It's not going to impact his life out of S, though, where the investigation into a bribe he took is null after he rats information to the police. It's symbolic of real life events, but doesn't feel satisfying after the build up it had in the back half, especially given the familial pressure the show built up for ADAM throughout the anime. We're getting more content for SK8 in the future (likely once Utsumi's next project, Bucchigiri, wraps). Maybe we'll find more answers there? That being said, the show still feels cohesive enough from how its main plot wraps despite my unease. Fans are going to get a complete story no matter what.

My thematic attachment to SK8 was a big reason why the story stuck with me. Even with the framing issues I had, the anime was still engaging enough to make skateboarding appealing and, yes, like its title, infinite. The trials its characters went through made for exciting races and tender moments that left me in a giddy nostalgic pool. There's something for everyone even if you're not here for the queer. There are parts that could have been better, but the end product still made this anime a fun companion.


For a high energy anime like this, it's only natural its characters matched that output. While I won't be covering all of the S racers in depth, I'll touch on all of them so no one feels left out. Another strong point of this anime? Its meshing of the old and the new. The generations don't clash here; save that for the courts. Even if ADAM's power cut through the joy, the power of skating with friends won't become last season's duds.

Reki's up first:

What drives Reki to skate? That's the question his internal monologue poses in the show's first scene (which gets a beautiful parallel at the end). Is it the fame? Is it the women? Nope. For Reki, skating gives him a rush that he can't find anywhere else. After getting introduced to it by a childhood friend of his, this boy's life hasn't been the same since. Dope Sketch sang to him in a way other high school part time jobs wouldn't. His enthusiasm also lends itself into creating and designing his own skate equipment. S is a safe space for him. It's this logic that gives him the confidence to introduce Langa to it and become involved with some of S's best outside the beefs.

There's insecurity tucked away under his happy-go-lucky shell, though. After losing to ADAM in attempting to stand up for MIYA's honor (blame the Love Hug), Reki gets his first real taste of the dangers skaters face in injuries and going up against an "out of their league" opponent. ADAM's condition if he won the beef was to compete against Langa. Reki asks Langa to heed the warnings he got and chose to ignore now that he's had the chance to go up against The Master himself. After that friend of his got seriously injured in his early skateboarding days, Reki knows what injuries can do to a person's psyche and the consequences of pushing themselves to the limit. Unfunnily enough, you can guess what happens from there when Langa and ADAM do end up doing their beef, the former going to-to-toe with The Master before ending in a draw, and how that starts to unravel Reki's confidence. He's now unable to put his needs first now that his involvement with S has grown. The association with Langa's growing fame and S's top skaters leads S attendees to find him as insignificant as a fly buzzing around your kitchen. It turns out Reki's belief in himself is more important to him than the show initially makes you think.

It's only when Reki attempts to cut ties with S and distance himself from Langa and the other skaters, even missing ADAM's initial tournament announcement, that he starts to realize he's lost the reason why skateboarding is so dear to him along the way. Cheering on those he cares about doesn't give him the same amount of joy as actually competing does. If he can't fit in both places, where does he belong? It's only after almost getting run over by Tadashi post fleeing from Langa that he can confront his self-doubt and re-discover the simplicity of skating as an art form. He doesn't need to compete with his new friends (and potentially more in Langa's case). Instead, all he has to know his strengths and use them to his advantage, hooting and hollering all along the way.

For as insightful as Reki's character arc is, I still find it weird that he doesn't feel like SK8's protagonist whatsoever. There are several reasons for this, many I've already discussed. One I haven't elaborated on yet is Reki's role as a mentor to Langa. This role establishes a distance from Reki's role in the plot from the start. Rather than being the one who is involved in S's beefs and seeing him grow due to them (Langa), Reki lives vicariously through Langa's accomplishments, only inserting himself into a race early on when ADAM insults MIYA. The distance only grows once his self-confidence hits its lowest point, and despite having a resolution, it doesn't make his re-discovered passion for the sport feel as important as it should. Even Okouchi notices this discrepancy, having ADAM dub Reki a third wheel when he invites the latter to compete in the tournament after orchestrating SHADOW's removal.

That doesn't mean I didn't like Reki. His boisterousness and relationship with skating remind me of the leads from Wave and Backflip, Masaki and Shotaro. He may not be a noob to the titular sport in question, but he still needs to learn how to lean into his ambition without getting lost in the sea of self-doubt (which is easy to do sometimes). His energy level is always at 100% before the angst kicks in, yet that arc in question gives him a new sense of confidence that makes him feel different compared to the character he started as. I did like how his self-doubt started to hit once he lost to ADAM, but it did feel overwhelming mid show that it had me thinking about another character whose prime arc was their own wallowing (Chidori from Kiznaiver). It hurt and was annoying to see Reki continually beat himself up to the point where he turns in his S sticker (!), and doesn't fight back when a group of people he used to skate with antagonize him. In his eyes, he deserved it because he feels like the lowest of the low.

His friendship with Langa was also a highlight of SK8. Once the two are able to patch up their differences, they ease back into their old relationship like two peas in a pod, with a nice dose of mutual attraction underscoring it. It's easy to see how much Reki enjoys seeing Langa skate despite getting caught up in their differences, and they're able to bounce off each other in a way only the closest friends can (despite not knowing each other for very long). You can spin all the theories about what Reki promises to do with Langa before the tournament's finale (seeing as the anime cuts away from its audio), but there's a care and commitment in the two promising to be by each other's sides to prove the infinite possibilities skating can offer. Did I wish I liked Reki in a way other fans did? Yes. However, his character was still solid despite feeling off as a lead in his own story.

Now for Langa:

This isn't the first time Okouchi's developed a deuteragonist to work in tandem or counter the show's protagonist. We've got Code Geass's Suzaku Kururugi, Guilty Crown's Gai Tsutsugami, and DEVILMAN crybaby's Ryo Asuka lined up and ready to defend this stance. What makes Langa fascinating as a character compared to what I've seen/heard of the other three properties is how SK8 directly spits him into the action thanks to Reki's encouragement. Following his father's death, Langa hasn't been able to find passion in the sport that used to bring him joy. Skateboarding not only allows him to re-claim that emotion, but tap into his extensive training and let his wheels soar. When did Langa start snowboarding? When he was two. He's a second year in high school, so I'll let you do the math.

The sports end up being fairly transferrable. Even with some difficulty, Langa's able to soak up different moves and tricks that allow the spotlights to shine directly on him. The emotions he doesn't often express in real life get transmitted to his skating. Like Reki, he doesn't have any outside motivation beyond how he feels on the course. As long as he has a good skating partner (iykyk), he can feel that adrenaline rush on the board that calls back to the days spent with his dad on the slopes, and he's comfortable in taking a risk (and there are plenty), the street cred he gains throughout the show? Earned.

Langa also has the most implicit queer coding in the show. There are a few scenes where he eats dinner with his mom, the latter fretting about how unexpressive her kid is and trying to figure out how best to communicate with him (because teenagers). In Episode 8, after Reki pushes Langa away due to his anxiety and using a promise they made to each other as an excuse to do so, Nanako wonders if her son is having relationship troubles. She tells him that no matter what happens, she hopes he and the girl in question will be able to make up. Confused, Langa repeats the word girl in Japanese, kanojo, as a question. Adding in the fact that his confession of wanting to skate with Reki infinitely two episodes later has a romantic tilt makes it clear Langa's feelings towards Reki aren't as platonic as SK8 wants to spin it.

Beyond the conversations with JOE in the anime's back half (that goes for him and Reki), Langa also isn't associated with any female characters in a romantic subtext. True, there aren't a lot of named female characters, but when the only woman he interacts with is his mom, and the only indirect contact he has is when Reki asks him how he would hit on a unnamed woman in Episode 6 (I have a feeling she was the same person voiced by Saori Hayami in Episode 2), it's pretty telling beyond some overt affection displayed elsewhere in the show. Their relationship might not stoke the shipper flames that reside in my heart, but them spending time together was sweet. Even more so once they made up. Give it up for framing!

Combining this with how engaging Langa is as a character made him easy to gravitate to from SK8's start. The audience gets to see his initial interactions with S first hand with him getting multiple chances to show his chops in beefs an added bonus. Langa's background in snowboarding was a smart writing move as it gives him reason why he's a great skater beyond being a Special Snowflake (further irony with this). I also liked seeing him getting to stake in a variety of ways, noting the emotional differences he felt while in the moment. What he lacks in Reki's boisterousness comes through when he's on the board. Although Langa isn't very expressive, there's more to him than meets the eye. It was easy to cheer him on and hope the anime would give him the chance to grow further, patch things up with Reki, and be his own skater without completely owning his nickname (I chalk it up as a generation thing). Those qualities and the fact the plot happened to drift around actions he took in S accidentally made him the lead to watch out for. Part of me can't complain.

I'm now going to lean into some of S's top racers. I'll be using both their real and skater names to give their personas on and off the track more depth. We're starting with none other than S's greatest antihero, SHADOW:

SHADOW in S was one of the first things I saw once this show started airing. A skater who looked like a Gene Simmons/The Demon and Lars Ümlaüt fusion (incidentally, Simmons did the VO for Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock's story mode)? Consider me snagged like late ace teen Jack seeing Usagi from Juuni Taisen for the first time. Long live iconic character designs!

What's even funnier is that SHADOW outside of S couldn't be more different. His real name is Hiromi Higa, part time 24 year old hard working flower shop employee. Don't you forget it, either (the age part). He hopes to one day earn the admiration of his boss as he has a not so subtle crush on her. I'd say SK8 even goes so far as to indirectly state he enters the tournament in its back half to win her over as both worker and skater. Hiromi does a great job keeping his work and non work life separate, even if at times, I could tell that rock and roll soul was batting against his work persona (and I'm not just talking about him using his work truck as transportation).

The sensitive soul all but vanishes in beefs. SHADOW is brash, intimidating, and isn't afraid to shake other skaters by using tricks in order to get ahead. His antagonistic introduction as Reki and Langa's opponent is only a piece of the complicated puzzle that is ADAM. While Hiromi knows he can play dirty, there's a difference between him and S's founder's skating styles. Sure, they're both intimidating, but at least SHADOW wouldn't be the type of person to let you wind up in the hospital with broken bones. You'd just get a good scare. Maybe lightly degraded?

These two personalities clash once SHADOW spends time with Reki, Langa, and MIYA both in and out of S. Although Hiromi can be a softie, he wouldn't be a cinnamon roll by the meme standards. He's easily angered with plenty of buttons to push, yet he still cares and wants what's best for his fellow skaters beyond his teasing. It gave his impetus for the tournament more depth for me even if the anime didn't follow through with it. Outside of not wooing the flower shop owner, he also happens to get cut from the tournament after ADAM has Kazu, that skater from Episode 1, injure him to the point where he can't compete. At least he protected his boss (who probably had no idea why Hiromi was being called SHADOW). I was happy he took a genuine liking to the other skaters as it showed how much life he had. It's more life than it feels like the anime gave him, where it feels he's relegated for comedic gags or mooched off of as the oldest of the core S group (not counting CHERRY or JOE here).

As far as his non skater and skater self are concerned, one of my favorite moments from the show is when the group goes to Miyakojima at the halfway point. Before the beef to the hot springs at night, Hiromi has a bit to drink and falls asleep. Just as the group is ready to head out, he emerges in full makeup and hair, stating the alcohol has burned off thanks to the promise of a good race. Not only was this scene funny, but I also found it gratifying for Hiromi himself. As SHADOW, he's able to express a side to himself he wouldn't otherwise. Hobbies are a way for us to find something we're passionate about. If they happen to clash like Hiromi's, so be it. Both flower tending and skating make him happy. The interests fuse to make him a multifaceted flat character who's ready for the opportunity to be more.

Will we get there with another season? I hope so. How the anime handled SHADOW as it came to a close wasn't my favorite. There was plenty of friction in granting more opportunities for Hiromi to shine and sticking him in his "lane." That lane happened to be the comedic sidekick, which could work if it felt like the show wasn't working against his dreams for the LOLs. That frame with MIYA and him in the opening where the former's in front and the latter's a speck on the horizon? I'll take foreshadowing for 200, Alex. It's clear SK8's priorities didn't include wanting to see SHADOW through, which is a pity. He's the kind of good dark vibrancy that not only made me laugh, but was excited to get to know more of.

Speaking of dark vibrancy:

Welcome ADAM, AKA Ainosuke Shindo, to the fold. The founder of S, the beacon of this show's queer energy to rival any drag performer, and my favorite character. As I feel the intense glares of several SK8 fans by admitting this fact, let me backtrack and talk about his history before I go into detail about why he works for me on multiple levels.

Skating has been a secret passion of Ainosuke's ever since he was young (I'll get into why in a bit). From birth, his family, but especially his aunts and father, have only wanted one thing: For Ainosuke to be the next head of the Shindo family. Not only in politics, but in passing down the family genes. Years of verbal and physical abuse have toughed Ainosuke to the point that his skating persona has been crafted from years of repression. Skating gives him a chance to dabble in the luxuries he wouldn't otherwise in public. You know, the opposite of the shady deals and insider trading in his corporate life. Getting busted as a young adult hasn't stopped him from going after the thing he loves most. He's able to smoke in public, dress extravagantly, and express desire he'd only let slip to the closest person in his immediate circle. That, and the racers in S. Well, actually, make that just one.

When Langa skates his way into his first S beef, ADAM immediately takes notice. It goes beyond dubbing him Little Langa (Langa-kun), giving him roses when they race for the first time, and keeping tabs on whenever he jumps back on his board. A deep obsession takes hold. With the newbie's skill, ADAM feels he now has an equal he can match against in races. He's too perfect, opponents are as fascinating as developing mold. Not with EVE by his side. Skating's something Ainosuke can be excited about again. Maybe Langa reminds him of his younger self before he veered down his current dark, stormy road? In any case, a near defeat at getting the chance to compete with Langa in the tournament causes ADAM to skate his way to a dress shop a la Lifetime movie villain to rush order a new ensemble:

Just seeing this sharp contrast in costumes is fascinating. From a thematic standpoint, A+. From a reference standpoint, I can hear Jasmine Kennedie's voice in my ear now doing a spin on her Drag Race entrance quote, because this is, in fact, the funeral look. Whereas ADAM's main outfit is a vibrant red and black, the blue and black combo here feels cold and distant. It poses as a fascinating finale piece for ADAM, who not only lines up his skating aesthetic to Langa's own color wise with it, but figuratively dies and gets reborn during this beef. Don't you just love overt symbolism?

It's been a while since I've felt this attached to a series villain. ADAM encompasses several qualities to make a great one. There's his signature moves (him debuting Full Swing Kiss was enough to make me break out "5 Fingaz to the Face"), how he owns his charisma on and off the skateboard, his family drama, and how he only lets select people see who he truly is. He may use an actual mask to hide himself compared to Hiromi's makeup, yet unlike SHADOW, there's a mix of shame ADAM seems to briefly address in his "darkest" moments. This shame is in himself. It's something I doubt he's fully processed after almost going to jail/carting Tadashi off to jail as his scapegoat, but one can dream.

What makes ADAM work as effectively as he does is his nuance. We're not supposed to root for him because he's a trash human being, but we can't look away as he litters the ground with roses, rust-encrusted diamonds, and queer tears. In my case, the ways in which he both embraces and weaponizes his not subtextual queerness kept me enamored to the screen and mulling over him months afterward. Skating is a place where Ainosuke can soak up every single thing he was told as ADAM, and yet he also uses it as his own place to hide. His position at the top of the dogpile in SK8 has Reki idolizing him at the start of the series, and even then, ADAM uses this love against the latter in their beef. If we were uneasy towards ADAM beforehand meddling MIYA, that was the point where we jumped ship. Not me, though. I sat perched on my couch, thinking, "Tell me more, wise one." As a walking contradiction, ADAM made for a fascinating character study. He's easily my favorite anime character of the year, and easily broke into my top twelve of all time. This is how you craft a captivating and fun antagonist.

P.S. After listening to this album post watching this show (and seeing that the lead off single dropped while I was watching it), I dub Slayyyter's Starfucker my official soundtrack for Ainosuke Shindo/ADAM. "Dramatic" is the song I get the most life from/ADAM out of.

Last but not least for my full character breakdowns, we have Tadashi:

Tadashi has been Ainosuke's right hand man in the business world, but he's been a part of his life for longer than that. The two met as kids since the Kikuchis worked for the Shindos. Tadashi was tasked to look over Ainosuke. He did that, but a deeper friendship also blossomed. One day, Ainosuke found Tadashi on a skateboard and immediately became interested in learning more about the sport. The foundation of ADAM's skills we can all thank Tadashi for. You wouldn't guess based on how he's treated now. The gratitude Ainosuke showed towards Tadashi in his childhood? Out the window. Tadashi is now seen as a dog, willingly following Ainsouke/ADAM's commands without double-questioning them. Call it twisted trust, call it classism, or call it demeaning. Tadashi's enough of a wet blanket; he can take it as far as Ainosuke's concerned!

But you see, Tadashi has a plan. Blaming himself for ADAM's evolution as a skater, Tadashi decides to enter the tournament ADAM holds in the second half of the series behind his back. Going under the moniker SNAKE, all eyes go to him as someone who could out-master The Master himself. I can see where these compliments come from, since he shows off some techniques ADAM has made part of his brand. Naturally, Ainosuke hates this because he has to be number one, yet Tadashi has another goal. Being the one person who's seen firsthand how Ainosuke's relationship with skating has warped to the point where he's only in it for the money, the power, and all the glory (and let's be real in continuing to paraphrase Lana, that's not what any of the other "bitches" want), if Tadashi ends up winning the tournament as SNAKE, he plans to take the sport away from his boss entirely. How? It's unclear. But this gatekeep flex is the most power we've seen him attempt to consider throughout the series.

At the end of the day, SNAKE decides to forfeit after Reki enters the tournament following SHADOW's forced removal. Upon seeing Reki's love for the sport evident in the beef (despite the fact that he loses again, albeit not due to Love Hug), it reminds Tadashi of Ainosuke's own relationship to skating growing up. There, he could escape from the pressures his family put him under and discover a new world for himself. It's a world he still loves, but it hasn't come without its own costs (and repression). SNAKE believe ADAM can re-discover the skating he abandoned if he goes up against Langa in the tournament's finale, and in stepping out, hopes the competitive edge that's fueled S's founder's style can begin to dissipate. By the end of the series, there's a start, but I wonder how long it'll stick if Season 2 wheels around with no new antagonist/s (in which case, I will be disappointed).

I honestly wasn't expecting Tadashi to get much development at the start of the series. The opening foreshadows it, sure, but part of his character arc is the fact he's Ainosuke's right hand man. His life is shaped around what his superior does, getting reprimanded for not being a good puppy (which a dub compilation told me Ainosuke refers to Tadashi as at least once), and being responsible for building the ADAM character. Due to this close relationship, Tadashi's developed a dependency. It's not healthy, and one of the reasons why I don't romantically ship these two (hasn't stopped others, though). Does this mean I wasn't fascinated by it? No. Tadashi still has respect for the man he grew up with to the point where he blames himself for the person his boss has become. If only he hadn't introduced Ainosuke to skateboarding, then his descent into Competitive Hell wouldn't have happened.

This internal gaslighting also opens up the analytic possibility of Tadashi feeling he deserves the kind of treatment he gets from Ainosuke. It's clear the breaking point in their relationship, at least until the insider trading's cleaned up, is when Tadashi is set up to take the fall should Ainosuke's role go south. This spurs Tadashi into action, because while he may be powerless to his boss, he still holds the power in their relationship's start. SNAKE as a name is fitting to me. He immediately slithers his way from Mystery Man to Top Contender, but it's also a not so subtle fuck you. Tadashi's standing up for himself in the only way he knows how, and that, my friends, is what we call commendable. This even leads him to persuade Reki to try and drop skating permanently (you know, after he turned in his badge) because of the sport's "association" with delinquency and his own abating (?) self-hatred.

Does he still yearn for Ainosuke's approval? Absolutely. The final scene of the anime gives us the proof in the pudding for that. Some things may never change, but maybe this new sign of respect means Tadashi has more of an incentive to stay by his boss's side, for better or worse. He could tell ADAM had a kind of fun in that last beef that he was worried wouldn't face the music again. All this rolled into one makes Tadashi a compelling character to follow throughout the show's run. I like how he was written to be both assertive, yet fall back into old habits when all is said and done. We won't see him cut his losses. Whether that's a yay or not is undetermined. What we do know? He has more power than he thinks he does, and I would love to see him skate again for good times sake once production on Season 2 gets underway. 

P.P.S. On the topic of Slayyyter, this song off Starfucker illustrates Tadashi and Ainosuke's relationship for me to a T.

Other characters in the SK8 world include:

CHERRY BLOSSOM, aka Kaoru Sakurabayashi, who uses an AI board named Clara to take his refined racing to the top. He doesn't take your bullshit, especially with his old skating partner/rival, who I'll briefly talk about next. Outside of skating, he's a famous AI calligrapher.

JOE, aka Kojiro Nanjo, who uses his honed strength to his advantage in S. He owns and works at an Italian restaurant outside of skating, and has a reputation for being a complete flirt. Normally, I like these characters in reverse harems if they have other traits to balance them out (like backstory, magical girl appreciation, or me at fourteen heart eyeing a sexy voice (purely for Hiroyuki Yoshino as Debito)). Is it not enough development, having Flirt encompass his personality outside of the minor glimpse into his, Kaoru, and Ainosuke's past/s, or wanting more fuel for the iconic Matchablossom ship that I didn't get? The jury's out for now. I could prefer himbos?

Miya Chinen, who goes by his first name in beefs, the young prodigy whose drive to become stronger has led him to develop a competitive attitude, driving away potential allies and old skateboarding friends. This is until he meets Reki and posse. He's also a big fan of video games and refers to people he doesn't like as "slime." Out of the other racers, he was the most interesting to me because of how he was put on a pedestal by his parents, Ainosuke, and himself. That, and I think a part of every viewer just vibed with the cat hood.

Our dutiful sides are Shokichi Oka, the owner of Dope Sketch, his pet fox Sketchy, Lenga's mother (Nanako), Lenga's father (Oliver), Kiriko Kamata, the lead investigator in the case against Ainosuke, Ainosuke's aunts and father, the woman who we see in Episodes 2 and 6 (her name is Ema according to the SK8 Wiki), a police chief and a member of Ainosuke's team involved in the latter's political organization (and its corruption), the floral shop manager, Reki's mom and siblings, Miya's former friend, Takashi, the former's parents, the twice appearing skater Kazu, and his once appearing girlfriend Miki.


The animation for this series was produced by BONES, who are known for their work on Soul Eater, Bungo Stray Dogs, and Noragami.

Right off the boat, SK8 declares what it is, and fuck apologies. Beacons of light radiate off of this project. It's clear in several aspects. I immediately clicked with how colorful the characters and their senses of style looked. We get to know them as people even before they open their mouths. This is the second time group aesthetics have played a role in Utsumi's work, and I have to hand it to her. Her staff knows what they're doing with them. Masculinity and femininity collide in satisfying ways to give each skater their own flair.

This translates into the actual movement, too. Winter 2021 was a busy season for BONES (but depending on the studio, which one isn't?). They never neglected to make the S beefs lose fluidity or pizazz. I was impressed by some of the tricks the characters were able to pull off, both official skating ones and otherwise. They gave me the rush street racing games did when I was a teen, drifting along empty streets to an impressive electro pop soundtrack. When the slight animation dips happened, the beefs still managed to look good, and that's what was important to me. It's another way that this series uses its medium to communicate skating's draw as both activity and sport. I wouldn't be surprised if several viewers got into the sport because of this show. If it looks this cool, and you can deck out your gear like that, why not give it a chance? Time to hit up a local skate shop, and if you don't have one, maybe Zumiez!

I also have SK8 to thank for making me notice skateboarder form as I walk across my grad school campus. The boarders always seem to know what they're doing among busy student and car traffic with their headphones on. It's a contrast to the occasional quiet Reki and Langa find in Okinawa. Everyone gets props.


The score for this series was composed by Ryo Takahashi, who is also known for two of my favorite anime scores of 2017 (Classroom of the Elite and Code:Realize), along with more recent work such as High Card.

What initially appealed me to Takahashi's work was how he was able to combine both classical and electronic elements in ways that benefited both an alternate past and a not so distant future. Seeing his name attached to SK8 while watching it got me excited, since I knew he'd bring this magic to a world where skateboarding is power. This starts the moment the show begins with the Main Theme. With light rap accentuating the electronic melody with light guitar, you know you'll be in for a good time.

This score is another way I was able to see my hours spent on Need for Speed and Forza Horizon in its mash-up of genres. Rock and electronic music work together here, creating a soundscape that's both lush and unapologetically brash. The S pieces bring the competitive drive to the beefs ("The Eyes of Insanity" gives me Taku Iwasaki a la Jormungand) that brings me right to the track. "Cracked and Flamed" is a back half track that gives fire and left me on the edge of my seat as ADAM's tournament progressed. "Lonely Skate Boy" captures the apprehension Reki faces when his self-doubt comes in. Finally, "The Way of Thaw" is aptly named for the moment it pops up in during the final episode, and for what it signifies. Takahashi displays another compelling mix to keep my attention and feel like I'm about to give it my all alongside our characters, or just feel like I'm in a reality TV show, living my Top Model runway fantasies in ways only IDOLiSH7 can. I had no complaints.

I was also happy with the Japanese voice acting for SK8. I did watch a couple episodes of the dub, and while I liked some of the voices, did feel the broadcast mixing was too muffled for my tastes (I'm going to clock not recording in studio because of quarantine), along with the script feeling too exuberant at times, potentially for the sake of fanservice if nothing else (some of the things Ainosuke/ADAM says are questionable). I felt the original Japanese track nailed the perfect balance between high camp and why so serious. I liked getting to hear both Tasuku Hatanaka and Chiaki Kobayashi in context for the first time after hearing good things about them. The former brings the perfect amount of enthusiasm to Reki even at his low points, and the latter gives Langa aloofness while still showing he's got a good head on his shoulders. There's a great mix of anime faves and up and coming talent, too. It shouldn't come as a surprise that my favorite seiyuu is Takehito Koyasu, who pretty much sells ADAM in the only way you'd expect and milks every minute of it. The contrast between his voice in and out of S to Kenta Miyake's as Hiromi/SHADOW is also interesting, given SHADOW out of makeup feels more like a character than his skating persona does. It's a fun contrast.

Other highlights include Hikaru Midorikawa (as always, he delivers), Yasunori Matsumoto (who I've been incidentally hearing more of in the past couple years, and gives Joe the perfect amount of machismo), Takuma Nagatsuka (he brings the good energy to Miya), Kensho Ono (who reads like an older Mika as Tadashi), Takako Honda (who continues to play serious characters well, but my basis for that in Nightmare Moon/Princess Luna), Kenta Okuma (Best Manager), Mie Sonozaki (who takes Concerned Mom into a different realm, and for more episodes), Masaya Fukunishi (I've grown on him. Thank Haikyuu), all of Ainosuke's aunts, and Saori Hayami (once a fave, always a fave).


SK8 was able to give me an immersive anime experience I hadn't gotten the chance to live before. Here's a show that comes close to flaunting its unapologetic self at every corner, reminding me of my childhood, how masculinity and femininity can co-exist, and sprinkling in some memorable characters along the way. This doesn't mean it didn't have its fair share of problems. Okouchi both steps to the plate and strikes out with some story and character beats (although don't think that doesn't meant I don't appreciate how he crafts character here), how our posse forms lingers beneath the ground, and the ending could have hit stronger. That said, SK8 was still able to be the most memorable show I watched this year because of how much I connected to it. Its flaws may be noticeable, but I still crossed the finish line feeling indulged, reflective, and ready to stan Ainosuke Shindo/ADAM. It'd be a waste of time for me to consider if I would have latched onto this show's themes had I seen it the year it came out. It'll stand the test of time in some shape or form.

Will Season 2 be able to do the same? It's hard to say. Again, despite some of the subplots not getting closure, the main story comes to a satisfying conclusion in a way where more content may not be needed. There's a portion of my brain that's interested to see what will happen with this world, though. Will we get a new Big Bad? Can Ainosuke do more to show he has a changed heart and isn't still slimy? Will we get more S skaters who give new meaning to the sport? Could two of those characters be twins for the aesthetic with something else waiting in the wings?

If reality TV can do it, so can SK8!

For all my queer anime fans out there, this show is definitely worth a watch if you're into sports shows, queer subtext/text, colorful animation, and good feels all around. For the anime viewers who find Utsumi's work to be fujoshi bait, I'd consider taking a peak at this and seeing if it'll change your mind. SK8's got more to it than meets the eye. It might not deliver on all its surprises, but that doesn't mean you won't have fun while you consume it.

Score: 8/10


Show depicts skating in a variety of forms and as appealing to everyone

Main story is engaging with a couple fun turns tabled

Round characters are engaging and easy to sympathize with

Ainosuke Shindo/ADAM

Colorful animation with cool skateboarding tricks

Fun OST and voice acting


Homoeroticism both lands and strikes out

How the main group forms isn't my favorite

Reki doesn't feel like the protagonist in his own story

The flat characters are quasi flat (SHADOW deserved better)

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Hallmark Movie Starter Pack: Your Guide to Getting Sucked into the Hallmark Vortex

Hallmark Movie Starter Pack: Your Guide to Getting Sucked into the Hallmark Vortex

Warning: The following post is all in good fun. I will be poking fun at several aspects of Hallmark movies, but I also want to appreciate the joy they've given me over the last four and a half years. Will this inspire readers to watch Hallmark content? Hard to say. If not, I hope you enjoy my shenanigans.

Let's roll:

It's been a while since I've done a post like this. Jumping back to my first year with the blog, I wrote two tongue-in-cheek posts about how a reader could create a popular anime series and love interests using a variety of tropes I had seen or read about. They have both aged and aren't funny to the same writer who has since graduated from high school and undergrad, gotten job/s, and plans on going back to school in the fall to obtain a MLIS degree. While some tropes still exist and continue to flourish to the chagrin/delight of anime fans around the world, it's not content I feel I should be writing about now. Plus, thinking I was an expert of several genres of anime at fifteen right before I started really consuming shows? Not a good look.

Hallmark expert I am also not, but I can safely say my consumption has been able to help me get a firm grasp on the channel's content. It can be cheesy and melodramatic at times, other people will dub it safe, and Hallmark Media's movies and series aren't going to be winning awards anytime soon for going above and beyond. However, some of the predictability, actors who have become channel staples that I like, the Canadian voice actor crossover, and creating the perfect Hallmark Viewing Experience keeps me coming back for more. From romance to mystery, the hilarious (in good and bad ways) to the tugging at your heartstrings, Hallmark Media has something for everyone. From a queer anime fan whose teen fascination with reverse harems, anime men who looked pretty, Top Model, 2000s shojo, and BL doujins were all signs that led me down this avenue, I can back it up.

With all the saccharine content, it's hard to know where to start. Luckily, I'm here to help. I'm going to be breaking down Hallmark Media's programming and highlighting a few franchises/movies I think would be perfect for first-time viewers. I've referenced some of these on my blog before, but I'll be breaking more of the reasons down as to why I think they're good. We'll then continue on with a few production companies, Hollywood stars whose careers have gotten revitalized thanks to the Hallmarkies, and Canadian actors from some of your childhoods/voice actors from anime and cartoons you might commonly see. You'll not only get a good dose of Hallmark knowledge, but if you wind up enjoying what I bring up, more content awaits you. Get ready to laugh, scream, take swigs, and eat food you think will be perfect pairings for the "schlok" that is the Hallmark Vortex.

P.S. While Hallmark Media has produced multiple series, I have only seen two of them: Cedar Cove and Chesapeake Shores. As such, they will not be covered.


Given I started my journey with the mystery moves, it only make sense our first stop involves dusting off our magnifying glasses. I've seen most of the 2010s mystery content Hallmark Media's pumped out. From the one-offs to the franchises longtime stans have come to know and love, you'll long for the days when you were growing up, reading Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and those pocket book mysteries/thrillers your junior high library carried. I'm a sucker for a good mystery. There have been a few duds, but as long as the mystery doesn't make my head spin, clues are well-established, and culprits are fun to guess (patterns are everywhere), I'm good to go. The me from three years ago eating an entire bag of microwave kettle corn with pretzel M&M's during one of these movies holds up his bowl in agreement.

Let's start things off with a series that's a cozy classic:


Hannah Swensen/Murder, She Baked

I still remember stumbling upon this series at the local library when I was twelve. Taking in the colorful covers with mouthwatering art, Kensington did its job in luring my hand into the literary cookie jar. I wasn't a big reader at that point; it'd be about a year before ShadesInColors' Anibabe's Next Top Model turned me to Divergent and a whole swimming pool of YA titles. But I had fun with the mysteries I ended up reading over the next couple of years. Despite the newer entries tapering off with Wedding Cake Murder in 2016, re-reading Cream Puff Murder (my first) makes me want to revisit old titles and explore new ones. Can a culprit showdown get any more epic than fighting in a river? I'm curious to find out.

Hallmark Media fans might make the argument that Lori Loughlin and Candance Cameron Bure's mystery projects helped lay the foundation for the current mystery movie programming. That's true. But Murder, She Baked not only cemented it, it helped lead to a Hallmark movie boom. Here was a series that had plenty of crossover appeal, its two leads were soap opera famous, and British Columbia became home to several TV movies needed to be filmed within three weeks or less. It's a formula that has stuck to this day.

Ignoring the second movie for exuding ridiculousness to the point where Mike and Norman were attempting a pissing contest (not literally) at an auction, the other movies have been entertaining and fun to watch. Alison Sweeney plays Hannah really well and has gotten more comfortable with being on camera for Hallmark thanks to this series. I like how she works with all of her cast members (specifically Lisa Durupt, who plays one of Hannah's younger sisters, Andrea; she is absent in the sixth and seventh movies), and the adaptation doesn't make the love triangle drag out like in the books. It's clear production was more into Mike than Norman (which is the same of the fanbase), so after a quick introduction, shenanigans, and a Norman focus in Peach Cobbler, Mike is established as endgame after the fourth movie and at the start of the fifth. By the end of Just Desserts, they're engaged. It does lead to some rehashed conflict, but at least it's a far cry from what was going on in the books at this time. Hannah realizing she loved Ross after Fluke re-introduced him after almost ten years and they immediately got engaged? The puzzle pieces don't fit.

My favorite from the franchise has been A Deadly Recipe, which is an adaptation of Fudge Cupcake Murder. Not only does the book's titular dessert contain one of my favorite sweet foods (chocolate), but it was my favorite mystery out of the ones I read when I was in junior high. The changes Teena Booth (she wrote Cyberbully before jumping over to Hallmark Media) and Kraig Wenman (he adds fun mystery banter and one-liners) made to what I remember of the book worked. It has iconic crossover actors from my childhood (my top two favorite being Ord from Dragon Tales and Rainbow Dash from Generation 3 MLP). There was an intense showdown I didn't expect that doesn't play out in the book (I enjoy how it starts). It contains one of the busiest scenes of any Hallmark movie I've seen (my mind flashes to The Room). Finally, the ADR mixing is not up to speed with other properties I've seen (though in TV movie land, I can't expect pristine). A Deadly Recipe hits a soft spot for the Hallmark fan in me. I'm crossing my fingers coming back to Fudge Cupcake Murder proves only as tantalizing.

Sweet Revenge also ended up being a better mystery revival than other Hallmark mystery properties in 2021 (the poor Morning Show mystery franchise is cowering in a corner). Marcy Holland was able to carry on the torch from the previous writers (the last of which was frequent Sweeney collaborator, Melissa Salmons, who returned for the recent one), utilizing elements from Cream Puff Murder effectively. Delores, in particular, was a hoot. She reminds me of my maternal grandmother at her most persuasive. Barbara Niven really hammed it up here to a degree she didn't in Peach Cobbler. I was entertained by every scene she was in, especially when she insinuated Hannah made the wrong choice in getting engaged to Mike during her book reading (a big SMH right there). In place of Andrea, we got Michelle, so we now have a complete canon Swensen family. The book launch was decked out, we had convincing suspects that were mostly modeled off of the suspects in Fluke's novel, and one of my favorite BC Fave side actors, Lucia Walters, got to play detective once again. Even with a switch in production company, you could still feel the original essence of what's made this series special to its fanbase. It may not have been perfect (for a reason I listed above and the culprit reveal. Although it had basis in the book, one of my mystery pet peeves ended up being followed). Yet it was still enjoyable.

The next two franchises since I've developed this post have been canceled/quasi-confirmed as canceled due to Hallmark actors shifting to work with former Hallmark Media president Bill Abbott at GAC, a newer television network that also promises family friendly programming (just with "squeaky clean" extremely conservative connections). While more Murder, She Baked is coming (hint: the seventh's based off the book where that iconic culprit confrontation is from), given Cameron Mathison's presence on GAC (two TV movies that have aired at this point), I'm not sure where Hannah and Mike's romance will go from here (Carrot Cake Murder had a dramatic and interesting twist). In the meantime, for a franchise that looked like it wouldn't see the light of day again at a certain point (2019), Murder, She Baked is definitely worth a watch. It's got iconically bad moments, plenty of desserts, and successfully evolves with the rise of other mystery movie series programming. It's a great introduction to this media form I've come to know and (mostly) love.

Mystery 101

It still stings that we aren't going to get more movies in this series after the cliffhanger of the last one. Is there a script written for an eighth? Yes, and the writer has shared his plans for it. Luckily, I have the ViaVision collections outside of that podcast episode. The added content only makes them more valuable in my eyes.

I've briefly covered the start of this series in 2019, while movies three and four were in production and set to air in the fall. But I feel what I wrote there doesn't scratch the surface of what I feel about the series now. To be blunt (and excuse my not literal French), it's the shit. The build-up to each new installment filled me with the anticipation that's been familiar since I got into anime. And that's just the filming news. I lapped up the trailers, the stills, and the press information. I'm on the edge of my seat whenever I watch an "episode," even if I've seen it before. And I ship Amy and Travis with the dedication of a fujoshi shonen shipper. The progress in their relationship, with minimal tension, was refreshing after the Garage Sale Mystery series got canned and old flames or love triangles became a mystery staple. Not that Mystery 101 doesn't escape it; one of Amy's former boyfriends pops up in Dead Talk. But at least it doesn't follow a route I (and other Hallmark fans) are all too familiar with.

There are several reasons why this franchise works as well as it does for me. Amy, as a lead, kicks ass. She trusts her gut and makes sure no clue is left unturned, even if it means putting herself in the face of danger (which women mystery leads are warned about to an incessant degree. They're stronger than some men think). When in those sticky situations, John Christian Plummer makes sure Amy's got several ways out of it. I'll never forget the salt pig. I also enjoy her partnership with Travis and how they bond as the movies progress. Professional cop Amy is not. But her literature prowess do come in handy where famous mysteries are concerned. The bookworm in me gets it.

Plummer, as the series' lead and primary writer, also excels at building these cases. Every suspect is involved in some juicy way or another. No plot beat goes unturned here. There are great red herrings, side stories that wind up being more important than the viewer was initially led to believe, and twists that'll shock even the most seasoned mystery fan. Plummer also makes sure there's time for humor, romantic moments, and continuing to develop Amy and Travis beyond their roles as a duo. We find out more about them, what they used to do, and they come into play in the back half of this series. It's deliciously fun.

Mystery 101 also has some of the best cinematography of the Hallmark mystery lineup. Much of the credit goes to Bob Aschmann. He worked on five of the seven movies; Ron Stannett and Ryan McMaster did the other two. Aschmann's framing works well with the muted lighting the series gets. Hallmark mysteries in the late 2010's definitely have a signature style, and while Mystery 101 fits that bill, the editing team makes all the movies look uniform regardless of the changes in staff. Playing Dead's comfy atmosphere makes the theatricality of the mystery itself (ironic, given that it centers around a play) a perfect pairing. Deadly History feels more intense due to McMaster's tighter focus on the characters, the heavier lighting, and the dramatic music cues. The only hiccup is editing that scene with Amy out on the water to be night when you can clearly tell it's day. Regardless, Mystery 101 also excels in having the tightest editing of the mystery programming. Amy's father's house is also the best TV movie home I've seen yet.

It's a struggle to pick a favorite from the seven movies since I've enjoyed all of them. My least favorite's easy; An Education in Murder's the one I remember the least. It premiered during the early days of the pandemic, and my IMDb sleuthing before the movie came out stumbled upon an early added stunt double who happened to be the culprit (to also be repeated with movie 6). The clues were a little more obvious with this mystery, too. It was still fun, though, with some fantastic reveals and the most intense Hallmark mystery showdown ever. An Education in Murder's also the film where Amy and Travis became canon after plenty of build-up, so that made me a happy camper.

What do the other movies do that make them unique? The first case is a great introduction to the series and why Amy is the Best Hallmark Mystery Lead I've Seen, Playing Dead's got a fun batch of suspects and plenty of beautiful plot reveals, Words Can Kill is the most compelling mystery with high stakes as Amy's father winds up arrested due to his believed connection to the main death. Dead Talk has one of the best surprise culprit reveals I have ever seen (not sure if Plummer or Jim Biederman, who co-wrote the script, was in charge of that. Still, my jaw dropped when I first watched the movie). Killer Timing has the best theme (synchronicity) and excels in having a former love interest not competing with a new one. Finally, Deadly History has the best suspect ties to the main mystery itself. Everyone had secrets, and how they were revealed deserves a chef's kiss. We've also got some great acting and fun casting moments all around.

For those reasons (and others), Mystery 101 should be on your Hallmark radar. Its elements are well-executed, its characters are compelling, and there are several reveals that will keep you coming back for more. Ironic, campy enjoyment this isn't. This is pure, unadulterated mystery fun.

Martha's Vineyard

Here's the wildcard of the group. While like other mystery series, Martha's Vineyard is based off a book series (this one by late Philip R. Craig), it's special in the fact each movie was written by different writers. Movies 3 and 4 also brought in writers who hadn't written for Hallmark prior to these movies. Though their IMDb catalogs hint as to why (in Jim Adler's case, working on the MacGyver reboot with Taylor Swift love interest Lucas Till is a pretty big sign), the continuity here is pretty spotless across the board. This can be hard to pull off in some cases if you don't have the "bible," but each writer utilizes it effectively, with some subplots shining more than others.

Martha's Vineyard also pulls off pairing former Hallmark regular Jesse Metcalfe (whose Hallmark boom really started after I saw him on 2 Broke Girls. Funny how that works, given he was already a 2000s heartthrob in John Tucker Must Die and Desperate Housewives) with the only Hallmark property this actor has been in Sarah Lind. I hadn't heard of Lind prior to this (I doubt other Hallmark fans did either), but she's better as Zee than several reviewers give her credit for. Some of her drab delivery helps ground the character and make her seem less hyperanimated. A traditional Hallmark lead is perky and always at attention. Lind has Zee seem more mellow, but still puts enough into the character where her alert bits don't feel forced. Plus, if she was really that wooden, I don't think writer Brooke Purdy would have worked with her twice on two Lifetime movies, where she plays two opposing roles. I'm curious about the one where she's a hero.

Regardless, both actors have good chemistry in a way I wouldn't have expected. Metcalfe brings what he usually does to the table (which I don't have issues with), and Lind is able to bring out the former's softer moments. It makes Jeff and Zee rediscovering their feelings of each other after a one night fling (which is heavily insinuated in the first movie's script) work effectively. The MV adaptation also emphasis the benefit of pacing in exploring a romantic relationship. We've had slow burns, and though we got a kiss in Movie 3, Movie 4 establishes Zee's concerns of hitting the gas too hard given their pasts. It does build up weirdly in the movie, but I liked having that sentiment given some of the other franchise relationships. It's an angle that's getting explored more in some media I've seen, and Hallmark Media developed it as well as they could.

What each movie does consistently well is build on Jeff's backstory. Forced into early retirement after being shot while on the clock, losing one of his partners in the process, memories of what caused it are fuzzy. Was Jeff targeted? How many bullets were fired that day? And who could be connected to this case, especially if the person who attempted to kill Jeff is out there? If this is a subplot in the book series, viewers familiar with that might get more closure with it since we aren't going to get a direct answer. The writing team does make you sympathize with Jeff enough to care about his trauma. The entries are able to space out both the current case and dips into the incident effectively without letting the latter distract from the former. Trips to Boston also help lead Jeff and Zee to new discoveries, as well. They're not all for nothing.

My favorite from the four is the first, A Beautiful Place to Die. Though Riddled with Deceit has that Plummer co-write (and you know how much I love Plummer; see above), the first introduces the world very effectively and has a fun mystery that had a lot of good clues and red herrings (never forget Luke screaming, "GOOSE!" when I re-watched this with him). It was easy to guess the culprit, but the reveal is one of the most intense out of the movie series with an epic chase scene involving a boat. It was also written by the two who wrote the fourth Murder, She Baked movie, but in the reverse order. Teena Booth's revisions don't make Wenman's script lose some of its charm, especially since it doesn't have as much of his humor the other Hallmark projects he's worked on have contained. I'm pleased with that.

If I had to pick a least favorite, it would be Ships in the Night. All the movies have thrilling cases that entertain and throw me for loops, but the pacing and writer transition take a bit to fully settle, and the culprit is pretty apparent from the beginning. It does get counterbalanced by Jeff and Zee's great teamwork, though, which is good. This element is lacking towards the end of the fourth movie (I know Zee can do more than just be backup). That aside, Martha's Vineyard is an entertaining mystery series that delivers consistently compelling material that doesn't get dull whenever I think about it. Metcalfe and Lind's chemistry is good, I like how Jeff and Zee's relationship developed, and Jeff's backstory never bogs the movies down. There's other Hallmark media with Metcalfe in it you could likely start with (Chesapeake Shores is his Hallmark peak), but this is the most accessible by far.

It's time to move on to a field Hallmark Media has made bank with since the dawn of their company.


We're not only covering the December holidays here, folks. That may be what the networks are known for deep in the fall and early winter, but there's enough content to whet any appetite. A whole gauntlet of tropes is waiting to be explored. What you choose is up to you.

I'll start by highlighting three movies in each seasonal block (but skipping June Weddings as I'm not as familiar with it. It's making a comeback this year after laying dormant thanks to COVID, though) worth checking out for a variety of reasons. Whether surprisingly good, a shift from Hallmark Media standards, or being simply iconic, I'll give a short breakdown on the impressions these TV flicks have given me, or the Hallmark fanbase at large.

The winter flurries are figuratively coming in hot with this set of movies. Get ready, get set...

New Year, New Movies

Hearts of Winter
Given my bias towards Mystery 101, it shouldn't be surprising I'd gravitate towards Jill Wagner's other Hallmark movies (TBD on her GAC ones). Outside of a couple flubs from what I've seen (Christmas Cookies gave me and my brother an inside joke), they usually turn out great. Hearts of Winter is also the first and only time Wagner served as an executive producer for Hallmark, and given her character's occupation in this coming close to her character from the Christmas in Evergreen franchise (which I'm sure is also no more), I can see that being a reason why she gravitated towards this story. I also wouldn't be surprised if she also asked to work with Victor Webster again if her role was bigger than I'm thinking it is.

This movie's got a lot of things going for it. Wagner and Webster have/continue to have great chemistry (depending on which of their movies you watch first), the religious elements aren't too overwhelming for those who don't actively practice, Grant's relationship with his daughter Zoe plays an important part in the plot beyond the main romance (which builds well), and writing duo Alison Spuck and Casie Tabanou include a smart Chekov's gun in the form of an important object to the Oliver family. I pointed it out too soon to my brother on a re-watch. He definitely fixated on it. Finally, despite serving in a role I hope we're steering away from in media, Rukiya Bernard is the best actor in the film. I'm definitely curious to see if she'll get more TV movie work in the future beyond just being an assistant.

In other news, Jill Wagner's accent slips through several times, the word "shipped" is dropped without being cringy, and the smaller supporting cast allows for solid performances from actors I don't see as much (or are typically cast in certain roles) to blossom. Hearts of Winter is a good "safe" choice for non-Hallmark fans for these reasons, and it'll definitely make you want a giant mug of hot cocoa.

A Winter Getaway

I've stated this before, but I'll continue to: S. W. Sessions (which now seems to be an alternate name for writer Steven Sessions. Thank you, IMDb) is one of my favorite Hallmark writers. He's able to pull off what might make newer and experienced Hallmark viewers grit their teeth (clunky exposition, bad dialogue, scenarios that aren't realistic) with a kind of ease that impress me every time I watch a movie with him at the helm. His recent effort, North to Home, shows how that can extend to Hallmark Media's push towards romantic dramas, with a well-developed cast, and some of the best performances from actors across any Hallmark property they've been/I've seen them in period. It's only natural I pick another movie from his batch of work; A Winter Getaway is comforting fun.

Out of the plethora of TV movies where a lead has to fudge an aspect about themselves in order to keep up something already in motion, this is one of my favorites. Sessions allows Courtney and Joe's personalities to come out along with their growing feelings towards each other. We get to see them bond amidst a beautiful landscape, captured perfectly by seasoned Hallmark director Steven R. Monroe and his team, along with cinematographer Thomas M. Harting. Even the GIF I use below that was edited in post because stills exist where you can tell the scene was shot in daylight look pretty with the right amount of mood lighting. Joe pretending he has more money than he actually does builds at a good pace, and Brooks Darnell ends up playing this character convincingly enough given his past work (mainly 70 episodes on soap The Young and the Restless). Add to this great on-screen chemistry with Nazneen Contractor, who I enjoyed in The Christmas Ring, and it's a recipe for success. Even the too loud stock song during the confrontation didn't get me down.

For the first main winter movie with a leading couple who wasn't white (the One film trilogy doesn't count despite the side romance between Rukiya Bernard and Dewshane Williams), A Winter Getaway is a jet setting success. This is a TV film perfect for those cold, snowed-in mornings where going outside isn't on your to-do list. Contractor and Darnell enough beyond the strong writing make this worth a chance.

Love on Ice

The anime community had a field day when Love on Ice was announced. After all, one of the most successful anime of the past decade, which happened to involve ice skating and romance, had just finished airing (hint: the title starts (despite it being a name) with the Japanese word for girls' love), and the plot seemed all too familiar for anime fans thrilled by the trails it blazed. Did Love on Ice copy Yuri on Ice? It didn't. Hallmark employees upon hearing the controversy had never even heard about the series. Did that stop me from enjoying what Love on Ice had to offer? Absolutely not.

Like with Yuri and Victor, there's a strong central relationship with Emily and Spencer. They bring the best out of each other, and we get to see Emily re-embrace a sport she put behind her to take care of her dying mom. The side characters are subtly interesting, especially Emily's current student's mother since she coaches now (played by "legendary" actor Gail O'Grady), the owner of the ice rink (played by the actor who voiced the dad, Dwayne, in the Total Drama Amazing Race spoof, The Ridonculous Race), and Emily's former skating rival who also turned into a coach who meddles (played by Toronto TV movie fave, Kate Drummond). We've got subplots that sort of work, except the romantic subplot triple axeling out of left field. I remember audibly gasping and going, "WHAT?" when I saw this for the first time. The writing is also pretty decent. Coming from a writer who hasn't done a lot of TV movie work, it wasn't too angsty and there were a couple moments that made me laugh. Leslie getting her comeuppance was perfectly executed.

This movie may not be the emotionally investing journey that Yuri on Ice provides throughout its twelve episode run, but Love on Ice is still nothing short of iconic simply because of its legacy. That's even including the obvious skating doubles. It's Hallmark Media's predictability with a couple twists, but it still excels with its quasi redemption story and fun characters to boot. An hour and 24 minutes you'll spend with this "treasure" won't be a waste. The anime fans might get more of a kick out of this one, though.


Love in Store

Before The Christmas House, Robert Buckley got his Hallmark start with this little romp. His co-star? Alexandra Breckenridge, who many of you may know from She's the Man, but recently in Netflix drama Virgin River. Paired up with a Joie Botkin script, a big supporting role from Jackée Harry (who I feel like is one of those names that should be doing more than being a trope in Hallmark Land), and a fun premise in the home shopping world, Love in Store is a cute way to spend any day where your gut instinct wants to stay in. It does take a while to warm up (like Terrie to David), but Buckley being his usual self when it comes to these movies makes sticking around worth it. Standard angst isn't too standard, either. Botkin's always great at that.

Love in Store is also pretty fun as it unfurls. I like how Terrie and David (whose wonderful last name is Crabtree) go from grudgingly working together to actually liking each other's presence, even with the on-air debacle that starts it all. I like how Lisa Chandler, usually a stunt double, is the best friend character for no explicable reason other than she was cast (and she's not bad). Home shopping networks may not be appealing for me, but Botkin constructs this movie's one in a way that was pretty engaging. I also like how Carlo Marks, the Other Man in this movie, gets involved in the main romantic conflict. He plays the character effectively, and it works where it doesn't in other Hallmark movies. It can usually get wonderfully hilarious or wonderfully cringy. 

All in all, Love in Store succeeds. Like a purchase you may be initially hesitant about when you take it home, it grows on you as it lingers, but not in a bad way. This was the movie that made Botkin one of my favorite Hallmark writers, Buckley one of my favorite leading actors (now look at him, the new beau in Abby's life in Chesapeake Shores like he was posed to be), and made me realize that while having a set movie to watch as it premiered each week my last two years in undergrad was a good rule, breaking the rule as a reward/anxiety reset never ended up hurting. A potential Hallmark fan should browse this movie as an option.

Mix Up in the Mediterranean

Here's a fascinating fact for you: The leading editor for Mix Up, Paul Whitehead, uploaded the Locked Picture edit of this onto his Vimeo page a month before the movie was set to air. A user on letterboxhd included this on a list of films that had unfinalized versions out on the internet, and having just discovered the site (reading the snarky one star Hallmark reviews got me though the start of 2021, NGL), I found it and was shocked. No password? What was this? It was fun to get a peak at the movie before its official release, but out of respect, I decided to wait until it officially aired before I saw all of it. "Leaks," "tea spills," and accidentally uploaded media are exciting. I'm starting to learn a good balance between just right and overexposed, though.

Mix Up is a lot of fun in several ways. If you have a higher tolerance for plots that deal with a lot of second-hand embarrassment, you'll get a kick out of Josh trying to impersonate his twin, Julian, with amusing results (oui?). Jessica Lowndes, one of several CW 90210 alumni who have turned to TV movies in the past decade (I can name at least four more), gives her best TV movie performance to date without looking like she's wincing after each line delivered (something my brother caught on to, and he's not wrong in some movies). Julie Kim and Kariné Marwood make sure the cooking competition and Jeff and Meg's romance have equal screentime, but also make their dynamic a little more fun to follow than their previous Hallmark effort, Love Blossoms. The music cues are also gloriously campy in the best way possible, punctuating every awkward moment in an unsubtle way. It's hilarious.

Have we had better queer/gay character representation in Hallmark movies? Yes. Julian does steer into flamboyant territory at times, but I did like how he and Henri get a fair share of screentime. Meg's subplot is handled well, the conflict is built up nicely, and the movie entertains enough that I feel viewers won't want to shy away from it. Mix Up was a step in the right direction for Hallmark in regards to side gay, a peek into a future mystery movie project in Malta (we're only getting one movie if Rick Garman writing for GAC is any indication), and a fun romp that will make you want to add Malta to your travel bucket list because there's some beautiful architecture. You won't regret giving this film a go.

Valentine Ever After

The first segment of Valentine Ever After is easily one of the most egregious and iconic in Hallmark history. I could say the same thing about a few Chesler/Perlmutter movies (and I also have. There's more to come, too...), but this movie takes the pivotal part of any Hallmark movie, the first segment (it's what hooks the viewer), and creates an entire new life form of it. It's been almost three years since I've seen this movie, and I don't really remember what happens beyond the standard TV movie plot. The screenplay writer hasn't written for anything else (Valerie Troutman from Through the Shattered Lens has a theory about that). And I can vouch that after seeing other Hallmark movies with lead Autumn Reeser in them, she acts better there than she does in this one. With that said, this movie was still entertaining beyond starting in Hot Mess Land.

Despite having a lot going on here, the side actors are part of what make this movie fun. Outside of Toronto TV movie staples Vanessa Matsui, Ron Lea and Damon Runyan playing some of their standard archetypes (Runyan is an especially not so hot fiancée (not literally) if my document notes serve me right, which is not so different from some of the villains he's played elsewhere), we've got Jenn Robertson of Twitches fame, Carolyn Scott from one episode of Total Dramarama, and Jefferson Brown, whose other prominent role outside of TV movies is unfortunate for some of my anxiety. They help bolster Valentine Ever After's faults with great performances. Sydney ends up taking the lead as the best friend who encourages our lead to take risks. This is how that statue gets broken in the first place, after all. We have Sydney to thank for much of this movie's plot progression. Eric Johnson also makes for a good love interest as Julia falls in love with small town life.

Part of me yearns to revisit Valentine Ever After to see how the pieces fit together in the vast field of Hallmark movies I've roamed in the past few years. It has a chaotic start going for it. The trope checklist is followed to a T. We've got memorable side actors. There's a good romance here, too. Those new to Hallmark will have a good laugh and plenty of WTF moments before their emotions settle down for a journey that may be predictable, but still quasi fun. This movie's got plenty of entertaining material for a drinking game.

Spring into Love

This is the only category that won't include a pick that's iconic, seeing as I haven't seen anything from this programming block I've disliked.

Flip That Romance

I decided to spend a morning watching this movie when I didn't have homework my first year of college, and I still don't regret that decision. Initially written by American Queer as Folk assistant directors (likely pre 2018, where they would go on to create Hulu series Find Me in Paris) and revised by Nina Weinman, Y2K mean girl Julie Gonzalo and Hallmark fav Tyler Hynes team up as house flipper exes who compete for a chance to be featured in a Innovative Designs magazine spread highlighting the duplexes they're remodeling. The editor happens to be Misa Amane, and no, I'm not joking. Can this competition allow Jules and Lance to flip their feelings for each other? Or will misunderstandings cause this relationship to be unsalvageable?

Flip That Romance hits that HGTV sweet spot, and serves as a great introduction point for those unfamiliar with Hallmark for several reasons. One is Tyler Hynes, who is able to make Lance (and by extension, all of his lead characters) engaging and easy to get behind. I believe you see him best in action here as a smart aleck who gets under Jules's skin, but can be equally as vulnerable, too. The duplex the two are renovating serves as a great framing device. The competitive streak between Jules and Lance reflects itself in Teri, one of Jules's friends, as she butts heads with a rival realtor. We also have a nice set of BC side actors you'll see in several films over, from Cardi Wong (fans are hoping to see more of him, especially as a lead. I agree with the sentiments), Fiona Vroom (who you can never go wrong with), to Crystal Lowe (infamous for her role in Final Destination 3, and Hallmark famous in the Signed, Sealed, Delivered franchise). I'll also never take the opportunity to shout out Shannon Chan-Kent. A link to my childhood is never a bad thing.

Topping it off, Jules and Lance are able to sweep the dust and cobwebs off their old fling without a big misunderstanding that undermines them coming back to each other. The one that does come into play makes sense given Lance's character, and it's also resolved realistically without being too much. The romance may come first in Hallmark Land, but at least the work these two put in also ended up being just as important. A fun and breezy script helps keep the movie gleaming, which will keep viewers entertained as hearts are healed and wounds are mended.

Love, Classified

Let's again jump back to 2019, when Hallmark Media decided to air a premiere movie, Love on the Sun, on Memorial Day after replacing its Saturday slot with an acquired movie (a endeavor they have not tried again). Shadowhunters star Emeraude Toubia was its lead with Tom Maden (whose line delivery has unfortunately been among Hallmark's contracted talent's worse) as her co-star. During a conversation with my brother, I joked that it wouldn't be long before Katherine McNamara would be her Hallmark movie debut. Here we are three years post that. At the time, I thought McNamara was new to the TV movie scene, but she actually did a few before this one (even with Disney!).

Although her character Taylor isn't technically the lead, her relationship with doctor Franki brought younger viewers to this movie in the same way right leaning Hallmark viewers turned away from it. I have to give props to writer Lynn Sternberger for being able to depict someone's first queer relationship in an authentic way. I'm also happy this movie has an interracial romance, a gay man that isn't a stereotype, and tackles how a parent's absence affects their children without turning the windshield whippers on. Love, Classified's script tackles more than a TV movie usually does, and I think that's part of why it resonated as much with its target audience as it did. We see multiple kinds of relationships at work, even if some inevitably manage to get more screen time than others (part of me wonders what would have happened if we got more Zach and Margot, but alas). Taylor's subplot is easily my favorite because of her own romantic self-discovery, but also imagining a life where her mom is more present. She no longer has to wander adulthood by herself without a maternal figure to lean on. Sternberger also depicts the evolution of online dating, and how its scariness can be rewarding in some aspects.

It's hard not to fault Love, Classified too much when you can see the enthusiasm Hallmark Media brought to this project. On the technical side, it looks expensive for this kind of production, is brimming with post production life, has a fantastic musical score from Anne-Kathrin Dern, and runs a little longer than the standard plot (by four minutes!). Will it attract Hallmark's more traditional audience? Absolutely not. But it's a love letter in one way to the newer viewers who want the network to be more inclusive. After the baby steps, this is a graceful high dive into the swimming pool deep end. Here's a movie worth your time.

Right in Front of Me

Right in Front of Me won me over the minute I found out who were contracted to be the leads. Janel Parrish has had her fair share of memorable roles (the Bratz movie, Pretty Little Liars, the To All the Boys movies), but I'd be remiss to neglect Marco Grazzini's own; the original Alejandro in the Total Drama franchise. Pairing up these two actors is another childhood dream I didn't think was a dream come true. I love a good teen drama and cartoon reality TV parody crossover. When this was announced in the 2021 lineup, I knew I was going to watch it live because an opportunity like this was too good to pass up. Add in one of my favorite Hallmark writers, Julie Sherman Wolfe (who also has a Disney connection, because childhood nostalgia is real), and I was ready for action.

A spiritual successor to June Weddings movie The Last Bridesmaid (more in theme, not in characters, although we do have a returning actor), Right in Front of Me follows Carly Mason, a bridal stylist reuniting with college friends at a hotel for one of their weddings. Among the guests is dorm crush Matt. Hoping to see if he likes her back, Carly teams up with chef Nick, who is on his own mission to promote his fusion cuisine to his boss at the hotel. The two attempt to help Carly impress Matt and get Nick introduced to investors Carly knows from her stylist gig. Of course, as the title indicates, maybe Matt and Carly aren't as destined as that spark from ten years ago made itself out to be...

It's hard not to find fault here when everything lines up to create an immersive Hallmark movie with everything I could possibly want. Parish and Grazzini work very well together, helped by the fact the two are good actors in this scene. I like Carly's boundless optimism with a side of nerves. Yet I also like how she showed up both her love interests when it came to hot chicken wings. Wolfe's writing is at its best with subplots that tie this story together, an unexpected sex joke ("I'd say the chicken"), and an ending that helps make the expected angst not as overblown as it could be in the hands of other writers. It gives our main couple time to move forward and assess their new strengths, while lamenting what they don't have. It's a movie Wolfe did in Wedding Every Weekend; the plot device serves the same purpose there, and is just as effective. I'm also happy we were able to hint at Parish and Grazzini's ethnicities without having them being brushed under the rug or ignored in favor of white-passing them. All in all, you can tell this was my favorite 2021 Hallmark movie, and it definitely deserves a shot for being a breath of fresh air and uncomplicated in its Hallmarkness.

Summer Nights

Her Pen Pal

We're now breaking into the movies filmed outside North America! One of two in this batch, Her Pen Pal was shot on location in Paris and reunites Galavant co-stars Mallory Jensen (some readers may remember her from the 2020 holiday season) and Joshua Sasse (who was recently in the Fox drama Monarch). It gave me a prelude of what was to come for one of my senior year classes. It'll be nice going back to this movie with America's fascination of Paris in mind, Sabrina references and romantic aspirations aside.

Here we have Joie Botkin taking another concept and letting it fly with great results. After discovering her ex is bringing a plus one to her friend's destination wedding (that she's also planning!), Victoria is encouraged/forced to reach out to her old French pen pal, Jacques. The two reconnect as the week progresses, and come to realize their feelings for one another when they were young haven't completely faded away. It's clear why Jansen and Sasse were contracted to do this film together given their roles in Galavant.

Botkin also confirmed what was kept after Beverly Hills Wedding was revised: love for classic movies, how nuptials could change one's life among an almost married one (and an already established one), and how old flames don't die out as easily as we'd expect. Everything is handled well. The quasi love triangle isn't as angsty as you'd expect it to be (one of Botkin's recent efforts also had one with an ex as the other man, which felt more dramatized given that movie was a romantic drama. Har har). It's clear from when Jacques is introduced that both he and Victoria still have a lingering affection for one another. It's built throughout the movie, and when they finally get together, it feels victorious. A viewer's Hallmark Travel Plans wouldn't be complete without this visit to the City of Love.

Caribbean Summer

If you want the rush of an old school rom com, Caribbean Summer is the movie for you! As Hallmark's attempted to shoot more movies with non White leads despite its more conversative audience not being drawn to them (the ratings for the BIPOC movies are significantly lower than the movies with white favorites), I've noticed a mix of new and nostalgic premises that are now getting a chance to be told through a non White lens. This emergence is one of the reasons why Caribbean Summer ensnared me when I first heard about it. Has TV Movie Land done the Overworked Working Woman goes on vacation to recharge and falls in love with the area and a new love storyline countless times? Yes. But I think what this movie is able to do with said plot makes this jaunt to Belize more rewarding.

After Jade and Ford meet after the latter's house was accidentally listed as a rental, their romantic development ignites. The speed it travels at puts it in the fast lane, but the good news is that Kelly Bowe and Arlene Gibbs make it believable. The two spend plenty of time together in the movie's first half, and there's a certain comfort Heather Hemmens and Ser'Darius Blain exude in their scenes together that makes you eager to root for the couple. Steven R. Monroe and Dana Barnaby are able to capture the bright sunshine and optimism the Caribbean Islands give off in the travel ads and photos I've seen over the years. Even watching this movie in the off season will make a viewer think of brighter, hotter days to come. I liked how the gap in Ford's past tied into a pivotal interview at the beginning of the movie (and not just because that's where Jade had her snafu). The writers are able to show how this secret makes Jade conflicted over her newfound romance. Ultimately, it ends up in her control, which is a far cry from companies throwing caution to the wind just because they can. I like this empowering Hallmark.

Even with the viewing audience complications I noted above, I'm happy Hallmark Media is trying to incorporate more of it with staff changes and launching a movie line under their Mahogany banner. Caribbean Summer shows how it can be done successfully with a compelling story, quick pace, and an intriguing romance. It's the perfect companion for a Caribbean inspired meal, a cocktail, or fun quality time with a group of friends. I'd like more of these movies, please!

Love and Sunshine

When this film initially aired in 2019, I was hesitant on watching it. Part of it was that the writers who worked on it hadn't done anything for Hallmark (and haven't since), but I feel like another part of me felt this movie's premise was too basic for my tastes. Granted, I was watching titles that gravitated to me on a spiritual level at this point (rather than giving movies I wouldn't normally watch a chance. I was strictly post 2014 until mid 2020), yet I think the sentiment of wanting something more has taken me into today. I don't mind predictability. However, when I've seen ten Hallmark movies that feel like they have the same plot points, it can get stale for me.

Love and Sunshine is an antithesis to that previous sentence. When watching it a few summers ago, I was stunned by how much I enjoyed this. The "basic" elements are actually what make it work best. Two characters bonding over a military foster dog should not be this heartwarming, and yet Danica McKeller and Mark Deklin sell the shit out of it. From what I've seen of their material, this is their best Hallmark movie by far. Their chemistry is very believable as Ally and Jake first meet and then start dating. You'd expect romantic angst involving exes would spring up around the corner. Both characters have them. But Bart Baker and Glenn Rabney make a wise choice in having the angst center around the two leads. It's a refreshing change of pace for a standard plot like this. Even the military components of the plot don't feel as hammy as other titles. More depth is given to Jake because of it. There's no propaganda here if letterboxd users were worried.

How this film is able to swerve past its potholes in a mystery, earning it the iconic spot in Summer Nights. On paper, Love and Sunshine sounds like something only passionate Hallmark fans would get a kick out of. At the end of the day, though, this squeaky clean romance ends up being one of the network's best. That's not including the delivery sponsor and Chesapeake Shores location Easter eggs (speaking of the former, I have to bump that classic combo). Viewers should definitely give this movie a peek. I'm sure it'll brighten any bad day if Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun" starting off the movie won't.

P.S. I couldn't find a GIF I considered useable, so here's another photo of McKeller and Deklin hamming.

Fall Into Love

Unfortunately, I couldn't find good GIFs for these movies, but I did find more stills.

Pumpkin Pie Wars

It's another Gonzalo and Weinman movie (no other writers in the kitchen here), but this time, she's found herself in a familial war between bakeries. A local library had a copy of this movie, and after being blessed with the material my college town libraries have (and it's still growing. I have a feeling the main branch bought more movies from a request I made and demand from other patrons), it was a nice change of pace. Pumpkin Pie Wars brings a pinch of spice from the day Faye McArthy and Lydia Harper become enemies, a spoonful of sugar from the heartwarming romance, and the warm fuzziness a good blanket can give you from the tried and true plot. 

Like some of the so bad, it's good movies that I've featured in this post, the story can be gloriously extra at times (I thank Michele Scarabelli and Jennifer-Juniper Angeli overacting as the moms). Casey and Sam first play up to their moms' notions that their bakery is number one despite the former being more skilled with the books and the latter wanting to broaden his culinary palette. However, their partnership doesn't have the angst other "secret relationship" plots have (after all, they're forbidden). Nina Weinman has them put the grudges aside quickly as they spend more time together in an effort to make their families proud at an annual bake-off. After seeing some overdramatic angst at the start of my Watching Hallmark career, it was refreshing to see a movie not have an overblown misunderstanding where the couple doesn't speak to each other until they make up. There were bigger people to expose. You know who you are. Julie Gonzalo is as enigmatic in her first Hallmark lead as her others, and Rico Aragon (credited under Eric. I think I might know why he recently made the name switch) is a charismatic foil if a little awkward at times. 

Pumpkin Pie Wars fits the bill for a Hallmark movie that looks nice, will cheer you up on a bad day, and give you reasons to come back for more. With "Peter Pan" kicking things off (I love a licensed song intro), getting introduced to Delores Drake (who has only gotten more iconic since with the roles she gets), and the first sign of a favorite Hallmark writer with more ups than downs, I'm looking forward to the day when I can bask in this movie, an autumnal themed meal and all. Don't forget the pumpkin pie!


Theory: Hallmark was intending Girlfriendship to be under their new Mahogany film banner. This, and Unthinkably Great Things, have the same central plot at their core. Three best friends go traveling together, re-discovering the sisterhood that's got them through tough times and patching up wounds they weren't sure existed. Samara also works for the Mahogany card line if set nameplates are any indication (it's referred to as "the company" in the script). However, Unthinkably Great Things had the bigger budget (they shot in Italy) and was already confirmed to be the Mahogany kickoff. That doesn't stop both movies being powerhouses in their own ways, not just for their intended audiences, but for Hallmark in general.

What makes Girlfriendship a better entry point is the three leads get equal screen time. The story is predominately Samara's, as the purpose of the friends' getaway was her birthday. However, that doesn't mean we don't get compelling story arcs with Eva and Renee. Jessiline Berry is able to characterize these three in a distinct way that allows them to shine as a group and individually. Samara unleashes her inner artist after years being tucked away (and meets a love interest in Kareem, who's played by Brad James, the director Keisha Knight Pullman's husband in real life), Eve realizes she wants to enter the working world again after several years as a stay-at-home mom, and Renee considers starting a family through adopting and standing on her own two feet as a hairstylist. These women feel more fleshed-out than the standard Hallmark movie. I'm also happy I got to learn about the Gullah-Geechee people and their significance in Black history. Hallmark has recently been delving more into historical topics they'd try to dance around in the past. Not only does this help me stay informed, but it shows their attempts at wanting to take steps forward I'm excited to see grow even if the "dedicated" fans don't.

I also liked how Berry tackled the retreat the women accidentally wind up on instead of the trip of a lifetime thanks to Renee's well-meaning, but chatty assistant. She makes it a welcoming place where the leads are allowed to express themselves and evaluate where their lives are. Samara is the most hesitant about the retreat given her goal in the movie's plot (a promotion), and her arc is the most rewarding. Yes, it's because she's the lead character. But it's also because as an audience, we get to see her let go of that hesitation and embrace a part of her past she left behind. It makes what occurs at her job fulfilling. Among the standard Hallmark pluses I have, Girlfriendship's importance to the Hallmark canon is enough to leave it fresh in viewer's minds once they leave the mid spring south (that's when they shot this movie).

Autumn Dreams

One of the things that popped into my head recently when I thought about this movie was if the actors involved with it knew it was complete cheese. Let me break down the premise: Young adults Annie and Ben are so enamored with each other, they decided to elope close to "Romeo and Juliet" style once Ben has a lead on a job offer in New York. After the ceremony, Annie's father slams the brakes since he feels the two are too young. I also can't forget the fact Ben works for Annie's family, so their relationship is quasi Forbidden. Fast forward fifteen years later, with Annie still in Iowa and Ben in the Big Apple, newly engaged and living their respective separate lives. However, they can't get re-married due to a catch. Their annulment documents were never finalized. After reuniting to sign off on their divorce, they begin to realize the feelings they had for each other weren't lost to time. They're stronger then ever. But are they doomed to the same ending?

The answer is no. This premise is so convoluted, it's hard to keep a straight face as it unfolds. It's bizarre enough that Autumn Dreams ended up working as well as it did for me (a Fall Into Love movie from this past season, Marry Go Round, has the same base premise to less than stellar results from fans. Tastes have changed since the viewers from Hallmark's mid 2010s peak enjoy this one more even if it likely has some of the same problems). One of the reasons is the actors, again, sell the shit out of it. Even with a story that staddles the line of implausibility, both Jill Wagner (in her Hallmark debut) and Colin Egglesfield (in his only Hallmark credit to date as of this year) are effective leads. They make Annie and Ben rediscovering each other more quasi interesting because they have good romantic chemistry. Both take into account their characters' history, making their romance one to root for despite their almost marriages. Poor Matthew Karl Richards always seems to get these roles. Wagner also makes Annie's fish out of water moments authentic despite never playing these types of roles again. Part of it's the Southern accent slips, but Ben's life in New York compared to working at her family's farm is a drastic pivot. Annie's disbelief being a little more potent (after all, this is Hallmark we're talking about) makes sense.

There are some enjoyable side performances from actors both familiar and not. Both Richards and Tasya Teles make their other love interests not caricatures, young Annie and Ben are good foils to Wagner and Egglesfield with just as memorable chemistry in their five minutes of screen time (before we flash forward), and Matty Finochio (one of my BC Faves) has his hammiest role to date with spectacular results (and a Long Island accent!). The fall scenery looks solid, everything moves like you'd expect it to, and Annie and Ben do make a good couple despite the film's grandeur in the Drama. With delicious takeout in hand in the early pandemic, Autumn Dreams made an impression on me. I'm sure it will now with the ridiculousness of it all, but to the readers out there who want their romantic angst steaming hot, this Hallmark flick is the one for you.


It's time to head back to familiar territory before the tech specs! The picks below are strictly Hallmark Channel, so no Miracles of Christmas movies will be represented today.

Picture a Perfect Christmas

For the 2019 Christmas season, this and Christmas Wishes and Mistletoe Kisses are my top two. Both are endearing enough to stand out amidst the busy crop of holiday movies Hallmark pumps out every October-December (which has grown from its beginnings). What makes Picture a Perfect Christmas the better pick for incoming Hallmark fans (and putting aside my Jill Wagner Hallmark bias because of Mystery 101) is Sophie and David's romance. I don't know if it's thanks to the original source material, Tracy Andreen's signature charm, or Merritt Patterson and Jon Cor's chemistry, but I was invested in it. What starts as a misunderstanding while David is looking for someone to look after his nephew turns into a connection that had my eyes laser focused to my screen as the two danced to Doris Day's "Toyland." Not even short lived romantic angst can get in the way of these two lovebirds.

Picture a Perfect Christmas delivers on all the standard Hallmark strengths. It doesn't milk its conflicts for longer than it needs to. Sophie has a Starter Movie Boyfriend, whose relationship dissipates once he's reintroduced in the plot. An ex of David's pops briefly into the story, but takes her exit after a segment. Even the Potential Job Offer doesn't lead to a big blowout. This is one of the movies that, the more I sit on it, the more I feel likely was a sign of the transition Hallmark Media's movies were about to take in the years to come. Not to mention we've got plenty of BC actor staples, a nice feel always welcome in holiday flicks like this, and Luke Roessler playing another charming kid (I think he's good at it outside Hallmark if my mom's thoughts on him in Dead to Me are any indication).

The cartoon crossover continues actor wise as Cor wound up playing Brick in Total Drama: Revenge of the Island (one of the seasons I'm least familiar with), and we have Nicole Oliver/Princess Celestia returning once again as Sophie's agent Marissa. I never not smile whenever I see her. Part of my joy of being a Hallmark fan is seeing actors in media I grew up on pop into these spaces. It's not talked about as much given that most of the fans I know are older than me, but it's fun getting to see the actors behind animated characters I've enjoyed (or heard about). There's more where that came from. Both do really well with the rest of the cast, and they're a couple reasons why I'll keep coming back to this movie in the years to come. Others may too. 

Crashing Through the Snow

I was initially planning on saving my thoughts on Crashing Through the Snow for a 2021 holiday movie season breakdown (strictly Hallmark, while also catching my readers up on the 2020 movies I missed). However, given another absence from this blog, schoolwork, still having two movies to get to with or without my brother, and work, when that will come out is TBD. That, and this aired during Christmas in July. Rules are meant to be broken sometimes.

On the record, this happens to be my favorite Hallmark holiday movie of all time. Outside of its premiere, I have watched it four more times to the point where I can mouth along to/quote from scenes verbatim. If that doesn't scream my childhood watching American Girl and Webkinz series off YouTube to the point where I can quote them without watching them again (and some of these videos are long gone), I don't know what does. Tamar Luddy deserves applause. Her script easily juggles zingers, Maggie and Sam's growing relationship, authentic family drama that isn't blown out of proportion, and fun pop culture references that don't feel dated two years after taping (I never thought a Hallmark movie would reference TikTok or dating apps like Tinder, but here we are). This movie always makes me happy when it pops into my head. It's just that infectious.

What seems on the surface as a plot to avenge Mia's Christmas plans with her kids getting shifted for better and worse is deeper than the plot summary suggests. It sounds petty, but Luddy is able to humanize all parties and give them tangible motivation. Kate, Jeff's new girlfriend (and Maggie's ex-husband) wants to make sure Christmas goes off without a hitch. Sam, who happens to be Kate's older brother, is initially able to use this to his advantage and win Maggie over to "his side." Family dynamics are given a new spin here. We're able to see why this time in Denver is important to our main players from two families, and what happens when boundaries are crossed. It leads to an unexpected ending that winds up being sweeter than other movies I've brought up in this post. There's no cartoon villain here. Everyone has redeeming qualities.

Crashing Through the Snow is also just a lot of damn fun. Its actors clearly had a goof time with this project, its contracted and Manitoba performers giving some of their best performances to date. Amy Acker thrives as Maggie with both the physical comedy she brought to Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing and her line delivery. Warren Christie is able to continue being both smartass and heartthrob effectively years after his Hallmark start. Brooke Nevin makes Kate lack the cartoon villain hands and is able to ground her in vulnerable moments. Finally, the supporting cast is able to hold their own. This is even going down the list to the ski instructor when Sam convinces Maggie to try hitting the slopes ("Excitement."). Each segment has its fair share of highlights, which makes coming back to it never boring. I already know this DVD (whenever it comes out) is going to be played on a loop to rival my Charlie & Lola collection. The flick will never not be classic at this point in my life.

The Christmas Parade

Where do I even begin with this movie? It has been name dropped and teased a few times in my recent blog posts, has taken up permanent space in my head as a pinnacle "So Bad, It's Good" Hallmark movie (the adaptations for The Irresistible Blueberry Farm and Dashing Through the Snow are the peaks), and leaves me both happy and perplexed when it pops into my brain. First seeing snippets of this on Hallmark Movies Now back in July 2020 made me want to dismiss it. I wasn't surprised to see AnnaLynne McCord in a TV movie. It's easy to see now the crossover between the CW reboot of 90210 and mid 2010s Hallmark (that, and a few actors from horror franchise remakes of the time). However, my initial thoughts leaned cynical, and seeing another preview when it was added in a more permanent status to the streaming service made me decide to give the movie a fair shot. That fair shot included watching the first half twice.

What things does The Christmas Parade do right or wrong? It's got a fast pace and plenty of zingers. Carley Smale and Robert Vaughn are also able to give Hailee the stage power necessary for her in movie job (talk show host), and McCord does sell it. There are plenty of moments that weren't meant to be funny that are. Hailee ripping off her mic when she finds out her boyfriend/future spouse may be cheating on her. The small town hotel sign Luke and I are convinced was held by a PA. The loose plot threads all getting resolved within the last two minutes. McCord's costuming is strange. But Hailee's relationship with Beck (hello again, Jefferson Brown) progresses well and helps the former realize what's really important to her. From their first interaction, the two characters have chemistry, and it builds at a good pace unlike the rest of the movie's story and added in post zoom ins.

There's also the random casting of Property Brother Drew Scott as Hailee's boyfriend. His presence alone is a big mystery to me (is it just because he's Canadian?). The twins are "men of many talents" if looking at their Wikipedia pages is any indication, and Scott adds another layer of camp to this movie. Chesler/Perlmutter standby Jennifer Gibson brings another as Hailee's assistant/friend/person who tries to convince to come back to the Big City, Monica (the way The Christmas Parade juggles all three is baffling). I guess that's the main reason why this film's story falls to the wayside. Its technical aspects are incredibly entertaining for the right and wrong reasons; it's easy to keep your attention glued to the screen even if you don't care about the community service/parade float contest. The Christmas Parade is a whirlwind of a time. It's best enjoyed with alcohol and friends to both laugh at and revel in. Chesler/Perlmutter films can do that to you on their best days (not literal).

My film work is done, folks. Let's turn our attention to more of my favorite aspects of Hallmark movies shot in Canada.

Production Companies

I get my Hallmark news from a variety of sources. My personal favorite is Hallmark's official press website. Although they're transitioning away from displaying technical specs in a cast and crew sheet, this website is the place for my full staff voice actor crossover and "Did Jackie Lind cast for this movie?" wet dream. I checked this weekly for a few years in a row. Bringing this up in my college Acting class got me the response of, "He does more research for Hallmark than my research papers" from a fellow English major. Crown Media Press brings everything gleamed from the internet together into one smorgasbord you could get lost in for hours (I don't regret to say I have).

Another key component of the site is getting the 411 on which production company is producing what. There are several beyond Hallmark's own in house one. It can be hard to keep track sometimes with the constant director and side actor shuffling. Lucky for you, I can help with that. Here's three key production companies to Hallmark Media's Canadian content. Along with showing you their not current/current logos, I'll give you their typical movie look, how to pin them down out of a lineup, and titles both referenced in this post and not.

It's time to get started with:

Front Street Pictures never fails to set a cinematic mood. Regardless the genre, regardless the season, and regardless the BC locations they consistently rent out, their crew always makes sure their movies look as polished and stylish as possible. Run by Harvey Kahn, Charles Cooper, and Allen Lewis, Front Street turns the movie of the week into a fun art form. They produce consistent work I enjoy tuning into it with plenty of favorites and set decorations I've come to like. Their relationship with Hallmark has been a good one. It's lasted over a decade and a half, and there are plenty of movies to choose from to keep a budding fan occupied. 

The Main Thing to Watch Out For: If the film is a "Something Something Road" production, it's Front Street off the jump.

Titles produced in this post are Love in Store (co-production with Hallmark), Love, Classified (another co-production with Hallmark), Love and Sunshine (a third co-production with Hallmark), and Picture a Perfect Christmas. 

Other Hallmark titles include the Morning Show Mysteries (starring Holly Robinson Peete and Rick Fox (only for the first five movies)), the Wedding Veil series (starring Lacey Chabert, Autumn Reeser, and Alison Sweeney. There are six movies at the moment), and The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (starring Brooke Burns, Warren Christie, and Henry Winkler. This is an "old school" movie from 2008 that has plentiful legal streaming options).

Logo photos were hard to come by, but this animated one works wonders, too.

There's a coziness to Lighthouse Pictures' work that draws me to whatever they're producing. Their mysteries have more of an intimate vibe that makes it feel like you're right in the action with the characters. Their romances offer plenty of sweetness to keep you engaged and ready to see where the couple ends up. Finally, they also do the holiday season holding nothing back, and that, my friends, is never not fun. We live to see it. Run by Shawn Williamson, Jamie Goehring, and Jonathan Shore, Lighthouse uses its artistic strengths to make the TV movie experience as enjoyable as possible. Outside of their attention to set detail, their editing is always fluid and able to get most of the action. Some plots do build slower than others (which is a weird thing to say, given TV movies without ads are roughly 1 hour and 24 minutes), but most of their experiences are definitely worth it. There's a reason why they've got some of the genre staples in their corner. This company knows how to do them right.

The Main Thing to Watch Out For: Most of the recent work Lighthouse has done for Hallmark has been through their own production company. So if the Crown/Hallmark Media animation is at the beginning of the movie you're watching with the attached producers, it's clear who helped fund it.

Title produced in this post are the recent entry/ies for the Murder, She Baked series, the Mystery 101 series, and Hearts of Winter.

Other Hallmark titles include recent mystery title Cut, Color, Murder (unsure if this will be a series or not (likely not), it was co-produced by Hallmark and stars Julie Gonzalo and Ryan McPartlin), Don't Go Breaking My Heart (starring Italia Ricci and Ryan Paevey), and Hats Off to Christmas! (starring Haylie Duff (the elder Duff sister) and Antonio Cupo. This is another "old school" movie from 2013 that recently was added to Hallmark Movies Now after getting a DVD release in Australia a few year prior).

While there may be other production companies that are more memorable in my eyes, Johnson fits an iconic standard that's hard for others to replicate. Run by Timothy O. Johnson and Navid Soofi, a budding Hallmark fan will find plots that aren't too fussy. Are they "basic?" Yes. However, there's a time and a place for simplicity and cheese. You'll get a lot of director and writer crossover (highlights are Christie Will Wolf, Marita Grabiak, and the one and only Barbara Kymlicka, who I have a detailed movie history with). You'll either get movies filmed in BC or Ontario with the occasional destination pivot (but not often). The casting director will either be Judy Lee or Ron Leach, and side actors will likely be "typecast" no matter what. It's a less frills approach that the company's developed over time. A look back into their catalog proves to be more interesting. There's a better variety of plots and actors ready for your attention. I think that's the main reward of sticking Johnson out. The surprises are often the most entertaining. When not producing for Hallmark, you'll likely find Johnson working their magic on TV movie thrillers licensed by Lifetime.

The Main Thing to Watch Out For: There seems to be a high number of single widowed dads in Johnson productions as of the past few years. I don't know why, I don't know who decides to keep milking the trope. All I know is that I'm entertained whenever I see it.

I didn't reference any titles produced by Johnson in this post, and they also haven't done any mysteries for Hallmark. I wonder if that could change given their other work. Hallmark titles of theirs include June in January (starring Brooke D'Orsay and Wes Brown. From 2014, this is another movie that fits the mold of "so bad, it's good" and has D'Orsay's best Hallmark moment of all time IMO), Feeling Butterflies (starring Kayla Wallace and Kevin McGarry), and The Mistletoe Promise (starring Jaime King and Luke Macfarlane. This is one of three movies based off of a series by Richard Paul Evans, who's written for adult and young readers).

Iconic Hallmark Leads

Like with the category above, I tried to stick with three (although it's technically four; one just happens to be a unit more often than not) actors who still have their hold as stars who have embraced their transition to Hallmark. Since drafting this post, many actors who fans have come to appreciate have left for a variety of reasons (some had to do with Bill Abbott and you know what). It was also challenging to think of male leads because most of them burned into the back of my mind are Canadian and not someone others may recognize from, say, a soap opera. The three I picked are stars I've seen with the network since my humble beginnings. They are also actors I remember from aspects of my childhood, and who can always deliver no matter the plot and circumstance.

First up to the plate:

Lacey Chabert

It's clear to me. Now that Candace Cameron Bure is gone, Chabert has unofficially been coronated as the Hallmark Movie Queen. Most notable for her iconic performances as Eliza Thornberry in The Wild Thornberrys and Gretchen Wieners in Mean Girls, Chabert got her Hallmark start in the Larry Levinson backed Elevator Girl (which incidentally stars Mean Girls co-star Jonathan Bennett). Other highlights include the All of My Heart franchise (where she and Brennan Elliott had their first couple moment. Their next would be the Crossword Mysteries), My Secret Valentine (where she and Andrew Walker fell in love thanks to a predictable, yet still sweet, secret admirer twist), and Sweet Carolina (her second movie with Tyler Hynes, which was Hallmark's first effort in marketing more of a romantic drama that wasn't produced for HM&M). Fun fact: My first holiday backlog movie I watched was A Wish for Christmas, which is the still featured above.

One of the things that draws me to Lacey Chabert in her Hallmark roles is the palpable joy she exudes. It doesn't matter if I find the movie's plot banal or its emotional bits one note; Chabert always looks like she cares about what her character is doing and strives to bring those motivations across. As such, no matter the genre, Chabert's performances remain consistent. There have been times where I've found her emotional range hammy (My Secret Valentine and the first Crossword Mystery movie), but those days seems to be behind her. Groundswell is worth checking out if you want to see this actor at her best. I was able to sympathize with Emma's self discovery because Chabert made her character likeable. Being connected to the project also didn't hurt, either.

Holly Robinson Peete

After her start with a Sesame Street cameo and a correspondent gig for Kidsworld, Peete continued to make her mark in the entertainment industry. She's most notable for her roles as Officer Judy Hoffs in the 21 Jump Street series and Vanessa Russell in Hangin' with Mr. Cooper. Her Hallmark start was a few years after Chabert's as a supporting character in Angel of Christmas. Other highlights include the Christmas in Evergreen franchise (it feels like her days as a supporting Black best friend are behind her), the Morning Show Mystery series (Hallmark's first mystery property with Black leads), and A Family Christmas Gift (where she and Dion Johnstone reconnect, and Patti LaBelle plays her aunt). Fun fact: Her family was the focus of two reality TV shows, one for Oprah's TV network, and another for Hallmark.

Over her Hallmark career, Peete's been able to play more characters that connect to her experience as a mother and entertainer with an extensive career in Hollywood. Billie was her first taste at a lead role after being sidelined for her first few projects, and while it's not her best role, I do think she's able to bring another dimension to the character that doesn't feel as forced or awkward (*side eyes Lori Loughlin and Candace Cameron Bure*). There's empathy for her news station family that's come across in her desire to work on a story revolving around raising an autistic child (her 2021 holiday movie, Our Christmas Story), and finding new passion after several years in the industry with the knowledge she's not getting any younger (her 2022 drama, The Journey Ahead). I like how even with her awkward moments, Peete's still able to make her Hallmark leads distinguishable that doesn't rely on archetypes. I'm excited to see where her TV movie career takes her next. I have a feeling it'll be great for her.

The PenaVegas

Regardless if you were a Disney or Nick kid, my generation's seen at least one property with these two in them. As a child actor, Alexa's projects ranged from Spy Kids to teen comedy Sleepover, whereas Carlos got his big break with Big Time Rush (the show and the band). After meeting at a bible study in 2012, the two eventually married in 2014. Most of their Hallmark work has starred the two of them (the Picture Perfect Mystery series, Enchanted Christmas, Love at Sea), but they've also done a couple films with other co-stars. Alexa's work ranges from Christmas Made to Order (with Jonathan Bennett, a photo of her and Carlos pops up in the movie), Taking a Shot at Love (with Luke Macfarlane) and recent movie A Paris Proposal (with Nicholas Bishop). Carlos's only other movie is A Midnight Kiss (starring Adelaide Kane). Fun fact not related to Hallmark: These two competed against each other in the same season of Dancing with the Stars.

Like with Sarah Lind, there are some Hallmark fans who don't enjoy the PenaVegas. Some IMDb reviews are pretty adamant that Carlos can't act, which I disagree with full stop. I'm not sure if they work better together than separately (the one movie where they both had off moments was the second Picture Perfect mystery, but I honestly feel like that case was a flop regardless), but their presence in either case does add a little something special to whatever movie I'm watching. Alexa is exuberant and easy to empathize with, whether her character is goal-driven or too nosy for her own good (and often white except Love in the Limelight. I'm thankful for that still), and Carlos is able to try on different hats beyond Musician (although I could tell his character in Love in the Limelight was closer to his heart than say, Sam). When they're on screen together, their love for each other is palpable through the screen, making them work together fun to witness. There's always something fun when Hallmark couple, real life or not, have history. In the PenaVegas' case, their past decade of romance has allowed them to shine together in their movies. After Alexa's TV movie history, it makes sense Carlos would want to follow along. 

I'm still curious whether we'll get more Carlos movies without his wife. It doesn't look likely, but a man can ponder.

The Canadian Crossover

Inside jokes abound in this category. Dwindling this list down to three was tough. There are many side actors in Hallmark properties I consider favs, but the ones I want to highlight either were memorable while I was growing up, are a delight whenever they pop up (partly because of history with them), or are simply iconic. No need to mince words around them. If I picked more, this would turn into a dissertation, and I don't think most of you have the patience to read through that. Some of my fellow nerds might.

Let's kick things off with:

Andrew Francis

Francis's voice over work is extensive. He's been around in roles such as Sojiro Nishikado in Boys Over Flowers, Shining Armor in Gen 4 of My Little Pony, and Takumi Ichinose in NANA. His Hallmark career started in 2013 with All's Fair in Love and Advertising before expanding to other movies, his most notable role for the company being Connor O'Brien in Chesapeake Shores. Francis is good with the playboy types of roles; this goes for both voice work and Hallmark. However, he shines when his characters are taken out of their comfort zones and expected to "grow up." It's what makes his mystery roles engaging as he continually insists his innocence.

I naturally got excited when I saw him for the first time in the fourth Morning Show Mystery movie, because I viscerally remember how majestic yet humble he made Shining Armor out to be during my brony days. Here Francis was, a little more flustered and sans bravado, but he still delivered an effective performance. His other Hallmark roles I've enjoyed just as much (shout out to Stephen), but his work as Connor shows his growth the best. Connor not only has had to accept his family coming back together after strife broke them apart, but I've seen his character shift as he's taken on more responsibility and gotten work at a law firm. It's led to Connor realizing what his priorities are, and Francis has been enthusiastic in it every step of the way. Sure, it came at a cost (the relationship with him and Danielle, who was played by Britt Irvin. Gotta keep that crossover train booked). However, if his character continues to progress, that's fine by me. Francis is good at what he does.

Kendall Cross

I will never not associate Cross with Debby Ryan. Why? Because she played Ryan's movie mom in 16 Wishes. As such, whenever she pops up on screen, I always refer to her as Debby Ryan's Mom. It never gets old. Most notable for various bit roles in TV movies and shows filmed in Canada (she's in Supernatural and The 100, for example), Cross' first Hallmark credit was in the 2013 movie Duke. From there, her roles have expanded to relatives (usually moms), mystery movie red herrings, and an ex of a main character in the movie depicted in the still above (Campfire Kiss).

Inside joke aside, I do enjoy Cross in all her Hallmark properties. She brings both a sureness and warmth whenever she pops up on screen. It doesn't matter if her role is supposed to comfort or put you on edge. Cross is able to use her "type casting" in a way that benefits her, which makes two of her recent mystery roles more engaging to me. As a woman scorned or a wife desperate for control, her characters are the most memorable suspects of those movies. Outside of that, she was able to make Robyn (her character in Campfire Kiss) sympathetic in a way that didn't make me think "uh oh" when her trope popped up. Did the writing have something to do with this? Yes. But performance also makes a character stick in my head, and Robyn was a role Cross handled well. It's clear. Whenever she pops on screen, I'll delight in one of my favorite inside jokes and be enthralled by what her character will do next. Here's to being on the lookout for more content from her that'll keep me on my toes.

Kirby Morrow

It's still a bummer to think Morrow's no longer with us. Another actor with a extensive animated career, he is iconic in several anime fans' eyes as Miroku in Inuyasha (the home of many of my favorite Canadian voice talent). His other work include Michelangelo in the late 90s Teenage Mutant Turtles series, Cyclops in X-Men: Evolution, and Cole in Lego's Ninjago franchise (I can hear two of my college friends (one I've known since pre kindergarten) screaming in the background). As far as Hallmark goes, Morrow's first movie was A Family Thanksgiving in 2010 (the lead is Daphne Zuniga from parody delight Spaceballs). His most notable credit was the male lead, Tom, in A Ring By Spring (Andrew Francis is also in this one as one of Rachel Boston's exes), but he was also in The Irresistible Blueberry Farm ("To the swimmer!"), A Wish for Christmas (where he plated Kendall Cross's wife), and the first suspect in the Darrow & Darrow franchise.

One word to describe Morrow's work: Charming. He brought a spark to his characters that made his work memorable for many people. Would I have expected him to play a love interest when I got into Hallmark movies, a role typically reserved for a contracted Hallmark fav? No. But it makes an anime fan like me, and others, smile in satisfaction. Tom was a great lead who I enjoyed seeing Caryn fall for, and that enthusiasm popped up into his other Hallmark work as well. Despite being obviously framed in the first Darrow & Darrow movie, I had to make a note in my Hallmark Google Doc stating his character didn't do it. Why would he? His sudden death was felt by several people in a few internet communities. I think it was for a good reason. His clear passion in his animated and live action characters was something that made his work unique.

With that, we have reached the last stop of our journey. Thank you for traveling along for the highs, the lows, and references as I gave you a crash course on all things Hallmark. May you enter back into the world with the feelings you've learned a bit more about a field you've heard about and possibly made fun of from afar changed/unchanged. Until next time.