The High Stakes of Low Stake Stories

Everyone knows the formula. They mock the formula. But they love the formula. A woman who is with the wrong man in the wrong city doing the wrong job has to go back home to help out the family business and while she’s there, she meets the right man, finds the right work, and moves back to the right community. There are variations on the theme but not many. Every story hits the same beats and people just keep watching. 

The plots revolve around very low stakes. You know going into the story that nothing disastrous will happen. No one gets sick or suffers onscreen. (Though plenty of people do die before we meet the heroes, leaving them widowed, with cute children who fall in love with their potential counterpart long before they do.) The greatest conflict is generally someone getting snowed in, or the parade for the Christmas parade not getting done. Most of the plots revolve around misunderstandings and it takes at least one commercial break and one simple conversation to resolve. 

Aside from the powerful mythic Christmas and Hanukkah stories, the Hallmark holiday movies are getting the most attention this season. The numbers are staggering: this year, Hallmark debuted 70 new movies through November and December. They designed sweaters and gear just for sitting on your couch and knowing exactly what will happen. All the attention has come with scrutiny also. They’ve been criticized for a failure to tell stories that reflect diverse cultures. Recently, they came under fire for airing an ad featuring a lesbian couple kissing, then pulling the ad after conservatives complained, and finally apologizing and re-airing the ad, all within 48 hours. The world is watching them and that comes at a cost and with gains. Forbes reports they banked $600 million dollars last year through the holiday season. They regularly win the competition for viewers and attention. Even as they are ridiculed, the low stake stories are very big business.

There are several possible explanations. They tap into a need for holiday programming. People want holiday-themed stories to go along with their hot cocoa drinking and tree decorating. On a larger scale, they meet the need for so-called “middle movies” that live somewhere between the budgets of giant blockbuster films and low-budget mumblecore movies.  

They stand in a long line of comfort programming. They are stories that are cozy, familiar, just above background noise, stimulating enough to forget the rest of the day but mindless enough to let you scroll twitter while you watch. And we crave them all year long. Comfort television explains why so many people these days endlessly rewatch The Office. It’s why Netflix paid $100 million in 2018 to keep Friends around for one more year. And why these shows are such important bargaining chips in the streaming wars. 

Whether we watch the Hallmark movies or not, this phenomenon is worth our attention. Even as these movies become a punchline, they can reveal deep down truths.

We need space for low stakes more than ever. Low stake stories make the world feel smaller. People are bombarded all day with the grandness of the world and its overwhelming problems. Of course they want to spend a couple of hours in a world where the elements are known and controlled. 

Low stakes spaces let us rest. We need stories with the complexity and wisdom of The Watchmen. We need stories that let us wrestle with the darkness of what it means to be human alongside other humans. But right now, we also need places to recover from that work. 

Behind all the snowflakes and small-town festivals, the low stakes of the Hallmark movies show us how important it is to connect, whether it’s through the obvious future spouse, or the wacky neighbors, or our parents with the struggling Christmas tree farm. 

As we deal with heightened anxiety and conflict in our real lives, we need space with known elements and safe company. If we are concerned with the human story, or we are leading people in our organization or community, we need to make room for smaller stories and familiar formulas. The lesson of the Hallmark movies is closely connected to the need for companies to allow room and time for self-care and community care. We need to value recovery and peace.

What looks like the lowest of stakes may be the highest in a snowy disguise.