What to Do With Chrissy?

NBC’s John Legend–hawking Christmas special can’t figure out how to use its real star: Chrissy Teigen.

Chrissy Teigen and John Legend kiss while wearing Santa outfits.
Chrissy Teigen and John Legend in A Legendary Christmas.

Why wouldn’t NBC want to be in the John Legend–Chrissy Teigen business? He’s the musician and actor who earned praise for (and completed his EGOT with) his performance in the network’s live version of Jesus Christ Superstar earlier this year. She’s the model and cookbook author who may actually be more famous than her husband, despite her less traditional entertainment bona fides, thanks to her winning persona and weapons-grade following on social media. NBC should count landing the couple’s Christmas special, A Legendary Christmas With John and Chrissy, which airs Wednesday night, as a real get. Maybe the pair once would have been a little niche for their own special, but in our increasingly fragmented digital culture, Legend and Teigen represent a new brand of megawatt stars.

So with these twin behemoths-in-the-making in hand, NBC has craftily put them in … a musical variety show? You can imagine the thinking, however wayward: As ratings have cratered in recent years, networks have turned to stunt formats they’d mostly been avoiding for the past 40 years, like those live musicals, in an effort to recoup viewership. Legend has a Christmas album and tour to promote. Why not, right? Well, modern networks have avoided variety-style shows for a reason: They’re hard to pull off. And, regrettably, A Legendary Christmas proves that in spades. Despite the charms of Legend, Teigen, their families, and the cavalcade of stars that join them, at best this special makes for amiable background watching, the kind of thing you might leave on while guests arrive at your own holiday party. On its own, it’s less compelling than an average day of Teigen’s social media output. That speaks a bit to the special’s inanity, but perhaps more to a bigger problem: the difficulty of trying to take the phenomenon that is Chrissy Teigen, internet genius, off the internet—and of accepting the power of her stardom relative to her husband’s.

The premise of A Legendary Christmas, to the extent that there is one, is that Legend and Teigen, or at least a self-consciously corny sitcom version of the two (which seems a little tired all these years after Too Many Cooks, but whatever), are hosting a Christmas get-together for their friends and loved ones, during which John will play the piano and Teigen will do … whatever it is that she does so well. It starts off in a promising direction: John’s got the bumbling-dad act down, and Chrissy’s admirably game, in the kitchen slaving over a magnificent gingerbread house. But soon enough, the show starts to wilt, perhaps from a lack of plot that goes beyond “Look, another celebrity friend is here! Let’s go caroling with Jane Lynch now!” I’m not asking for a murder mystery, but it might have helped if the special’s writers dedicated a little more effort to decking these barest of narrative halls. Don’t get me wrong: It’s fun when people like Kris Jenner and Stevie Wonder stop by and when the family’s adorable daughter, Luna, video chats with the Queer Eye cast, but … why?* I would have been satisfied by the flimsiest of reasoning or backstories. Perhaps more grievous is the gag-free script, especially given some of the talent. When you’ve already gone to the trouble of getting a great cast and building a set, why not also, maybe, give Zach Galifianakis and Awkwafina some better jokes? Let them toss off a few of their own? Just a thought.

To be fair, there’s not a ton of time for plot between sequences of Legend singing while Teigen looks on adoringly, of which there are plenty, some within the context of the party and some within separate music videos that strongly resemble holiday commercials for Target. Other digressions find Teigen falling asleep and dreaming she’s on The Voice—a great concept but not nearly as funny as it could have been—and Teigen and Legend putting together a focus group to see who makes the better mac and cheese. The latter, weirdly, may have been the best part of the special. Instead of parroting lines and hitting ill-conceived marks, Teigen gets to interact with her husband spontaneously—which she is great at, and is all viewers want to see anyway—as well as with “real people,” so she can also shine in her unscripted way. It’s one of the few parts of the special that lets Teigen be Teigen.

And that points to the central problem this special can’t solve: What to do with Chrissy? Teigen isn’t a performer in the more traditional way Legend is, but while Legend may have all those statues on his shelf, Teigen is, in her way, no less a virtuoso than he is. Her instrument just happens to be an iPhone instead of a piano. If her talent is that she’s naturally funny, understands the internet, and is fun to be around, her minders haven’t exactly figured out a way to translate that charisma to other venues (and NBC certainly hasn’t brought it to TV). Teigen is famous for being raw and authentic, so of course we’d rather watch the unfiltered Instagram stories and tweets we’ve come to know her for than a highly produced dog-and-pony show’s attempt to make that work on prime time. Instead, A Legendary Christmas leans heavily on Legend’s more traditional variety-show appeal while leaving its secret weapon mostly unused. Sure, a TV special is an old-fashioned thing: It’s not like Teigen can stand in the corner and tweet. But … couldn’t she? Next time John has a custom rosé to sell and taps his wife to join him on a stage, my plea is simple: Just let her do what she wants. Stardom is changing, and Chrissy Teigen is the perfect argument for letting old formats evolve.

Correction, Nov. 28, 2018: This post originally misstated that Legend and Teigen’s daughter, Luna, uses the program FaceTime to speak to the Queer Eye cast. She uses a different video call app.