24 Hours That Felt Like a Lifetime

What I learned from watching Lifetime’s holiday movie marathon.

Photo illustration of a silhouetted woman watching a wall of monitors with Lifetime Channel movies on them
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Lifetime and AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The Lifetime Channel is now in a holiday-season arms race with the Hallmark Channel, with both networks already airing holiday movies 24/7. Over the next couple months, Lifetime will meter out 30 brand new holiday movies, the considerable remaining time filled with re-reruns from their catalog that fulfill the requirements: dramatic, heartwarming, draped in tinsel, and decked out in colorful lights. The programming started last Friday. Yes, it is currently October.

On a recent morning, I settled into a spot on my couch in my teeny apartment in Brooklyn to figure out what this strange world looks like. The rules: I’d spend a full rotation of the earth with the channel on. I’d leave the house only to walk my dog. I’d sleep, but with Lifetime in the background. I’d keep a journal. Would I be inspired by the Christmas—uh, holiday—spirit a full month early? Would I, by dawn the next day, have packed my belongings and left the city for a home with a fireplace and a gigantic fir tree and a man with whom I shared one star-crossed moment years ago? Or would this overdose make me want to ride out the actual holiday season in a minimal-but-tasteful bunker?

This is my story.

8:01 a.m. The first hurdle: We don’t have cable. Instead, I am conducting this experiment on a computer monitor, jury-rigged with a Roku player, with a free trial of some app that allows you to stream a bunch of channels. I grew up in one of those households where the parents don’t really believe in television or 2 percent milk, so even this squatting-style cable TV feels mystical.

8:05 a.m. Diving right in with Holiday Spin. A mother is decorating her home with a truly absurd number of bows. Her son protests that it is not even Thanksgiving. Now they are singing “Jingle Bells” in the car. Now they have been sideswiped by a large vehicle. Now the mom is dead. Now, the kid is headed to Miami with his estranged father. Lifetime is not screwing around.

8:13 a.m. Ugh, I forgot about commercials. How annoying.

8:14 a.m. Ooh, a fridge that dispenses round balls of ice!

8:17 a.m. Back to the movie. I missed the son’s name, so I’m calling him Zac Efron 2. Zac 2’s new family is really into dancing, but he’s an aspiring fighter. Still, he lurks around a rehearsal and reveals himself to be a choreography savant.

8:48 a.m. OK, the thrust of this movie is: There is going to be a competition called Holiday Spin where couples dance to Christmas carols and compete for a cash prize, which the family really needs. A hot girl, Pia, who is Zac 2’s age and lives with the family but is not related(?), is going to compete for that with her dance partner–boyfriend.

9:01 a.m. Zac 2’s name is Blake.

9:15 a.m. Blake and Pia want to be together but they can’t because who knows what the future will hold. (They are approximately 17 years old.)

9:33 a.m. Pia’s dance partner–boyfriend has cheated on her. No longer with a partner, she’s dancing alone to a Christmas carol. She’s good! Naturally, a woman excelling alone is a bat signal for Blake. He will be her dance partner now.

9:41 a.m. Holiday Spin takes place in a flimsy event tent and has no more than four dozen spectators. Nonetheless, there is a $50,000 grand prize.

9:55 a.m. They win; they kiss; I contemplate what it will be like to do this 12 more times.

10:06 a.m. This next movie, Will You Merry Me, is about two strangers (Rebecca and Henry) in New York who find a rent-controlled New York City apartment at the same exact time, and both insist on moving in after having done exactly zero roommate recon on each other. Now, after six months, the guy is proposing. “You are the reason I wake up and the reason I go to sleep,” he says. No shit. You are sharing an apartment with a person you don’t even know well enough to trust to not murder you.

10:09 a.m. Cut to a woman with an extremely familiar voice announcing that her daughter is “in love with the idea of love.” Some Googling reveals it is Wendie Malick of Just Shoot Me, a show that I could get on my family’s tiny TV. Thank you for being here, Wendie Mallick.

10:11 a.m. Cut to Henry’s mom in a Christmas-filled house hanging up a single “Happy Hanukkah” sign to welcome Malick’s family. Despite Lifetime carefully using the word holiday to describe their monthslong marathon, this is about as close as the network will get today to acknowledging holidays other than Christmas.

10:52 a.m. Henry keeps a gun in his childhood room, wants to raise kids in his hometown, and wants his fiancée to plan on going by “Rebecca Kringle” (his last name).

11:48 a.m. Rebecca and Henry both acknowledge that they do not know what they want for the future, and are, to boot, showing no believable signs of genuinely wanting to be together. Also, Henry kissed his ex-girlfriend from middle school. This movie will wrap up in 12 minutes.

11:59 a.m. Naturally, Henry has chased Rebecca down in an airport. True love!

12:14 p.m. I have put on a face mask and broken into a supply of Good and Plenty, a snack that is the correct size to eat while your face is crusting over and you watch The Christmas Hope, which features our second dead mom of the day.

12:57 p.m. If this experiment kills me, it will be a death by commercials. Specifically, country singer and Lifetime Original star Jana Kramer saying “You’re my Mr. Christmas” as she leans in to kiss a hot guy she’s (probably) fated to be with in an endlessly repeated ad for a movie premiering in November. Hell isn’t a cheesy movie—it’s the cheesiest snippet of a cheesy movie being etched into your brain so thoroughly that it is sure to remain there, in some form, until the soft matter of your innards is finally allowed to decompose. Five hours down.

1:24 p.m. Since lunch has passed with no actual lunch happening, I am going to make saltine bark. I made a good-faith effort to look for a more holiday-oriented option at the grocery store, but, unsurprisingly, there were no Christmas-themed things available in October.

2:13 p.m. Another movie about a couple that started off as roommates and then got quickie-engaged! She’s an astrophysicist who is excited to tell her parents about a big discovery she made, he’s the guy who was renting her basement who interrupts her gamma-ray-burst news by thrusting her left hand in everyone’s faces.

I like to imagine that in 10 years, all these Lifetime “holiday”-special women will be divorced and living in a really marvelous house together.

4:12 p.m. I made the mistake of picking up my phone. In the time I was in an internet rabbit hole, Astrophysicist has discovered that her fiancée-née-roommate’s parents are literally Santa and his wife. The movie wraps up with the engaged pair kissing and him calling her “Mrs. Claus.” That’s Dr. Claus to you, buddy!!

4:18 p.m. This next one is called On Strike for Christmas. It’s about a mom who, fed up with waiting on her sons and husband hand and foot, leads a townwide homemaker protest. I genuinely look forward to seeing how Lifetime tackles the complex and emotional issue of labor within the domestic sphere.

5:34 p.m. The dad and almost-adult sons attempt to make cookies and fail to the degree that makes me think they might literally die from incompetence by this end of the movie.

5:48 p.m. No such luck. The emotional resolution: Mom learns a lesson about materialism.

6:24 p.m. My roommate Nikki comes home, then turns around and retreats to our local hot yoga studio. Every cell of my body is jealous. I attempt to solve this by pulling out my yoga mat and doing one plank.

7:53 p.m. I decide to take a shower and realize I can easily bring Lifetime with me via the Roku app on my phone. This ends up meaning that I am terrorized by the “Mr. Christmas” commercial while I wash my hair.

8:08 p.m. Nikki is back from hot yoga and pointedly asks how many of the movies had nonwhite leads. None so far.

8:14 p.m. Sometimes junk food can almost feel healthy if I just rotate from one thing to the next with reasonable breaks in between. (I’m now on popcorn.)

8:36 p.m. Now I’m watching No Time Like Christmas, in which an ad executive is forced to work on a campaign for her biggest client yet at a bed-and-breakfast decked out in Christmas gear. Also, she keeps bumping into her college boyfriend and his daughter. She is single; he is revealed to be the only man she ever loved. But we do, finally, have a black lead.

8:42 p.m. People keep interrupting the ad executive genius’s work to urge her to come to some festival. Firmly and inspirationally she shakes her head, saying, “I’m on a tight deadline.”

8:59 p.m. Garry from Parks and Rec is here! He’s encouraging the ad executive to go after her old boyfriend.

9:21 p.m. I have to confess that I’ve been dipping into Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own during some of the commercial breaks. It’s been out for a while, but I’ve turned to it now because I’m 29 and in a phase of life where every time I open social media, someone new is getting engaged. Which, for a professional-grade compare-and-despair-er who is not engaged, is frankly maddening. Spending a day binging movies in which fresh-faced young people (the astrophysicist was 25!) put rings on it would be, I worried, like touching a hot stove of jealousy. But this aspect has been fine! I credit the book.

10:04 p.m. This movie, Sweet Mountain Christmas, is starting off with a Dolly Parton song!

Country star Laney Blue is making a pit stop in her hometown before heading to New York to perform at “Santapalooza.” Echoing the ad executive from the previous movie, she firmly and inspirationally tells her mom that she can’t stay for very long because of this work commitment. (“Santapalooza,” improbably, sounds like a dream gig for her.) Both this movie and the last one are brand new Lifetime Christmas movies and seem to represent a little bit of the unlikely progressiveness of Lifetime that Laura Goode charted in an essay for BuzzFeed a couple years ago.

10:45 p.m. I’m eating pizza, and my teeth hurt.

10:57 p.m. As I head into the home stretch, my boyfriend—we’ve been dating for several months, which is technically an eternity by Lifetime standards—sends me the same “good luck” text he sends before I run a race. I genuinely appreciate his respect for the difficulty of this feat.

11:18 p.m. Beware, a good-looking snowplow driver has made his way onto the scene. What was life like before I was surrounded by the background hum of a successful woman bending the parameters of her life for a hot guy?

If not for the dizzying number of Santas, Lifetime’s holiday programming could convincingly double as a long Valentine’s Day special. Not even the strong women get to the end of a Lifetime holiday movie alive without a nuclear family, a shiny-toothed heterosexual partner with which to cultivate a new one, or both. In Lifetime-land, “family” means “people with whom you haphazardly papered over political and interpersonal differences in the name of being committed and grinning in time for Jesus’ birthday.” The spirit of Lifetime Christmas seems, both in content and relentless 24/7 delivery, to create a space where a woman has everything she needs, emotionally and physically, within arm’s reach. It is at turns cozy and limiting.

11:31 p.m. These movies and their drive for partnership, of course, do not address the sheer joy that can stem from spending time alone. Maybe that’s a lot to seek from a soapy cable channel. But it’s what I wish I could get, at least sometimes, from this kind of fun. As Spinster points out, being of settling-down-age and yet having an entire future available to chart exactly as you please—space and time to do things as dumb as this experiment—is not often held up as a magical state of being. But at this moment, sprawled out in the exact middle of my bed, the ambient noise of mandatory romance lulling me to sleep, I think: This feels like a definition of success.

4:37 a.m. There’s a foot massager on TV that a doctor guy says will help you sleep. I’ve briefly awoken to uncover a dark secret: Lifetime’s “24/7” holiday programming includes two and a half hours of paid infomercials! (Buying stuff? Why, maybe that is the true spirit of Christmas after all.)

7:33 a.m. We’re on some kind of megachurch programming, which I suppose is holiday-related.
A woman is telling me to erase the word “I can’t” from my vocabulary.

8:00 a.m. I can and I did! The holiday movie marathon will restart in a half-hour—without me.