Hallmark's Countdown to Christmas Is Upon Us

TATBT is flashing back to when we first fell in love/fear with 'The Christmas Train'

With Thanksgiving finally almost here, that chill in the air and gratitude in our hearts can only mean one thing: It’s time for Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas.” The titular Countdown starts before Thanksgiving; it features as many movies as Hallmark was able to make using only three unpaid interns, a selfie stick, and one Conair curling iron; and it stars every middle-child character you kind of remember from every 90s sitcom you kind of forgot.

But what if I told you that last year, Hallmark got a bunch of very famous actors to star a truly maniacal little trip into the Christmas upside down? Part Most Dangerous Game, part Thomas the Tank Engine, with a splash of peppermint schnapps, The Christmas Train came into my life at just the right time last year, and now I share it again with you here in preparation for 2018’s Hallmark Christmas coverage.

Oh, that’s right — it’s a TATBT TBT:

HALLMARK HALL OF FAME: WHAT’S IN A CHRISTMAS TRAIN?

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I recently watched my first ever Hallmark movie and, for a style of film that is entirely about two straight white people falling in love at Christmas because they accidentally fell on top of each other in a snowbank, I have a surprising number of questions. They are:

  1. Is Danny Glover a psychopath?

  2. Is Danny Glover an angel of romance?

  3. Can Danny Glover be both?

  4. What exactly is a Christmas Train?

I will try — and I will fail — to answer these questions for myself, for you, and for Danny Glover’s family. Don’t worry; explaining the entire plot in great detail will not spoil the film for you because the only thing that spoils the plot of a Hallmark movie is the first five minutes of a Hallmark movie. And yet, here I am, utterly shooketh by the last five minutes of instant Hallmark classic, The Christmas Train.


Most things in the world currently feel like a self-pollinating trash heap made entirely of onion peels, used dental floss, and ghosts; so in an effort to treat myself, I decided to become someone who watches Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas.”  Admittedly, this is not an organic way to come to the Hallmark altar. As far as I know, I am the only person to ever actively seek out their first Hallmark Christmas movie. These movies are built to be discovered in fits of Thanksgiving boredom so paralyzing that no one in your family is able to muster the physical or mental strength to change the channel.

But once you’ve tasted that sweet, sweet mindless sauce, life will never be the same without it; Hallmark Christmas movies are the meth of TV cinema. 

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In any given Hallmark Christmas movie, there is a man; there is a woman; they do not enjoy each other upon first meeting. Or, at least, the woman does not enjoy the man. The woman rarely enjoys anything. Except Christmas — the woman fucking loves Christmas. Like, travels-with-a-reusable-tote-full-of-ornaments-just-in-case-she-comes-across-a-naked-spruce, puts-candy-canes-in-her-dirty-martinis, would-make-out-with-a-moose-should-the-binding-laws-of-mistletoe-so-demand-it kind of love.

It is unclear exactly why Christmas, a technically religious holiday based on an infant-cum-savior born to a virgin teen, is synonymous with romance in the eyes of Hallmark. To be fair, the romance that every Hallmark man and woman find is also quite virginal. In Hallmark movies, people drink but don’t get drunk, they hold coffee cups constantly but never seem to be rushing to the bathroom, and they have sexual tension but absolutely never have sex. You’re lucky if they even kiss, and it’s usually not until the last 20 seconds of the movie so as to avoid any possible risk of tongue stuff. Tongue stuff, I guess, is not what Christmas is about.

Christmas is about a kooky cast of characters with notable traits like “an accent!” and “lurking around corners!” and “Danny Glover!” It’s about gal pals with slightly dead eyes and a solitary passion for listening to the protagonist’s love life qualms. It’s about snow angels, and jewel tones, and not exposing your collar bone. A lot of times it seems to be about being a writer of some kind and/or an original member of the cast of Full House.

You can find all this and more in The Christmas Train, which I would now like to explain to you, because it is boring for 90 minutes, and then nosedives into a 48 Hours episode in the last 10. It’s incredible.


The most important thing to know about The Christmas Train is that there are a lot of characters to keep up with. The least important thing to know, according to Hallmark Hall of Fame film The Christmas Train: is exactly what a Christmas Train is.

As a viewer, you’re simply thrust into a glittering train station where everyone is talking about hopping aboard the Christmas Train. And the majority of them seem to be writers, there to “find a story” about riding that Christmas Train that all the hottest magazines and literary journals are clamoring for. Or as Hallmark explains it, “A journalist embarks on a cross-country train ride at Christmas having no idea this journey will take him into the rugged terrain of his own heart as he rediscovers people’s goodness, holiday magic, and a love he thought he’d lost.” The rugged terrain of his own heart!!!

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That journalist is Tom Langdon, played by Hollywood’s hottest Guess Who card, Dermot Mulroney; that love he thought he’d lost is Kimberly Williams-Paisely, titular bride from Father of the Bride; that rugged heart-terrain is explored via the helpful meddling of a charming Danny Glover and gotdang Joan Cusack, who one IMDb reviewer describes as, “a little bit corky.”

If you think that cast pedigree sounds steep for a Hallmark movie, you’re right. If you think that will make any difference in its quality, you are wrong. Every Hallmark movie has the exact same quality and that quality is the artistic equivalent of a participation ribbon. “Oh, you watched The Christmas Train?” “I did.” “And how was it?” “It was a movie.”

Going into The Christmas Train, I was already pretty fascinated by the idea of a real-life screenwriter writing a film about a Christmas Train where one of the fictional characters is a screenwriter writing a film about a Christmas Train. There’s just a lot to unpack there…

Now imagine the Psych 101 fireworks that went off in my head when The Christmas Train’s credits revealed to me that this little gem was written by none other than Neal and Tippi Dobrofsky. A MARRIED MAN AND WOMAN WROTE A MOVIE ABOUT A CHRISTMAS TRAIN WHERE THE LEAD MAN AND LEAD WOMAN BOARD A CHRISTMAS TRAIN IN ORDER TO WRITE A MOVIE ABOUT A CHRISTMAS TRAIN AND ARE ENGAGED TO BE MARRIED BY THE END OF THAT CHRISTMAS TRAIN MOVIE.

Either the dynamic Dubrofskys are the most egotistical writers in the world, or the laziest writers in the world; either way, I am deeply envious of their career, and I’m sure their 27 shared TV-Movie writing credits help them sleep at night, likely nestled inside their third home in Telluride where they pay people to ski for them as they drink from diamond tumblers and hand roll cigarettes in $100 bills.

On The Christmas Train, however, it’s a much more humbler affair: sleeper cars the size of Apple Stores, enough Christmas décor to make any Hallmark heroine jizz tinsel, and a leather-tufted dining car fit for a Dubrofsky. 

This particular Christmas Train (are there more?? who knows??) begins in D.C. where Dermot Mulroney used to be an important journalist. The movie tells us this by subtly lingering on a “Manchester Award for Journalistic Excellence” plaque in his apartment, quickly followed by a neighbor saying, “I loved that article on sofas you did in Ladies Weekly.” Ah, yes, a completely plausible statement, a completely plausible article, a completely plausible publication — ladies be couchin’, amiright?

So poor Dermot’s been shamefully writing about ladies and their interests, but he’s hoping to restore a little journalistic integrity by riding the rugged rails. Much like the contestants on The Bachelor’s only hobby is talking about the journey of being on The Bachelor, the passengers of the Christmas Train are mainly into talking about the Christmas Train.

“You ride often?” an old man asks Dermot, a very normal question. “I actually thought I’d never get on one again,” a very normal answer that is not explained further. Dermot announces that he’s there to write a story. “So you need to be on a train to write a story?” the man obsessed with trains asks. “Yes, it’s a story about Christmas on a train.”

And folks, it really is a story about Christmas on a train — there is no other way to explain The Christmas Train. However, as it is a Hallmark movie, it must simultaneously be a story about falling in love.

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Enter Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Dermot’s former lover and co-important-wartime-journalist, now a screenwriter being forced upon the Christmas Train by none other than: Daaaanny Gloooover!

And believe me when I say, these damn Dobrofskys make you fall so in love with Danny Glover before revealing that he is psychotic. You’re googling “Adopt a grandparent,” you’re googling “watching Lethal Weapon online free,” you’re googling his age just to make sure we’re in the clear for a while RIP-wise. [Ed. note: It’s very easy to do other things while watching Hallmark movies. Also, relax: Danny Glover is only 71!]

We live in this peaceful bliss for most of the movie while Danny Glover works his magic to help our two love birds reconnect. See, Danny Glover is a film director so famous that everyone who encounters him recognizes him on sight. So that’s like, a Steven Spielberg, Tyler Perry incredibly famous type-of-man out there performing Saw-style emotional manipulation coast-to-coast on the rails. He’s brought KWP on the Christmas Train because he’s trying to build her confidence to go from a script doctor of other people’s scripts, to the full-on screenwriter of his next movie. Y'all wanna guess what that movie is about…

I’ll wait.

Almost there…

IT’S A MUTHAFUGGIN CHRISTMAS TRAAAAAAIN.

“How else you gonna write a script about a train,” Danny Glover asks, reasonably. If anyone is riding this Christmas Train for purely recreational reasons, we have yet to meet them. That old guy from earlier who’s always being called “a train man” makes it his personal mission to keep an eye on the weather and tell everybody how they’re probably going to get stranded and die (no spoilers!). The young couple in love are there to elope because his rich parents don’t approve of her poorness. The psychic on board is completely devoted to dolling out mysterious predictions.

And Joan Cusack? Well, she’s mostly there to make Dermot Mulroney uncomfortable and be at the center of a theft plotline that is so sporadic I think they ultimately blamed it on a widow’s loneliness, but I honestly cannot be sure.

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Danny Glover does not seem at all surprised to find out that Dermot Mulroney used to be in love with his good pal, co-worker, and Christmas Train hostage, KWP, even though the two former love birds are soooo different. You cannot imagine how different they are. Yes, they're both straight, white, D.C.-based former journalists riding a Christmas Train in order to write a story about said Christmas Train…but Dermot Mulroney writes in a leather journal and Kimberly Williams-Paisley writes on an iPad.

They’re from different worlds, don’t you see? Of course they would never have worked. She wanted to settle down and he wanted to keep doing Serious Man journalism in war torn countries. “Tom Langdon was the biggest mistake of my life,” KWP tells Danny Glover, which he wants to dig into emotionally, while not being at all concerned that she’s yet to write a single screenplay-word of The Christmas Train. [Ed. note: INCEPTION!].

The best thing about being a writer on the Hallmark Channel is that it’s all the saying you’re writing a story, and none of the pesky writing!

Dermot Mulroney is forced to talk to Joan Cusack about his resurfacing love-feelings, but it’s not a fair trade, because she’s always much more distracted than Danny Glover. And I’m going to go ahead and tell you right now, because it is truly unimportant to the story at large, that she later reveals herself to be a “Train Marshal” which is why she was acting like a sneaky weirdo the whole time. You know, how acting bizarre and saying mysterious things like, “No secrets on a train, especially the Christmas Train” is always helpful in flying under the radar as Train Marshal?

But she does give Dermot one piece of advice, which is also basically the thesis statement of Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas: “I’ve seen enough to know that two people that can make each other that miserable must have really been in love.” Misery loves company, and this Christmas Train is HELL!

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Just kidding. As Danny Glover tells his protégée KWP, “There is something about this Christmas Train — I don’t know whether it’s the magic of the season or what, but it always has a way of turning strangers into family.” May I tell you what KWP responds to that, while standing in her sleeper car the size of a metropolis Chipotle, surrounded by literally 20 decorative poinsettias? “I would have thought all trains were the same.”

I’m sorry Annie — may I call you Annie from Father of the Bride and Father of the Bride Part II because you are acting like a child right now — you would have thought that this luxury four-day train that has the same passengers the whole time, where multiple people are riding it just to write a story about it, where the conductor does a head count before leaving every station, and the most famous director in the world is on board, was just like any other train???

You have clearly never ridden the LIRR back from Montauk to Manhattan on a Sunday night when the most famous person on board is Jonathan from Mean Girls and even he has to stand, and you can count more people vomiting into bags than you can count not vomiting into bags.

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Poor Kimberly Williams-Paisley though, it’s not her fault. Dermot gets to be all cavalier, and “searching for his story” while wearing sexy Henley thermals, and she has to sullenly tap around on her iPad and say things like “I’m just not sure I need love to be happy,” and wear crew neck sweaters from Ann Taylor Loft and a low bun in every. single. scene.

I swear, in the scene where Danny Glover throws a train station wedding (sure!) for the kids who are eloping away from their parents and choosing to get married with a bunch of locomotive strangers instead, everyone else is wearing tuxes, and this woman is wearing slacks. But when it’s time for the bouquet toss, you will never guess who catches it…

I’ll wait.

Almost there…

IT’S MUTHAFUGGIN KIMBERY WILLIAMS-PAAAAAAISLEY.

Dermot and KWP go on some date in this tiny town that happens to have a Christmas festival where they fall in snow drifts and dance, without ever seeming to touch each other somehow. BUT THEN! Dermot’s long-distance girlfriend that he’s been meaning to break up with, but is also traveling to meet in Los Angeles for Christmas, shows up and you’re made to know that she’s awful because she prefers to take direct flights over Christmas Trains, she doesn’t like Denver, and she’s not Kimberly Williams-Paisley.

The girlfriend won’t be a problem though, because the weather that weird train man has been keeping so close an eye on — but I guess doing nothing about? — has indeed caused all the rail lines to close. And for some reason they don’t have any means of telling anyone that they’re on said rails, and I guess the Christmas Train isn’t really a sanctioned affair or something, because they’re going to run out of generator power and become a Christmas Train Popsicle if Dermot Mulroney and Kimberly Williams-Paisley don’t USE THEIR WARTIME REPORTER GRIT AND SNOWSHOE TO THE NEAREST TOWN FOR HELP RIGHT NOW.

I have yet to see anyone wear more than a pea coat while walking around outside, and this train’s destination is Los Angeles. But thank goodness some of the Christmas Train patrons were traveling with their snow shoes! No one seems worried that these two dumb-dumbs who both came on the Christmas Train to do their literal jobs but have shown exactly zero follow-through in performing said jobs are now heading out into the snowy wilderness…

But these are, after all, just a bunch of strangers living (and maybe dying) on a train together.

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Wouldn’t you know it, though: it was actually really great that Dermot and KWP went and did this extremely casual thing because it’s a perfect time for them to face the feelings they’ve been feeling and say how they never stopped loving each other, and finally make out. But, as previously mentioned, there’s no allotted time for tongue stuff on account of them needing to save everybody’s lives. Four feet away, they happen upon a whimsical Christmas Cottage™ [ed. note: coming to your TV in 2018] where a man happens to be strapping up a horse-and-buggy.

And you know what? I have no idea how pulling up to the Christmas Train in a horse-and-buggy ultimately resulted in the train being able to move again because I think I blacked out and lost some time after what’s coming up in the finale…

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We’re finally treated to the best part of any movie about an artist of some kind: when we get to experience the original art they produce. For our strapping pair of journalist protagonists, that’s when they finally get down to writing on their very last night on the Christmas Train. “You don’t take the Christmas Train to get somewhere fast,” says Dermot. “You take it for the journey. And what a journey it is! Trains aren’t just about the destination. They’re about the joy of taking a trip. I’m not saying that riding a train will change your life.” Wait for it. “But it certainly changed mine.

MUTHAFUCKING DERMOT MULRONEY WARTIME JOURNALIST IS BACK BABYYYYY!

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KWP also voice-overs about exploring the rugged terrain of her own heart or whatever, but there’s no time! To quote Joan Cusack while she was investigating Christmas Train robberies per her duties as a secret Train Marshal, “There’s a mystery at play.”

Because inside Danny Glover’s room, KWP finds a script in the trash can containing character names and dialogue that sound suspiciously like those of their new Christmas Train pals. In the back of your soft, smoothie-consistency, Hallmark-muddled brain, you might recall that the young couple kept mixing up details about their own lives, and Danny Glover brought a ton of luggage with him, and one guy weirdly had an SAG card in his wallet…

“So this entire trip was a [Danny Glover] production?” Kimberly Williams-Paisley mutters to herself…fondly? She grabs Dermot and they walk up to Danny Glover all, “I thought this was going to be a love story on a train, but now I’m thinking murder.” Y'all. This old man brought a bunch of actors on this Christmas Train and orchestrated a bunch of fairytale run-ins and romantic happenings to make Dermot Mulroney and Kimberly Williams-Paisley fall back in love with each other!

What was real? What wasn’t? I suddenly understand why Peeta was so annoying in the third Hunger Games book!

Were the young lovers who Dermot and KWP saw so much of themselves in real? (They were actors, but they did tooootally fall in love during their four all-expenses-paid days on the Christmas Train.) Was Joan Cusack really a Train Marshal; is a Train Marshal even a thing? (Unclear; unclear.) Was the psychic real? (Hard no.) Was the girlfriend showing up real? (No — Danny Glover asked her to come and she was totally cool with helping her boyfriend fall in love with someone else in exchange for a role in the upcoming smash Danny Glover hit, The Christmas Train [ed. note: INCEPTION PART 2!])

Was the date where Dermot and KWP rekindled their love real? Was the train outage real? Was the snowshoeing real? WAS THE SNOWSHOEING REAL!?!?!!?

Is their love even real?

Not a question our lovebirds are really concerned with, it seems. Danny Glover asks if they’re angry at him and KWP is all, “How could I be?” Oh, I don’t know Kimberly Williams Paisley, maybe because you’ll never know if your love with Dermot Mulroney is genuine or just a carefully constructed fantasy?

But they’re just so glad that Danny Glover heard they were both going to be on this Christmas Train and had the mental, financial, and psychologically-manipulative wherewithal to make a tiny lil’ Truman Show right there in their very own lives. I kid you not, Dermot Mulroney gets down on his gotdang knee and proposes marriage to Kimberly Williams-Paisley after 20 years apart, and four days together on a Christmas Train made of lies.

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Merry Christmas to all, I guess, or as this song created exclusively for The Christmas Train says:

Christmas is only a week and a few days away,

And you haven’t see your folks since Thanksgiving Day

I’ll say it loud and clear, I’ll say it plain,

You won’t wanna miss this year on the Christmas Train

Wowzers.

I’m going to watch more Hallmark Christmas movies — perhaps A Christmas Prince? Perhaps MY Christmas Prince? —  so I’ll likely write about them here. And then maybe I’ll write a screenplay about a writer who writes about Hallmark movies, but she ends up falling in love with one of those very Hallmark movie creators, namely notorious billionaire badboy screenwriter, Neal Dobrofsky Jr.???? Oh shit, this is getting good…

Check back here for more TATBT Countdown to Christmas Coverage in 2018 — you better believe I’ve got my DVR set for Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe.