What makes for the perfect Christmas movie? This is the question I, a Jewish woman, have been asking myself for weeks as I’ve made my way through an unhealthy sampling of all that Lifetime has to offer. Not all Christmas movies are created equal, but I’ve learned to look for a few key ingredients that bring a Christmas movie from the naughty to the nice list: genuinely likable protagonists, at least one of whom is a lawyer; on-screen chemistry; no fewer than 18 Christmas trees in every shot; and, as luck would have it, Fran Drescher.
That’s right, the flashy girl from Flushing, The Nanny herself, is in a new Lifetime movie called The Christmas Setup, and it is simply one of the best things I’ve ever watched.
There are so many things to love about The Christmas Setup. For one, it’s Lifetime’s first movie featuring gay romantic leads. Yes, this is long overdue, and yes, it’s still worth celebrating. Also worth celebrating? There is no “gay trauma porn” to be found here: nobody painfully coming out to their family, no homophobia, no hiding one’s true self. Of course, all of those experiences are (unfortunately) very real, but it’s incredibly refreshing to see a movie about LGBTQ characters in which their sexuality is not the point. “What’s beautiful about this movie is that it’s not about the trauma or the struggle of the gay experience, which is certainly valid — but if that’s what you want to see….you could very easily turn on the news,” co-star Blake Lee told People.
There’s also the fact that the two male leads are actually in love in real life! Ben Lewis and Blake Lee’s chemistry as Hugo and Patrick feels natural, and that’s because it is — the couple has been together for 10 years and married for five. They met in the bathroom of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre during the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World premiere (Lewis was in the film, Lee had come with his pal Aubrey Plaza). Since this movie was shot during the pandemic, producers purposefully chose a married couple who would have no qualms about kissing each other — which worked out well, because watching them kiss is really freaking cute.
But I’m not here to talk about all that. I’m here to talk about the genius casting of Fran Drescher as Hugo’s mom, Kate. Because with her signature laugh, larger-than-life personality, and Yiddishe mama spirit, she is the reason that not 10 minutes into the film, my fiancé turned to me and said, “I never want this to end.”
I probably don’t have to tell you that Fran Drescher is Jewish. It’s kind of her whole personality. She played one of the most iconic Jewish characters, Fran Fine, on The Nanny (and is the reason the character remained Jewish, after sponsors suggested she should be Italian instead). In many ways, Fran Fine was a walking stereotype of an Ashkenazi New York Jew: she loves shopping, is incredibly close to her mother, and has the chutzpah to be unabashedly herself at all times. (Also, the fashion. Oh, the fashion.) With her exaggerated New York accent and nasally (some might say whiny) voice, it’s hard to separate Fran Drescher from her Jewish identity.
And that wasn’t lost on the folks responsible for The Christmas Setup. Unlike most Lifetime movies, The Christmas Setup is clearly in on the ironic fun – in this case, of having such a quintessentially Jewish woman play a character who’s literally responsible for her neighborhood’s Christmas festivities. The very first line of dialogue we hear from Kate, as her New York-based lawyer son arrives at her Milwaukee home for the holidays, is, “Hugo, you look so skinny!!!!” If that isn’t the stereotypical Jewish mother greeting, I don’t know what it is.
The entire plot of The Christmas Setup is actually pretty Jewish, and it’s right there in the name: Kate is a yenta who just wants her son to be happy, and thus sets him up with his high school crush, Patrick, who still lives in the area and runs the town’s Christmas tree stand with his dad. Kate isn’t over-the-top overbearing, but just pushy enough to make sure that Hugo and Patrick keep running into each other, thus taking on the time-honored Jewish tradition of matchmaking.
Kate is pretty darn feisty, too, and isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes. She reveals to Hugo that she was actually recently arrested while protesting the demolition of the town’s beloved old train station, somewhat awkwardly quoting John Lewis while saying, “Sometimes you have to get in some good trouble.” It’s this scene where the writers of The Christmas Setup allowed for a single Yiddishism to slip through. Hugo, also upset at the prospect of the train station being destroyed, says, “Where are these kids supposed to write their letters to Santa?”
“Right?” Kate replies. “Tell that to those bureaucrats downtown. Those schmucks.”
Reader, I erupted in cheers at this moment. It felt like Fran Drescher was winking at me through the screen.
There was one more moment where the script got a little meta when it came to Kate’s not-quite-Wisconsin-esque pattern of speech. Patrick is asking Hugo about living in New York, and Hugo reveals that’s where his mother actually grew up. “Wow, you’d never know with that thick Milwaukee accent of hers,” Patrick says, wink wink, har har.
Fran commented on this little nugget of back story when talking to Parade earlier this month about how a nice Jewish girl like her wound up in a Christmas movie. “Kate does come from New York, but she fell in love with a guy that she met in college and he wanted to go back to his hometown, Milwaukee. She left her friends and family to be with him, but it turned out OK,” Fran says. She adds, on a personal level, that “even though I’m Jewish, I’m a Buddhist, and I celebrate Christmas. I celebrate anything that feels happy and positive and brings family and friends together under the most joyful of circumstances. I blur all the lines. Just whatever makes your heart sing, go for it.” She also goes on to mention how, during The Nanny days, when the network wanted them to do a Christmas episode, they went to Israel and stayed in a kibbutz where the episode was set. That’s just how she rolls.
Ultimately, Fran’s Kate is the ideal mother anyone could ask for — Christian or Jewish, gay or straight. She’s unbelievably supportive of her sons, is a ball of sunshine to everybody she meets, stands up for what’s right, and knows when to butt in — and butt out — of her family’s affairs.
Would I love to see a Jewish mother characterized with such nuance and warmth? Of course. But I also can’t stress just how fun it was to watch this very Christmas-y Christmas movie with the wonderfully Jewish Fran Drescher at its heart. With a wink and a nod, her Jewish spirit comes through and makes The Christmas Setup a movie truly worth kvelling over.