Hugging The Robot, Or The Gifts We Already Have: David Roth's Weak In Review

In a season of buying and selling, it's worth taking a moment to remember what we really want, and already have. Sports can help with that.

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Dec 23 2016, 3:00pm

Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

"I'm not interested in building an empire," the actress Julie Benz says, eyes shining, to the man she has just told that she will not be selling her family's business. "I'm interested in building a family."

I will not bore you with the plot details of A Charming Christmas, which is one of the hundreds of soupy and interchangeable Christmas movies that have been running consecutively on The Hallmark Channel since Halloween. I will mention that Benz's character was transformed by her experience as Mrs. Claus at the family department store. It changed her whole perspective. Spoiler, obviously, but she will be home for Christmas.

I am not here to argue that Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are sports; sports are played by people and occasionally embodied by animals, and these are movies about how workaholic adult women should drink more hot cocoa, find a nice boy, and be nice to their parents. With all due respect to the delightful Alicia Witt, who sometimes shows up in these things, these movies are pretty easily the least essential cultural product out there—both common and cheap, inoffensive above all things and effectively interchangeable, soft both around the edges and in their pale, gooey middles. They are advertisements for a dusty collection of middle American sentimentalities in general and occasionally for actual gaudy baubles made by Hallmark; those tend to be both the most narratively overdetermined and most determinedly sentimental efforts, the ones so gentle and grandma-safe that nothing actually happens in them, strictly speaking. The ones with actual angels figuring into the plot.

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You have maybe noticed that I seem to know more about these movies than I should. There's a reason for that.I am fascinated by the Hallmark Channel's Christmas movies, and while I would not say that I like them—if you're just joining us, they're pretty much all insanely bad—I have found something in them to love over these last bruising months. Their brusque artlessness and soul-deep hokeyness honestly makes them difficult to watch for more than a few minutes, and again I say this as a pretty big Alicia Witt fan. It also makes them exceedingly easy to understand. They are selling fantasies of family and community that are exceedingly narrow and white in ways the language doesn't have words for yet, they are the simplest and softest Grandma Dreams imaginable, but in a culture presently being torn apart by its governing fantasies, these movies' fantasies seem not just unobjectionable but so retro as to nearly boomerang back around to being revolutionary.

Each of the games we care about sells us a set of fantasies, and access to the suite of emotions that comes with it. These are tied into things like community and family and belief, and in the right circumstances these allegiances and loyalties can become communities of belief all their own, but for the most part they are aspirations broad and ambitious enough that their outer edges shade into the dreamlike. The leagues themselves can be confused in their understanding of how valuable this is, and confusing in how they try to sell it back to us; think of the NFL's towering and risible corporate grandiosity or the prickly falseness college football's righteous con artistry. But the games themselves do not lie to us. They can't.

I'll be this guy, for Christmas. Photo by Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

For all the cynicisms and falsehoods and other greed-driven epiphenomena that surround them, the games themselves are honest and their appeal is uncomplicated. This isn't to say that they're simple, so much as it is to say that the things we get from them—the glimpses of grace and strength and unselfishness, the intimations of flight and escape and transcendence—are elemental and authentic. The howling wind farms of false debate and shameless profit-taking and exploitation that grow up around the games are business, and business as usual; they are leveraged on the smaller and truer things that the games give us, and are only tolerable because of how valuable those fundamental things are.

The industry that surrounds sports sells us things that are cheaper and more easily manufactured than the finer feelings the games give up so readily. They trade stupid power for strength, domination for mastery, inflation for flight, oppositional partisanship for community, and the difference is as easy to taste as the one between corn syrup and sugar; one is insipid and artificial, the other is just sweet. A commercial is a commercial is a commercial, finally, and maybe we should only expect so much from them. It's inevitable that we would be disappointed when we ask systems and models for the sorts of things that only people can give us; one is built to extract value, while the other just gives all these valuable things away as gifts, in passing and seemingly by accident.

The fantasies that we're sold are not good for us and will not make us happy; they are that way by design, because their most fundamental purpose is to keep us hungry. They're not for us, and this is what makes the lurching and overdetermined ways in which they're sold both so repellent and so compellingly weird; the idea of normal that's sold on the Hallmark Channel is every bit as psychotic and false as the NFL's vision of strength or college sports' brutally selective concept of loyalty. And yet there's something poignant about the salesmanship, something uncanny but almost sweet. They are trying to sell us things that are free, and if they are machine-made and hilarious as they lurch towards us, their falseness reminds us of some important and true things, things that we already have and all too easily forget, and which belong to us alone.

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