Every year, pop stars attempt to wrestle Christmas from the well-moisturized hands of Mariah Carey, and every year they valiantly fail. Their reinterpretations of holiday classics may be jazzed up with chipper a cappella harmonies or even Busta Rhymes flexing about “pulling on a chinchilla,” but they tend to confirm that there are only so many ways to season “Jingle Bells.” In 2016, Kacey Musgraves tossed her tinsel-lined hat into the ring with A Very Kacey Christmas, a delightfully tacky record where she encouraged all to “stay higher than the angel on top of the tree.” This year, the country star has doubled down on her blissed-out brand of good cheer. She brings her 2016 album to life in The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show, a new Amazon Prime special where she scrambles to find her Nana’s tree topper and prep for a Christmas party, all the while playing host to a rotating cast of comedians, musicians, and Kendall Jenner.
Touted as a “nostalgic, Wes Anderson-inspired reimagining of the holidays,” the show is like a whimsical ride on a carousel: Each guest beams through a quick cameo then disappears, like a little girl waving atop one of the bejeweled ponies. Camila Cabello prances in for a frothy rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”; Zooey Deschanel materializes out of a magic bag for a tropical “Mele Kalikimaka” duet that sounds like it was recorded at Bikini Bottom. The one constant presence besides Musgraves is Dan Levy from Schitt’s Creek, who mocks and emulates the wise old narrators of Christmas past as he tries to shuffle the story along. “That of course is William Shakespeare,” he declares after poetically reading a line of Christmas verse. “And I have absolutely no idea what it means.”
The banter between Musgraves and her guests can be humorously thin, like that of improv performers dawdling onstage. During the cold open, she and James Corden awkwardly trade pleasantries as they peer out at a snowstorm. “I’ll tell you one thing: As long as we’re both nice and warm inside, it can snow out there as much as it likes,” Corden says, with a wink so heavy his eye is practically shut. “That’s really true,” Musgraves replies. “It’s really true.” “It’s so true.” “It’s so true.” “So true.” Corden slips her the microphone, and finally, they begin their toasty cover of “Let It Snow.”
This ad hoc style, however intentional, feels at odds with the special’s polished presentation. Often it is hard to distinguish whether The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show wants to be a well-designed holiday extravaganza, as deliberate shots of the control room and families watching at home would suggest, or an appealingly haphazard “Kacey and friends” open mic night. It doesn’t help that some of the interactions between Musgraves and her guests feel surprisingly stiff. “I really, really appreciate you making the time to come here,” Musgraves tells Lana Del Rey on air, as if the singer’s appearance on the special were not arranged months in advance but negotiated on the fly. Surely, if the special’s producers can arrange a performance by one of America’s best living songwriters, they can also coordinate a tighter script.
With the constant revolving door of visitors, you could forget that Kacey is supposed to be setting up for a party. The special exonerates itself for the plot’s thinness with heavy-handed self-awareness. “Even though Kacey had made virtually no progress with her Christmas preparations, she did somehow manage to find time for another song,” Levy quips. His tart, sometimes caustic commentary scans as if it’s designed to pre-empt any criticism from cynics. He jabs at Musgraves for her privilege, suggesting she isn’t allowed to be sad by virtue of being rich and successful. He goes woke when she requests he dial down the negativity: “Cheer. For a corporate holiday in this political climate,” Levy mutters in disbelief. An awkward dynamic emerges between employer and employee, working on behalf of Amazon no less. “You know, you’re funny and that’s why we hired you,” she reminds him.
However clumsily Musgraves and her friends stumble to the music, the songs themselves are by and large excellent. The LP’s chintzy-sounding children’s ditties, like “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and the Alvin and the Chipmunks original “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” are swapped out for more elegant fare. The compositions glide smoothly down the throat, like a cool glass of champagne. Wistful ballads such as the original “Christmas Makes Me Cry” and the Lana Del Rey-assisted “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” go a long way to soften the oppressive cheer of the holidays. Musgraves’ voice glimmers with loneliness and longing—a welcome reprieve for anyone in less than picturesque circumstances, like seasonal burnout or a broken family.
Musgraves’ crystalline sincerity and magnetic calm could be considered the special’s saving grace. If everything goes to shit, she seems to say—if the roast ham catches on fire and the wine runs out—it’ll all be just fine. There’s always pizza and beer, plus plenty of revelry. Even the biggest holiday crank has a slight change of heart when Kacey’s Nana shows up with the missing tree topper. “This isn’t just some big corporate holiday, it’s all about being with people you love,” Levy admits. “…And getting gifts.”