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TV Review: ‘The Secret Santa’

Discovery Networks have generated controversy in recent years for airing faux documentaries with sketchy disclaimers, although the inflated ratings have usually compensated for any critical tongue-lashings. So “The Secret Santa,” a movie designed to resemble an investigative piece, provokes mixed feelings, serving up holiday schmaltz in a package that might actually trick someone who tunes in partway through into believing that they’re seeing some kind of expose proving the existence of Santa Claus. While the intentions might be nice, doing the equivalent of a found footage Hallmark Christmas movie still seems to warrant inclusion on the “naughty” list.

Following in the footsteps of sister networks Discovery and Animal Planet, TLC, which long ago dispensed with the “learning” part of its original name, has tapped the producers of earlier “Mermaids” specials, which employed similar techniques to beguile the gullible. In that case, the premise was that a fish-like strain of man had evolved in the oceans, bearing scant resemblance to the musical species that has made a fortune for Disney.

Here, the “story” is told through a local reporter in Phoenix who begins tracking the work of a Good Samaritan named Lucas A. Nast, a bearded fellow who, her investigation shows, not only has appeared all over helping families around the holidays, but has done so over a period spanning decades, looking ageless as well.

Despite efforts to sustain the charade with grainy and shaky video, the makers of “Secret Santa” can’t maintain the ruse without a few cheats, such as interview accounts of what happened — reindeer mysteriously popping up in a little girl’s yard — that incorporate video as the flashback events are told. So that cop just happened to have someone filming him on the morning he made his astonishing discovery.

Meanwhile, Nast’s do-gooding tends to be of the beer-commercial variety, ranging from introducing a couple to the child they sponsored to helping a soldier get home in time for Christmas.

It’s harmless in theory, but still cause for a bit of queasiness because of the trend it represents, airing on a channel that specializes in programming devoted to the extreme and bizarre. Therein lies the difference between consciously going to a theater to see “The Blair Witch Project” and potentially stumbling onto something while channel-surfing for “Sister Wives” or “Breaking Amish” — especially when you consider that some people really did take “Mermaids” seriously.

The actors (none of whom, incidentally, receive credit for their work) hold up their end with conviction, and the message, ultimately, is of the “Yes, Virginia” variety, which should temper any browbeating. Plus, there’s that whole “spirit of the season” thing.

Yet even being charitable, “Secret Santa” is more humbug, from a network that has filled plenty of stockings with it.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'The Secret Santa'

(Movie; TLC, Sun. Dec. 14, 7 p.m.)

Production: Filmed in New York by Original Content Group.

Crew: Executive producers, Vaibhav Bhatt, Charlie Foley; producer, Josh Wilkins; director, Geoffrey Madeja; writers, Foley, Bhatt; story, Foley, Bhatt; camera, Jay Silver; production designers, Adri Siriwatt, JT Camp; editor, Jane Abramowitz; music, Andrew Gross. 120 MIN.

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