Made-for-TV Movies, Made for Viewers Like Us

Lifetime’s campy, made-for-TV movies are inherently special. They are weird, badly-acted, poorly-written works of outstanding camp craftmanship. We must remember this tonight night when Lifetime airs its disasterpiece, Mother May I Sleep With Danger? a 20th anniversary commemorative remake and sequel of the cult classic film starring Lifetime Movie Queen, Tori Spelling.

This weekend’s film will again star Tori Spelling, but it also features vampires, pearl-clutching teenage lesbianism, and what appears to be entirely too much James Franco. (I’ll discuss the film next week.) In these troubling times of teenage lesbian vampires we must remain strong.

The mistake is likely Lifetime’s attempt to revel in its reputation. When Lifetime isn’t meta, when it is serious about teenage troubles (murder, black market baby adoptions, eating disorders, cutting, cheerleading, accusations of the occult, the actual occult, teenage pregnancy) or the supposed social issues plaguing a Woman And Her Intuition (teenage daughters as sex workers, bad husbands, black market baby adoptions), is when the channel’s films thrive. We need more of the latter and less of the former, which is tarnished with its efforts to emulate the style of Ryan Murphy’s sex and violence.

Oh, what halcyon years those decades were. NBC and ABC’s weekend, made-for-TV films, more grandiose and dramatic than an Afterschool Special were syndicated to Lifetime, usually starring a young actor or actress from a popular sitcom. Tori Spelling, Brian Austin Green, Kellie Martin, Candace Cameron, Fred Savage, Yasmine Bleeth, Danica McKellar, Tiffani Thiessen, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Melissa Joan Hart, and Shannon Doherty graced our screens as popular teens facing serious issues. These were truly the best years, delivering Co-Ed Call GirlMother, May I Sleep With Danger?, and A Friend to Die For (pictured), all starring Tori Spelling; Co-Ed Call Girl and Mother May I Sleep With Danger are among the network’s most ridiculous films, often airing and available for purchase together. Occasionally a serious film starring a grown ass TV star would air, as in the case of Farrah Fawcett, Judith Light, Sally Struthers, Beverly D’Angelo, Joanna Kerns, Meredith Baxter-Birney, and Patty Duke.

Later years brought burgeoning child stars: Alia Shawkat, Brittany Murphy, Danielle Panabaker, and Paul Dano starred in movies that frankly, could use more airings. Despite Lifetime’s efforts (and occasional successes) to grab an Emmy nomination, its recent original films have been a desperate grab to commit the most sensational crimes to film, with the stories of Natalie Holloway,  Jodi Arias, Laci Peterson, Philip Markoff, and Amanda Knox. If a woman escaped a bunker, Lifetime has committed her story to the small screen.

Curiously, Rob Lowe starred in Beautiful & TwistedProsecuting Casey Anthony, and Drew Peterson: Untouchable while also appearing in Parks & RecreationBrothers & Sisters, and Californication; it’s as if Rob Lowe knew he could maximize his career renaissance while also starring in absurd films made for television.

The network has also taken a peculiar turn in adapting novels, filming every V.C. Andrews following its success with Flowers in the Attic, while turning an eye to the past, as with its Lizzie Borden film (which was then serialized, a path previously forged with The Client List) and its truly awful biographies, which include Liz & DickThe Brittany Murphy StoryWilliam & KateMagic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling StoryAaliyah: The Princess of R&BWhitney, and to a lesser extent the tonally similar Unauthorized Stories of Saved By the Bell and Full House. (One can only dream that Home Improvement: The Unauthorized Story will soon follow!) You can rest easy knowing that Screen Scholars is unlikely to discuss, in depth, the critical failings of these films, particularly when there are three films about the FLDS community on Amazon Prime (The 19th WifeEscape from Polygamy, and Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs).

Thankfully, amidst the network’s relentless churning output of Ripped From The Headlines films filled with sensationalism but devoid of entertainment, there are gems to be watched. The Canadian-made A Wife’s Nightmare hits all the right notes: It stars Jennifer Beals as a career-driven mom with a lazy husband and son at home. A young woman turns up claiming to be a long-lost daughter of the husband, but is ultimately revealed to be his girlfriend—the two are plotting to get Beals’ character committed in a mental hospital. It’s insane! It’s terrible! It’s so good it’s bad, which has become a fine line in recent years, but a level of quality Lifetime can surely reinstate. (This was the point of the Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig vehicle A Deadly Adoption, but the commitment of the script and actors may have inadvertently elevated the film.) On a separate occasion I stumbled on The Preacher’s Daughter, a film so compelling in its awfulness that my sister rented it from Redbox to see the ending, as we fell asleep during its late-night airing.

The lesson here is to snatch the rights to films produced elsewhere. If we want highbrow, we can bask in the glory of Fargo. If we want to needlessly take in the horrifying crimes of teenagers or the unnecessary hand-wringing of parents, we must demand Lifetime.

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