Not only does Hallmark Channel offer a multitude of light romantic TV movies to cover every single season of the year, but in 2013, it ventured into its first scripted series: Cedar Cove, starring Andie MacDowell as a judge presiding over a small, idyllic island town. Hallmark recently axed the show after its third season—leaving MacDowell’s character’s love life permanently up in the air—but not before setting up a template of sorts for a Hallmark show: A postcard-perfect small town, ideally on the water, where all the residents know each other’s business because they all secretly love it that way. There’s nothing more scandalous than a romantic triangle, perhaps some light embezzlement, but the everyday worries of most people’s lives are far beyond what shows up on the screen (I called out the series as one of my favorite hangover watches, just because it’s so soothing). Which of course is reminiscent of the romance novels these series are based on: Debbie Macomber wrote the Cedar Cove volumes, while the newer Chesapeake Shores book series comes to us from Sherryl Woods.

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Different author, similar setup: Chesapeake Shores, Maryland, is almost as lovely as Cedar Cove, land of galley kitchens, where every single home has a water view. This time our protagonist is not a well-established judge, but workaholic Abby Winters, played by Meghan Ory, looking so ethereally gorgeous in every frame, it makes you realize what idiots those Once Upon A Time people were not to feature her Ruby more often. When single mom New Yorker Abby gets a desperate call from her youngest sister to return to the old family homestead, of course she quickly gets embroiled in family drama she thought she had long ago swept under the rug.

It’s here where Chesapeake Shores may even surge ahead of its predecessor, by focusing on the microcosm of the family instead of the day-to-day goings-on in Pleasantville (at least as much as this two-hour pilot indicates). Abby has some proven star power in her family tree to back it all up: Treat Williams as Mick, her father from whom she inherited all her workaholic tendencies, and octogenarian Diane Ladd as Nell, the well-meaning tough-talking matriarch who frequently drops platitudes like “You never forget the things you really care about.” Abby fortunately has four siblings as well as a somewhat-of-a-deadbeat mom who fled the family when the kids were little, and they all come back to roost after Nell takes a tumble. The pilot sets up nicely any number of family battles that can and likely will unravel from the clan reuniting: one sister’s a troubled playwright, another, a wannabe innkeeper who hasn’t forgiven either of her parents for her neglected childhood. One of the brothers is on leave from Afghanistan. The long-lost mom is played by Cedar Cove vet and Hallmark favorite Barbara Niven.

But of course, the center of the pilot, and likely the series, is filled with Abby’s reconnection with her first love Trace, played by Desperate Housewives and Dallas’ Jesse Metcalf. The problem here is the problem with literally every romance novel in existence: There is no way in hell that these two aren’t going to end up together, and any obstacle thrown in their path (a preview promo hints that an old flame of his will return to town to stir things up) mere contrivance. If you can get past that (and if not, why are you watching the Hallmark Channel?), Ory and Metcalf might be the only two people on the planet good-looking enough for each other, and they show a few needed sparks in some night-swimming scenes. The shot of Metcalf singing and playing a song devoted to his lost love, however, may have been just a bit over the top.

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But the show’s real weight comes from pros like Treat Williams, as Mick explains to Abby just why he was never there for her and the kids, and it finally dawns on her she’s doing the same to her daughters. Mick tries to justify himself by saying he needed to do what he had to to provide for his family, and in a lesser actor, that may not be enough to sell it. But Williams is so engaging we accept him, flaws and all, and Ory rises to the occasion to play off of him. Even better, though, is when Williams’ character gets called out by Ladd’s, who plays his mother. Her accent is kind of maddeningly indistinguishable (maybe Southern mixed with Scottish?), but that doesn’t make it any less impressive when she tells her son he needs to make it right by with of his kids while they’re there.

These two acting powerhouses alone may make the show worth watching, and the giddy chemistry of the romantic leads certainly doesn’t hurt. Ory gains just the right moment of sympathy when she realizes he’s not as involved in her daughters’ lives as she should be, and makes some major changes in her life to start to realigning things, just as her father is doing with her and her siblings. Maybe that’s why Chesapeake Shores doesn’t rely on those glamour exterior shots as much as its predecessor, because it doesn’t need them as much. But even if you don’t live in a place where you can go to the beach every day and have a house on the water and everyone, from the bank teller to the cafe owner, knows your name and probably why you’re there, Hallmark gives us a chance to drop by once a week for an hour of light but still effective escapism.

Stray observations

  • Meghan Ory had a small part in Jesse Metcalf’s first movie, when he played the title role in John Tucker Must Die!
  • And as Hallmark’s “Summer Nights” season wraps up, all those Autumn Harvest-themed movies are just around the corner, along with the return of The Good Witch.
  • Bonus points for non-annoying child actors playing Abby’s two daughters.
  • This is just a pilot drop-in, not a kickoff to weekly Chesapeake Shores coverage. I’ll probably be watching anyway though.

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