If Lifetime movies came in Odorama—not Smell-O-Vision, Odorama—the scratch-and-sniff cards would have to include a few different scents. First and foremost, the salty smell of tears, shed over an unworthy man or ungrateful daughter. Then there’s gasoline, for torching said unworthy man’s car, and a whiff of the pot smoke inhaled by the ungrateful daughter. Add the metallic tang of blood (like most B-movies, Lifetime movies are fixated on murder), the powder used to change the diapers of some poor woman’s precious baby just before it gets stolen, and the artificial stink of a Christmas-tree air freshener, and you’ve got yourself a Lifetime movie.
The “Lifetime movie” generally encompasses a film somewhere on the spectrum between a weepy melodrama and a pulpy thriller and focusing on the various ways women suffer for love. Yes, there are outliers, like Markie Post and Candace Cameron as a mother and daughter abducted by aliens in Visitors Of The Night. But even the odder examples of the genre share a few common themes. First, there’s the power of a woman’s intuition, which in a Lifetime movie is always right, even if the heroine denies it at first. Second, there’s the importance of female relationships: mothers, daughters, sisters, roommates, neighbors, friends. A woman cut off from these relationships in a Lifetime movie is either headed for trouble, or she is trouble.
That’s because, in a Lifetime movie, men cannot be trusted. Well, some can, like Taraji P. Henson’s loving boyfriend in Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story, who fully supports Henson’s character after her ex-husband kidnaps their son and absconds with the boy to South Korea. But he’s not what drives the narrative—her shithead ex-husband does. There’s always a shithead ex-husband, or an abusive one, or a fiancée with a secret; even movies about teen daughters who go astray, breaking their poor mothers’ hearts in the process, frequently have a bad-influence boyfriend behind it all.
And while Lifetime makes TV movies in pretty much every genre, the most forgettable examples are, inevitably, the feel-good ones. Remember the Lifetime biopic about J.K. Rowling, Magic Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story? Exactly. Lifetime movies thrive when things are going terribly, terribly wrong, inviting the viewer to take a bite of ice cream and whisper, “Been there, girl.” Eventually, however, things must get so bad for our heroine that that same viewer can take another bite of ice cream and say to (usually) herself, “Well, at least my husband’s not a serial killer.”
The “Lifetime movie” also connotes a specific time period, ranging from 1990, the year of the network’s first original film, Memories Of Murder, until the late ’00s, when Lifetime started tweaking its formula in an attempt to gain mainstream credibility. Lifetime entered the TV-movie realm years after Showtime and HBO, and its early efforts alternated between toned-down, female-centric versions of the sleazy thrillers that aired on those networks and inspirational schmaltz of the type now associated with Lifetime rival The Hallmark Channel. As the decade progressed, the more salacious films were clearly dominating the ratings, and so Lifetime began churning out original movies based on real-life murder cases or tabloid buzzwords, the more sensational the better. This led to the Lifetime subgenre of teens-in-peril movies, the direct descendant of after-school specials that tried to scare teens away from premarital sex and drugs from the ’70s through the ’90s.
However, a sizable percentage of the movies shown on Lifetime during its glory years in the ’90s and early ’00s didn’t technically count as “Lifetime” movies, because they weren’t made for the channel. Many so-called Lifetime movies are actually productions of other networks—like A Friend To Die For, a Kellie Martin/Tori Spelling mean-girl murder story ripped from the headlines and originally produced for USA that was renamed Death Of A Cheerleader for its Lifetime showings—bought by the network due to their Lifetime-esque content. But as cable and especially broadcast networks have stopped financing movies of the week, Lifetime has turned increasingly to producing its own films.
With Lifetime’s increased independence has come a much-hyped bid for Emmys prestige, a “new period” in the network’s history that The Washington Post traces to its 2012 all-black remake of Steel Magnolias in the Post’s recent history of the phenomenon. And it’s working. In 2013, the network set a new record with 12 Emmy nominations, only to top itself with 17 nominations in 2014. But while Lifetime’s PR department is busy diverting media attention to prestige content like its miniseries The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, the network continues to quietly produce what A&E Networks programming vice president Lisa Hamilton Daly calls “old school” Lifetime content. Its most recent outing is called Deadly Revenge, and the only surprising thing about it is that Lifetime hasn’t released a movie called Deadly Revenge already. And let’s be honest: “prestige” Lifetime movies are boring Lifetime movies. Just look at its newest high-profile acquisition, Nicole Kidman’s Grace Of Monaco.
Another aspect of the “new” Lifetime that network heads love to tout is its ability to attract high-profile actresses and directors to its projects—and to its credit, Lifetime employs about 50 percent female directors for its movies, exponentially better than the industry average of 6 percent. But that, too, is nothing new. In the Washington Post piece, Arturo Interian, the network’s vice president of original movies, says, “The old mantra of Lifetime was we were like the mafia—we would get you eventually. And by that I mean we’d get you on the way up or we’d get you on the way down.” And indeed, name a famous actress, and there’s a good chance that she was in at least one Lifetime movie, before—or, more poignantly, after—the peak of her success. (Diane fucking Keaton was even in one, as a very unconvincing cleaning lady who gets hooked on meth in 2003’s On Thin Ice.) And no offense to Heather Graham and Christina Ricci—the celebrated stars of two of Lifetime’s recent high-profile projects—but it’s been a few years since either of them were top-lining Hollywood films.
But so what? Why can’t Lifetime embrace its B-movie past (and present)? Why can’t the network market fare like Kept Woman with the same ironic flair as Syfy promoting its Sharknado movies? While there are countless defenders of horror, action, exploitation, and other (dare we say) predominantly male-oriented B-movie trash out there, many of those who profess to love Lifetime movies do so with a bit of embarrassment. Maybe that’s not because of the material itself, but in the fact that Lifetime movies are aimed at adult women in a media landscape catering to the tastes of adolescent boys. The “weepies,” a bygone subgenre of film melodrama also referred to as “women’s pictures,” suffered from a similar lack of critical respectability; Douglas Sirk, now hailed as a “great ironist,” wasn’t taken seriously by critics until the late ’60s, over a decade after his major studio works. By that metric, we should be seeing revisionist takes on Dying To Belong any day now.
The most accessible sort of Lifetime movie is the kind that reads “Based On A True Story” on the DVD case, and, ideally, has a colon in the title. This does not include Lifetime’s recent run of celebrity biopics. Even when dealing with tabloid-ready personalities like Whitney Houston, Anna Nicole Smith, or Donatella Versace, these productions tend to pull their punches and have yet to produce anything truly spectacular. (Sorry, but even Liz & Dick with Lindsay Lohan was underwhelming in the camp department.)
You’re better off sticking with the true-crime movies, whose subjects don’t have publicists to protect them from unflattering depictions in cheap, quickly produced made-for-TV movies. They often feature an end title card explaining the outcome of the subject’s trial, because the movie was written before the trial began. Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret, for example, was already in production when Arias was found guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of her ex-boyfriend in 2013. As Variety pointed out in its review, however, this hardly mattered, because Arias had been convicted in the court of public opinion long before the jury reached its verdict.
Even without a colon in the title, a thriller “based on true events” is a safe bet for a viewer looking for an entree into the “Lifetime experience.” The real-life details bring a vividness and tawdry appeal missing from the Lifetime movies based on other, more mainstream movies. (The network did a series of Poison Ivy-inspired killer-babysitter movies in the mid-’90s, for example.) These potboilers combine the aesthetics of Harlequin romance novels with the worldview of the erotic thriller, with an element of sisters doing it for themselves. The terror in these movies is by and large domestic, and comes from fiancées and husbands who turn out to be sociopaths (The Craigslist Killer, Who Is Clark Rockefeller?, The Stranger Beside Me), strange women on the internet who want to steal your husband (Fatal Desire, the Courteney Cox-directed TalhotBlond), or strange women in general who want to kidnap your baby and raise it as their own (Empty Cradle, Abducted: The Carlina White Story, When Andrew Came Home).
Once the cheap thrill of a fact-based sexy thriller no longer excites, it’s time to pour a bottle of wine into one of those gigantic novelty glasses, open a box of tissues, and reflect on how material possessions and a loving home weren’t enough to keep your progeny from becoming self-centered, hurtful little shits. Or get high and laugh at how clueless the producers of these movies are about the way teens dress, talk, and act, depending on your demographic group. Yes, it’s the teens-in-peril subgenre, the spiritual successor of classic TV movies like Sarah T.: Portrait Of A Teenage Alcoholic.
In the minds of the terrified parents who make up the target audience for these movies, the threats to their children come in a few different types. There’s mental illness (On The Edge Of Innocence), drugs (Augusta, Gone), garden-variety rebelliousness (Terror In The Family, starring future two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank), and the scary new world of the internet (Every Mother’s Worst Fear). But the most pervasive fear—and the one that has produced the best examples of the subgenre—is sex. Tori Spelling, the patron saint of Lifetime movies, stars in one of these classics, Co-ed Call Girl, one of three Lifetime originals Spelling toplined in 1996 alone. Spelling plays a good college girl who gets lured into the world of high-class prostitution by future Melrose Place cast member Scott Plank and some Nomi Malone-worthy designer knockoffs.
Co-ed Call Girl’s college setting actually sets it apart from most of the teens-in-peril Lifetime movies; usually the girls are high schoolers and the setting is some generic American suburb, the better for viewers to identify with them—or with their mothers. Sex has severe consequences in these movies, going from STDs (like the syphilis outbreak Marcia Gay Harden battles at her daughter’s school in She’s Too Young) and pregnancy (although the clique of teens in Pregnancy Pact did it on purpose) all the way up to suicide (the simultaneously depressing and laughable Sexting In Suburbia). Most terrifying of all, a common trope sees the errant teen’s younger sister silently observing all the chlamydia-ridden boy drama her sister is going through, then, when no one is looking, going up to the mirror and applying the lipstick or trying on the tube top that represents her eventual fall from grace.
Basically, whenever Lifetime tries to step outside of its usual wheelhouse and make a movie in any other genre—whether comedy, horror, or action—the results should be handled carefully, and only by experts. Although the words “Lifetime horror movie” might seem like the perfect intersection of things that are fun to laugh at while getting drunk, they never live up to that promise, and are usually painfully slow and lacking in suspense. Even Destination: Infestation, Lifetime’s answer to Snakes On A Plane about a mother and daughter trapped on a plane overrun with stinging ants, is tedious to watch. An especially dreaded Lifetime subgenre is the holiday comedy, for example the Kristen Chenoweth-starring 12 Men Of Christmas; this painfully adorable, aggressively folksy tale about a New York publicist who goes to Montana to shoot a naked-men calendar for charity is basically a below-average Katherine Heigl movie in a Christmas sweater. Just read The A.V. Club’s review of Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever if you need further convincing on this point.
Then there are the Nora Roberts movies, but that’s a whole other thing.
1. Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? (1996)
The iconic Lifetime movie, starring the iconic Lifetime actress, Tori Spelling. She plays Laurel, a college student who gets swept up in an abusive romance with brooding, terminally serious med student Kevin (Ivan Sergei). Kevin systematically isolates Laurel from her family and friends, eventually persuading her to move in with him in an isolated cabin. But his deception goes deeper than that, because he’s a man in a Lifetime movie. Will Laurel’s mom’s intuition save the day? Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? is campier—and therefore more fun to watch—than Lifetime’s other abusive-boyfriend classic, No One Would Tell, starring Candace Cameron.
2. Fifteen And Pregnant (1998)
A great example of Lifetime getting them on the way up. A then-16-year-old Kirsten Dunst, in that awkward career phase between Jumanji and The Virgin Suicides, stars as Tina Spangler, a high school student who gets pregnant, and then gets dumped by her jock boyfriend. At first, Tina’s pregnancy strains her already-dysfunctional family, but in the end they all rally around her, sending the confusing message that yes, being a teen mom is hard, but it also might bring your dad back. Empty Nest’s Park Overall co-stars as Tina’s mother Evie, and attentive viewers may spot Katee Sackhoff in her first on-screen role as a teen mom.
3. Drew Peterson: Untouchable (2012)
A late-period gem in Lifetime’s true-crime crown, Drew Peterson: Untouchable is the trashy, over-the-top movie people always expect to see from the network, but it rarely delivers anymore. Rob Lowe glues on a mustache and a thick Chicago accent as Drew Peterson, the Bolingbrook, Illinois police officer suspected in the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson (Kayley Cuoco, who also donned a fat suit in Lifetime’s To Be Fat Like Me), a suspicion heightened by the earlier disappearance of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. Lowe easily carries the movie as the leering, cocky, fame-hungry Peterson, making jokes about his wives disappearing because they were on their periods and delivering the most memorable garage-door gag since Scream.
4: Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life (2005)
One of the rare Lifetime movies whose protagonist is a boy, Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life nevertheless features Kelly Lynch as the obligatory worried mom and Lyndsy Fonseca as the virginal evangelical girlfriend, both of whom, of course, are right about this whole porn thing. After being exposed to “naked college babes” at a party, Justin (Jeremy Sumpter) very quickly develops an addiction to smut, seeking out more and more extreme (well, as extreme as they can show in a TV movie anyway) material to get his fix. This is the kind of movie designed to make worried moms search their sons’ web histories, and those sons giggle because seriously, who has a PDA anymore?
5: My Stepson, My Lover (a.k.a. Love, Murder And Deceit) (1997)
My Stepson, My Lover was originally made as a USA Network Original movie, and thus, technically, is not a Lifetime movie, although it did air on the network. But let’s ignore that, because it’s amazing. The future-celebrity honors in this one go to Lost’s Terry O’Quinn as Rick, a landed gentleman who romances and eventually marries Caitlin (Rachel Ward), the nurse who saves his life. But the honeymoon doesn’t last for long, especially after Caitlin catches a glimpse of Rick’s stepson sweaty and shirtless (as he is most of the time). This movie has everything you could ever want in a Lifetime movie: Overwrought Southern accents, ’90s hunks, misty horseback-riding montages, PG-rated sex scenes, poorly acted temper tantrums, an engagement ring inside an oyster, a recurring visual motif involving yogurt, and, naturally, murder.