I used to think I was pretty savvy to the many ways human beings can be pretty rotten.
As a reporter, I’ve covered drive-by shootings, murder trials, sex trafficking, refugee crises and global pandemics.
But the world is much more treacherous than I realized, even if you’re a modern American woman who seems to have everything going for her: good looks, good job, a nice house in the suburbs and a sunny, can-do disposition.
Indeed, bad things can happen to good people, and it’s possible for your American dream to be subverted by a really bad boyfriend, a jealous classmate, an ex-wife stalker or a vengeful nanny.
It started at the gym
I’ve come to this wisdom thanks to my Saturday workout routine. I go to my gym, get on a treadmill and switch the TV above my machine to the Lifetime network. There I’m almost certain to find one of the network’s originally produced films — the network runs them marathon-style most days.
Lifetime has long billed itself as the “network for women.” And since the 1980s, it has been the go-to place on cable TV for melodramas and ripped-from-the-headlines pulp thrillers about the many ways good women can suffer in today’s society. In “Living with the Enemy,” Allison marries a dashing software billionaire who turns out to be a controlling sociopath. And in “The Perfect Husband,” a mother learns the tragic truth about her son-in-law, Scott Peterson. Yes, that Scott Peterson.
Speaking of poor Laci Peterson, aspiring motherhood presents unique hazards in Lifetime’s world, especially if conception doesn’t come naturally. In Lifetime movies, embryos get mixed up, adoptions bring heartache and, more often than not, the surrogate you chose to carry your child has secret designs on your college professor husband.
As a mother of a teenager, I’m especially attuned to Lifetime’s “teens-in-peril” subgenre. Through Lifetime movies, I’ve been schooled in the many ways kids from nice families can get in trouble: drugs, cyberbullying, STDs, “the choking game,” coed prostitution (a Lifetime “classic” starring Tori Spelling), and a fraternity hazing ritual that nets poor Kate Jackson’s son in arson and murder.
Some readers will question why I don’t use my Saturday morning treadmill time for more wholesome, uplifting pursuits, say, listening to a Ted Talk about how our worst deeds don’t define us. Please. Getting immersed in a Lifetime movie – wanting to see how smart blond Megan learns her brilliant medical student fiance is the Craigslist killer – can keep me on the treadmill for an hour or more. That’s some good cardio.
But I’ve also come to embrace the formulaic, B-movie entertainment the network traffics in. Lifetime is my guilty pleasure, and I was excited to hear the delightful rumor flying last month that Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig had paired up to do a “secret” Lifetime movie called “A Deadly Adoption.” If only if it were true.
At the same time, I’m joining the small but growing chorus of writers who believe Lifetime’s brand of entertainment should get more respect. For one thing, the network provides tons of work for women writers, directors and actresses, including gifted performers (Sigourney Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden, Angela Bassett, Meredith “Queen of TV movies” Baxter, etc.) who are no longer Hollywood “it girls.”
Lifetime also provides an alternative to a “media landscape catering to the tastes of adolescent boys,” according to AV Club writer Katie Rife. Certainly, some of Lifetime’s “women-in-peril” movies are no worse in terms formulaic storytelling than a lot of “men-in-peril” movies. The only difference is that men-in-peril movies tend to be part of lucrative franchises (“Fast and Furious,” Marvel comic superheroes, “Mission Impossible” and some “Star Wars” installments) and come with multimillion-dollar budgets, big stars and big-action CGI that can gloss over massive plot holes, stilted dialogue and credibility issues.
Of course, there is nothing new in women’s stories being relegated to the lesser-than category. Hello, literature! Since when have famous lists of best-ever novels overflowed with the names of works by female authors?
If you think about it, in many ways Lifetime movies continue an entertainment tradition of women-oriented storytelling that probably enjoyed its golden age in the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood.
As a preteen and teen, I spent many a weekend afternoon watching lush black-and-white films starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Barbara Stanwyck as smart, complex women who suffer for career, love and family.
I also adore those 1950s Technicolor melodramas – “All That Heaven Allows,” “Peyton Place,” “Imitation of Life,” “The Best of Everything” – whose stories center on housewives and career women butting up against Eisenhower-era social norms to find love and a life’s purpose. Back then, critics dismissed those movies as “female weepies.” Sound familiar? These days, critics craft scholarly articles praising these films for “irony” and for offering “subversive” looks at 1950s issues like class, gender and race.
I’m not sure if many Lifetime movies possess the artistry of these Hollywood classics, but their stories definitely tackle difficult contemporary American issues. So, let the revisionist assessments begin.
Meanwhile, it can be plain reassuring to watch a Lifetime movie and realize that no matter what I’m dealing with at work or in my personal life, nothing will ever be as terrible as being engaged to the Craigslist killer.