Lifetime Movies Are My Pandemic Escapism

Photographed by Jessica Garcia.
It’s hard to pin down the exact moment I shifted from watching Lifetime movies ironically to enjoying them in earnest. For years I scoffed at my mum’s ability to consume what was essentially the same film every day, each time with fresh eyes. "This is why you can’t trust people you meet online," she’d tut during a binge session as the third woman in a row grappled for the gun in a standoff with a man she’d met on a site referred to as "FaceJournal" for legal reasons. 
As with so many things, this all changed over lockdown. It wasn’t long before my sister and I were gripped, rating actresses' bad wigs and racking up mental scoreboards of how many single parent protagonists we could count in a day. This, we soon realised, was the true meaning of Lifetime movies, which are known for being objectively bad: the commentary. You're transported to your own personal Gogglebox as you decry the plot holes, shoddy editing and lack of chemistry that were present in the last film and will be present in the next. 
Lifetime movies (or "those rubbish American films that come on Channel 5" as they’re often referred to in the UK) are more than a retirement home for one-time Hollywood stars, though. It’s big business. Netflix now churns out its own nearly identical offerings of cheaply and quickly produced thrillers and sanitised rom-coms. In a move that seemed surreal even for 2020, KFC collaborated with Lifetime for a "mini-movie" in which Saved By The Bell actor and television host Mario Lopez played Colonel Sanders. In 2015, Will Ferrell starred in and executive produced the made-for-TV thriller A Deadly Adoption alongside Kristen Wiig, proving Lifetime movies are impossible to spoof in the process. Viewers simply couldn’t tell if it was a parody or if they were playing it straight, since it was only as stupid as Lifetime movies already are. 
Somehow, this much maligned subgenre but equally much loved American institution has mastered the art of being wildly low and high stakes simultaneously. Since the cast can never act, you wouldn’t care if they all died, but you also know they could die at any moment. There is no middle ground, in terms of both the lack of nuance and the limited categorisation. 

Monotony is a pro where in any other cinematic context it would be a con. A 'predictable thriller' sounds oxymoronic but being formulaic works when you're on the lookout for contained kicks or to get absolutely smashed during one of the many Lifetime-themed drinking games.

Lifetime movies seem to fall into two categories: they are either grisly cautionary tales or live action Disney films, moralising the whole way regardless. Widows cautiously attempt a second chance at love, only for the men of their dreams to be unmasked as stalkers, thieves and murderers. Teenagers end up killed or in comas for falling in with the "wrong crowd" which is usually signalled by a kid wearing too much eyeliner. It is wholly basic, even down to the names, which are the televisual equivalent of clickbait: The Perfect Stalker, The Wedding Stalker, Stalked By My Doctor, Psycho Nurse, Psycho Escort, The Psycho She Met Online, The Boy She Met Online, The Wife He Met Online. Then after months of hacky melodramas, badly done biopics and nonsensical thrillers, December arrives and Lifetime, the Hallmark Channel and Netflix duke it out in their own bid to be Christmas number one with a slate of festive films. These are indistinguishable from the rom-coms in their rosters, usually focused on a workaholic architect/journalist/PR from the big city being charmed by her homey, hokey, small-town love interest (who is almost always a farmhand on a family-owned ranch). An epiphany regarding "the true meaning of Christmas" and an appearance from a supernatural guide is a prerequisite. All that sets them apart is the form they take: an elf, an angel, a chubby man with a white beard who just happens to go by the name of Nick. 
Lifetime movies are many things but above all they are consistent. This feels comforting during a global pandemic (I strongly suspect it is contractually agreed that a resolution comes by the 80 minute mark, regardless of the genre). Here, monotony is a pro where in any other cinematic context it would be a con. A "predictable thriller" sounds oxymoronic but being formulaic works when you’re on the lookout for contained kicks or to get absolutely smashed during one of the many Lifetime-themed drinking games. While a huge part of their appeal lies in a wry "so bad it's good" in-joke, it also lies in their ability to exist entirely outside of culture while being embedded in it. 
As we increasingly pick apart films like Love Actually and cringe at how badly Fatal Attraction has aged, Lifetime movies go from strength to strength for the very same tropes that see others cancelled retrospectively. By refusing to get with the times, they're not held to any real standards at all. In the age of cancel culture, this makes them truly uncancellable – pointing out that Lifetime movies are problematic feels wholly redundant, so no one really bothers. When Trump voters vowed to "make America great again" they were likely harking back to this ridiculous nonexistent period depicted by Lifetime, a portal to a simpler time that never existed. Racism doesn’t exist in Lifetime but not just because the majority of the characters are white – it simply doesn’t. Diversity comes in the form of the different coloured highlights in the beach waves every female protagonist has. The movies are almost always deeply sexist. 

By refusing to get with the times, Lifetime movies are not held to any real standards at all. In the age of cancel culture, this makes them truly uncancellable. Pointing out that Lifetime movies are problematic feels wholly redundant, so no one really bothers.

Lifetime is one of the last bastions of the Black best friend and the crazy ex-girlfriend and even the staunchest advocates for TV diversity, such as myself, rarely campaign for it here (we already have Black Lifetime, it’s called Tyler Perry). Even its bids to be more inclusive feel dated. In 2019, the network included its first-ever same-sex kiss in one of its Christmas movies and in 2020, featured a full same-sex romance. Of course this was presented as though gay people, who until then didn’t exist in the producers' common imagination, fell out of the sky and were welcomed in their small, conservative towns with open arms and without judgement. Hurdles to love in the Lifetime universe are limited to your company’s hostile takeover of your hometown's favourite bakery or an obnoxious, snooty ex.
When they’re not depicting the world according to CBeebies, they are presenting scenarios so wild that the synopses read as though they were created by throwing darts at random words on a board. The reality isn’t too far off. " 'Teens in jeopardy' was an incredibly successful genre for us," Arturo Interian, a producer of original movies at the channel, told The Washington Post in an interview. "We would literally sit around a room and talk about all the horrible things that could happen to teens, or what teens could do. Someone said 'What if a teen's addicted to Internet porn?' And we said 'Great!'" So little has changed in terms of plot, casting and approach over the years, though we as a society have hugely. At one point, the channel was seen as feminist – the themes of the films resonated with viewers who rarely saw them depicted elsewhere. In 1996, when parent company Tele-Communications Inc. sought to drop Lifetime for Rupert Murdoch's Fox News channel, women's groups protested. Now, few of us watch it in the name of women's issues; if anything, it usually feels regressive. 
That being said, I deeply enjoy the mindlessness of it all. As someone who makes part of their living critiquing TV, watching Lifetime is the one instance where the extent of my thought process is simply, How long before she hits him with a vase or something, temporarily knocking him out until he somehow ends up lucid, with the weapon, in time for a second fight scene? It is a form of escapism you won’t even find in children’s television, a similar sense of release that draws me to Nollywood, Bollywood and telenovelas. I have many times compared the melodrama of Nollywood to the appeal of Shakespeare, and the same can perhaps be said of Lifetime (stay with me), where the execution is just as moralising, the characters just as stock and the themes just as universal – love, death, vengeance, redemption.
In recent years, Lifetime has pivoted, putting out films that aren’t "so bad they’re good" but actually good. Take Why I Wore Lipstick To My Mastectomy and the 2012 reboot of Steel Magnolias featuring an all-Black cast, both of which were Emmy-nominated. Diane Keaton made her directorial debut on the channel with Wildflower, and Angela Bassett directed a Whitney Houston biopic, one of the channel's most successful. According to BuzzFeed News, women wrote or directed 73% of Lifetime's original films from 1994 to 2016. Meanwhile, of the 100 top-grossing Hollywood films of 2019, only 10.7% were directed by women. Though I applaud and admire Lifetime's efforts on this front, that's not why I tune in. Lifetime movies mainly are the female equivalent of the high octane, 'splodey films aimed at men, which are celebrated solely for how dumb they are. As I struggle to process this ever-burning world, I too am thankful for the closest thing I have to taking my brain out of my head.

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