Michael Gross can’t be trusted. Beneath the genial, aging-hippie demeanor of “Family Ties” lies a heart of darkness. A blackened and shriveled soul. A stalker, a rapist and, twice, a murderer.
The other day, I saw his name in the opening credits of an episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” My father was sleeping next to me, drooling.
“He did it,” I informed my father. “Oh he definitely did it.”
Never mind that “it” hadn’t happened yet. “It” was going down and Michael Gross was responsible.
Which is to say that I’ve watched enough Lifetime movies to know this one thing: Michael Gross is always to blame.
Saturday mornings when I was small, my sister and I would tune in to Lifetime to watch “Designing Women” reruns. We’d sit in front of the TV in our flannel nightgowns and footy pajamas and giggle at the exploits of those indomitable Sugarbaker sisters and their coterie of steel magnolia interior decorator co-workers. From the first strains of “Georgia on My Mind,” we were spellbound.
It was, in fact, an educational experience. I credit Dixie Carter’s stirring rhetoric with my feminist awakening. And kudos to Annie Potts for illuminating the finer points of the Clarence Thomas scandal.
Even in those days, it was clear that I was the Mary Jo to Hannah’s Julia. Mousier. Less strident.
Needless to say, Hannah controlled the remote.
Later we’d catch a few minutes of “Golden Girls” or “Murphy Brown.”
We liked “Sisters.” Sela Ward in her tough-girl leather jacket and a sexy, mullet-clad George Clooney.
And then there were those short-lived sitcoms time forgot. “Hope & Gloria” and “Almost Perfect,” and “Ned and Stacey.” Shows that only lasted one or two seasons. Shows that left their stars unknown and out-of-work.
We liked those, too.
Mostly though, we liked the movies. “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.” The epic Valerie Bertinelli miniseries “I’ll Take Manhattan.” All films involving Tori Spelling.
We weren’t the target demographic. Not by a long shot. But the geniuses at Lifetime had caught us in their crosshairs all the same.
The other night I caught a 2:00 am screening of the Shannen Doherty flick, “Sleeping with the Devil.” In it, Shannen plays a woman who gets involved with a manipulative Texas businessman played by Tim Mattheson. Deep into the third act, I actually caught myself rubbing my hands with vindictive pleasure. “Boy,” I told myself, “he messed with the wrong girl!”
Some time in the mid ’90s, MTV stopped playing music videos, replacing them with what producers euphemistically referred to as “original programming.” At first it was good. “The Real World” and “Daria.” Then later, “Undressed” and “Singled Out.” Slowly but slowly, the music disappeared.
Over on Lifetime, an analogous situation arose. The movies became few and far between. Someone made the questionable decision to acquire “Reba” episodes. Someone green-lit “Army Wives.” And before we knew what had hit us, Tori Spelling was doing reality shows to make cash and Jaclyn Smith was hosting “Shear Genius” on Bravo.
But, phoenix-like, from the ashes emerged something new. All hail Lifetime Movie Network: all movies all the time.
I’m partial to movies involving murder, stalking, infidelity, amnesia. To Erika Eleniak’s more-is-more approach to acting. To films with colons in their titles.
I like the names. “A Woman Scorned: the Betty Broderick Story.” “Awake to Danger.”
Also, I like Markie Post and Gerald MacRaney. And Meredith Baxter. With or without the “Birney.”
This is Liftetime’s description of the 2007 thriller “Enemy Within”:
“Amy Tolliver is a blind 19-year-old dating her high school sweetheart David Harris. But when a bus carrying local convicts crashes near her secluded mountain home and lead con Roy Evans hides in her cabin unbeknownst to her, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues. Ultimately, Roy will dispatch Amy’s grandmother and a visiting policeman- until in a nailbiting climax, Amy, despite being sightless, is able to turn the tables on him.”
Does that sound fucking amazing or what?
“Blind 19-year-old”? Absolutely. Bus crash involving “local convicts”? Yes. Oh yes. “Nailbiting climax”? You bet your ass.
Once, I stayed up until 4:30 in the morning watching an LMN double feature. I’d planned on going to bed after the first movie, but directly after, there was this other one I just had to see. “Yesterday’s Children.”
Jane Seymour played dual roles. A Depression-era Irishwoman and a modern-day Arizonan. It was, I thought, a bravura performance.
According to the Lifetime website, “it’s a wild, true story.”
Part of the fun of Lifetime is in seeing how celebrities paid the bills before they hit the big time. (And sometimes afterwards, too.)
Emily Blunt, for instance, playing the psychotic daughter Susan Sarandon gave up for adoption. Or Kirsten Dunst as the titular character in “Fifteen and Pregnant.” Paul Dano as a teen father in “Too Young to Be a Dad.” Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt did made-for-tv, playing the youngest child in a dysfunctional blended family in “Danielle Steel’s Changes.” And, having fallen on hard times, Thora Birch is set to appear in “The Pregnancy Pact” at the end of this month.
The ’90s were a particularly rich time for made-for-tv movies. Back in 1998, for instance, Rose McGowan cut her teeth as a troubled young orphan who beats her grandmother to death with her own cane. In 1996, Keri Russell fell prey to a not-so-wholesome Stephen “Reverend Camden” Collins in “The Babysitter’s Seduction.” And in ’97, James Marsden showed his acting chops, taking on the role of a mental patient on the lam with his bipolar girlfriend.
That same year, future Oscar-winner Hilary Swank played a sorority pledge whose best friend dies in a freak hazing accident in “Dying to Belong.”
And who had the gravitas to play Hilary’s self-righteous reporter boyfriend? Mr. Zack Morris himself: Mark-Paul Goselaar.
Flipping through the channels, I caught this snippet of dialogue:
“And that afternoon, there was an avalanche. He was buried alive.”
“Lifetime,” a male friend once told me, “is for women who like watching other women get beaten.”
This is not strictly speaking true.
Not all women in Lifetime movies are beaten. Some of them do the beating. And some are adulterers. Philanderers. Serial killers.
Admittedly, the subjects of these movies often have some seriously bad luck. They’re murdered, for example. Or they’re friends or relatives of a murder victim. They’re raped and stalked and they turn tricks for money and engage in vicious custody battles. Sometimes they’re bulimic.
The movies about eating disorders are like how-to guides. We studied them like textbooks. “Perfect Body” with Amy Jo Johnson. “A Secret Between Friends.” I got all my best diet tips from Tracey Gold in “For the Love of Nancy.”
Not exactly the stuff of feminist dreams, this.
One might venture to say that Lifetime is, in fact, profoundly sexist.
I’ll buy that.
The women of Lifetime Movie Network are, more often than not, victims. The men are frequently violent bastards. They’re not flesh-and-blood characters; they’re cardboard cutouts. Stereotypes. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Lifetime is pink. The type of girl that dots her ‘i’s with hearts. Lifetime is white and middle class and gets supremely excited about Oprah’s “favorite things” episodes. Lifetime is one of those Jamie Lee Curtis Activia commercials. It’s cliche. It’s a cultural joke and a national embarrassment. It’s Jacyln Smith: ’70s icon who now shills low-quality sheets for KMart.
I know this. And yet.
I was going to try and justify this obsession with a little Susan Sontag. I was going to quote from “Notes on Camp.” I was considering footnotes.
But I’m not sure that argument can be made. At least not by me, anyway.
Let’s try another one, shall we? A somewhat less erudite one to be sure, but a more convincing one, too.
Lifetime bills itself as “television for women.” Not “television for women who belong to NOW.” Not even “television for women who buy Proactiv.” Television for women. And women? We’re not just one thing. Just as men aren’t all- G-d help us- Tucker Max clones, women do not fall into easy “Sex and the City” archetypes.
“Woman” is, on some level, meaningless. “Female” is even more so. “All gendering,” Judith Butler says, “is a kind of impersonation and approximation…a kind of imitation for which there is no original.”
Butler, in other words, suggests that there is no ‘proper’ way of doing gender. And, on some level, Lifetime does too.
Sometimes a Lifetime movie is like your Phyllis Schafly-quoting mother-in-law: she tells you to get back in the kitchen. Sometimes she’s like Caitlin Flanagan, urging you to just lie there if it’ll keep your husband happy. Sometimes a Lifetime movie will tell you that you’re incomplete without a man. That you’re bereft without a baby. Sometimes she’ll tell you to look over your shoulder sweetie because behind you is a man out to drug you. Or a man determined to rape you. Sometimes she’ll warn you that your boyfriend’s out to steal your inheritance via an elaborate scheme in which he’ll have you declared insane. ‘Cause she’s just looking out for you.
But sometimes? Sometimes a Lifetime movie is like Ms. magazine, complete with hotline numbers and websites to check out for more information. Sometimes- admittedly not often- a Lifetime movie is Gloria Steinem. Sometimes she’s even Gloria Anzaldua.
Mostly though? Mostly she’s Danielle Steel.
Sure she’s cheesy. And kind of unbelievable. Her production values are mediocre and all her actors are Canadian. But also? She’s one bad-ass lady.
Not-to-be-missed: “Visions of Murder” with Barbara Eden, “Danielle Steel’s Family Secrets” with Cheryl Ladd, “Danielle Steel’s Kaleidoscope” with Jaclyn Smith, “The Perfect Daughter” with Tracey Gold, “Her Hidden Truth” with Kellie Martin, “Her Last Chance” with Kellie Martin, “Death of a Cheerleader” with Tori Spelling, “Awake to Danger” with Tori Spelling, “Co-Ed Call Girl” with Tori Spelling.