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A quick course in made-for-TV movies

Study up before you tune in. By Kim Reed
/ Source: contributor

Welcome to the placement evaluation for those pursuing an advanced degree in Made-For-Television Movies. If you are new to the curriculum, the Beginner level will definitely be the best place to start. Those who have already completed coursework in After School Specials and Teen Dramas will probably find the best fit at the Intermediate level. And if you’ve already completed your undergraduate degree, which would naturally include taking courses such as “Melissa Gilbert: From Half-Pint to Mafia Wife,” then you are already at the Advanced level.

To review for those just tuning in: In the past few years, the number of available channels has exploded. Programmers needed something to fill the airwaves of channels like Lifetime, Oxygen, and WE (Women’s Entertainment). Original programming is expensive, so instead, the head honchos fill the hours with made-for-television movies.

Lifetime, in particular, has created the Lifetime Movie Network, which shows nothing but made-for-television movies twenty-four hours per day. Some of these movies are just okay. Some are very bad. And some are so bad that they’re good.

BEGINNER: Beginner-level movies generally star a woman who starred on a popular sitcom about 10 years ago.

Most commonly, this type of movie will feature Meredith Baxter (formerly Birney), Markie Post, Judith Light, or Valerie Bertinelli as a protagonist.

The beginning of the movie establishes her life as peachy keen, usually with a husband and children. Then something happens. Maybe she finds out her husband is cheating, or in the mob. Maybe one of her kids is doing drugs or having sex. Maybe she meets a handsome stranger and has one night of passion, but then lives to regret it. Maybe she develops an eating disorder. The rest of the movie will follow the protagonist’s journey back to her normal life, and the final scene will most assuredly feature the protagonist with her husband’s arms around her, their children playing on the lawn with the family dog.

A prime example of this genre is “Kate’s Secret.” In this movie, Meredith Baxter plays a wife and mother who’s hiding her builima. As with most made-for-television movies, the screenplay doesn’t delve into the messy parts of the issue — no graying teeth or permanently damaged digestive tracts. Instead, Kate’s problem is a bummer because it causes her to eat a lot of cookies and cake, and she has to come up with excuses for the missing food. Various reasons are given for Kate’s bulimia: she thinks her husband might be cheating on her, her overbearing mother keeps harping on her weight, and her best friend is an aerobics instructor played by Shari Belafonte. Of course, all Kate needs is a quick trip to the clinic, and she’s cured.

Like most films in the beginner category, problems that seem significant and lifelong to the average person can be resolved in an hour or less. Oddly enough, an informal survey reveals that many women who grew up in the 1980s watched this movie in health class during junior high. If you’re one of them, rewatching it may provide nostalgia value.

Tori, Tori, Tori
INTERMEDIATE: Stepping up to the intermediate stage means watching movies that are a little more racy. Proceed with caution.

Due to the subject matter, many of these films will star a younger actress, such as Tori Spelling, Kellie Martin, Tiffani Thiessen, or Candace Cameron-Bure. The stories feature a young woman who has loving parents, but is experimenting by dating a bad boy, or trying alcohol for the first time. Inevitably, the young woman ends up lying to her parents and may even lose all of her old friends. The ending will feature her being hugged by a parent, usually her mother, and vowing never to have sex/drink/do drugs/hang out with the bad crowd again.

The best example of a film suitable for viewers at this stage is “She Fought Alone” starring Tiffani Thiessen. She plays a teenager who gets initiated into the popular crowd by going to a fake prom in a barn and having fake blood dumped on her a la Carrie White. Then she shows an interest in the football team’s quarterback, but instead gets raped by the quarterback’s best friend in her own home. Because she’s new to the popular crowd, no one believes her, since the best friend claims that the sex was consensual. Eventually, the popular crowd gets sick of Tiffani’s troublemaker ways, and they invite her back to the barn, where they dress up in masks and cut off Tiffani’s hair.

You have to wonder why Tiffani went there in the first place, but a hallmark of these films is that the female protagonist is usually really stupid. Tiffani’s mother helps her to get a lawyer, and the best friend confesses to the quarterback that he did commit the crime, so it all works out in the end. Once Tiffani repents for her sinful ways (because somehow the rape is depicted as being slightly her own fault for wanting to hang out with the popular crowd), she gets to go to college and move on to bigger and better things.

Baby mine
ADVANCED: Once the beginner and intermediate steps have been completed, the ultimate viewing experience can begin. The campiest, most ridiculous television movies can only be viewed at this point. Please don’t attempt viewing them without a warmup, because you might strain your ocular muscles, from rolling your eyes so much. The stars and premises in the movies that fit this section are varied. Sometimes the movie might be older, and gets its camp value from its outdated depiction of gender roles. Sometimes the movie might try to include an element of the supernatural, like alien abduction. Other times, the storylines are just so over-the-top, that you end up screaming with laughter.

That last sentence perfectly describes the film “Maternal Instincts.” Delta Burke plays a wealthy woman who wanted nothing more than to have a baby. Like, really, really, really wanted to have a baby. After some cajoling of her husband and fertility treatments, she went in for surgery to help her conceive, but while the surgeons were operating, they discovered that she had ovarian cancer and had to perform a hysterectomy.

A movie in the beginner or advanced stage would have stopped there, and the rest of the movie would have depicted Delta’s struggles to accept her infertility, the tensions it caused in her marriage, and her eventual adoption of a baby. But this movie is in the advanced stage because it went way over-the-top and had Delta go completely bonkers. Her husband fell during an argument and hit his head, causing instant death. Delta didn’t care, because this just freed her up to stalk the pregnant female surgeon who gave her the hysterectomy in the first place. After doing everything she could to prevent the surgeon from giving birth, Delta eventually snuck into the hospital and stole the baby and the surgeon, taking them down to the hospital boiler room. The final minutes of the movie have Delta chasing the surgeon and her newborn around while wielding a giant wrench, attempting to bash the surgeon’s brains in. Delta ends up in a padded room, and the surgeon and her baby make it out safely.

Think you’re ready to tune in? Use the descriptions above to determine the appropriate level for you. Don’t forget to warm up with something less challenging, like a few early episodes of “Beverly Hills 90210.”

After taking the proper precaution, seeking out and enjoying made-for-television movies can be both fun and rewarding. Watch carefully.

Kim Reed is a freelance writer living in Upstate New York.