The untold truth of Lifetime movies

By now, Lifetime movies have become something of a national treasure, with an enduring legacy that resides somewhere between Jerry Springer-like camp and ABC After School Special-like melodrama. By turns shocking, tear-jerking, unhinged, and hilariously overwrought, Lifetime programming turned tabloid fodder into a beloved pastime throughout the '80s and '90s. 

Women scorned, punk rock teens in jeopardy, homicidal maniacs on the loose, home wrecking femme fatales, mid-life crises turned pathological, Dynasty-like personality ("poisonality?") clashes, high school rivalries that turned into true crime bloodbaths … the channel had it all; and even though many of its early shows were predictably critically panned, viewers adored them. 

In the 2000s, Lifetime changed their tune, started making critically acclaimed films, and eventually garnered a wealth of prestigious nominations. That's exactly why the evolution of the channel is so singularly fascinating and unique: rarely has a television entity, especially one that started out as bland Daytime talk TV, demonstrated such astonishing versatility. Read on to find out more about the channel that went from being America's sweetheart of guilty pleasures to being the stuff that Emmy Award statuettes are made of.

Early viewers mistook Lifetime for "religious programming"

It's rather amusing that Lifetime, a channel famous for its myriad Tabloid-esque enjoyments, was initially mistaken for religious programming in its infancy. According to Spartanburg, South Carolina's Herald-Journal, the channel got off to a "miserable start, losing a reported $36 million in its first two years" — partially because viewers associated it with church broadcasting, for whatever reason. In truth, however, Lifetime was far from militantly pious. In fact, the network even gave figures like plucky sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer (hardly an ambassador of chaste family values, by hardcore Evangelical standards) their own syndicated talk shows

Westheimer was actually one of Lifetime's biggest assets, even in the network's early days of struggle; as Entertainment Weekly explains it, she was responsible for some of the channel's highest ratings, a standing she maintained until 1991 — even though the network was said to have been initially "wary" of her frank, graphic, and exuberant approach to sex. 

A lukewarm reception led to sensationalist melodrama

With ratings plummeting and television doom looming on the horizon in the late-1980s, Lifetime's powers-that-be knew they had to do something — so they drastically revamped their image, with a decidedly lurid and melodramatic spin as a guiding principle. 

In 1988, the channel's own new "lifetime" launched in the form of the made-for-TV thriller Memories of Murder, which starred Nancy Allen (of RoboCop, Carrie, and Dressed to Kill fame) as an amnesiac housewife who has no clue (because of her temporary brain damage) that she's being stalked by a lunatic. The cheesy thriller was an instant success with viewers, critical reception notwithstanding. From then on, the hits — like the famous Mother, May I Sleep With Danger, starring Tori Spelling, and the decidedly NSFW-sounding Co-Ed Call Girl, also starring Tori Spelling — just kept coming. 

Fun fact: the former beloved badsterpiece was remade in 2016, this time with a "vampire twist".

The more lurid and dramatic the topic, the better

By the time the '90s rolled around, Lifetime's status as one of television's most beloved "guilty pleasures" was well-established. As the Washington Post put it: "The more devastating the movie topic, the better for business: Teen deaths, bullying, murder, prostitution, nannies kidnapping babies. The horrifying (but captivating) plots became a running joke within the industry, but the viewers couldn't get enough." 

Indeed, films like My Stepson, My Lover, Another Woman's Husband, and the bluntly-named Daddy, based on one of Danielle Steel's schmaltzy supermarket novels, went on to take top honors in Lifetime's lurid-but-irresistible hierarchy.

The network's great early days also ushered in Secret Sins of the Father, the fabulously prurient story of a father and son (Beau and Jeff Bridges, respectively) who are sleeping with the same woman; She Woke up Pregnant, which featured iconic Wonder Woman Lynda Carter; and A Woman Scorned, starring Meredith Baxter (aka the hippie mom in Family Ties) as the very "creatively" vengeful wronged party whose husband leaves her for a younger woman.

Women's groups saved the channel from being cut

Interestingly enough, and despite the channel's cherished tabloid-esqueness, Lifetime's viewers also took its programming seriously: the network had, after all, branded itself as "Television for Women," which ultimately gave it something important to live up to. And contrary to popular belief, the programs weren't by any means all about melodrama. Themes like discordant parent/child dynamics, marital problems, and feminist causes also resonated seriously with viewers — and that's part of the reason that Telecommunications Inc.'s mid-90s proposal to drop the channel met with such vehement opposition, according to a 1996 report in the New York Times.

Though the company's decision was primarily mercenary, rather than specifically anti-feminist — the goal was apparently to "make room" for Rupert Murdoch's "all news" Fox Inc. channel — many female viewers saw the proposal differently. One of those people was Colorado Democratic Representative Patricia Schroeder, who told the New York Times that ”Women kind of feel like they're being rolled over so that the guys who run these companies can make more money.” Protests from various women's groups ensued, and the channel stayed put. 

Lifetime drastically revamped their "guilty pleasures" image in 2009

By the early 2000s, Lifetime had begun to branch out into increasingly "serious" programming, and much of it was even good enough to garner major accolades. In 2006, the channel received an Emmy nomination for Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, a movie based on writer and activist Geralyn Lucas's memoir about surviving breast cancer. 

By 2009, when the channel was taken over by A&E, it had received enough critical acclaim to inspire executives to begin a concerted effort to push programming into territory that wasn't primarily defined by melodrama — even though the delightful old-school cheese that we all love hasn't entirely gone green, thankfully.

In 2008, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, about a father who gives his newborn daughter away because she has Down Syndrome, received enthusiastic reviews and a Primetime Emmy Award nomination, as did 2009's Prayers for Bobby, about a gay man who commits suicide because his mother (Sigourney Weaver) won't accept his sexuality. The latter also garnered Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Producers Guild of America Award nominations, and nabbed the GLADD Media Award in 2010, to boot.

The Lifetime channel challenges sexist industry standards

If Lifetime has gone from cheese to acclaim since its inception, there's a great reason for it: the vast number of gifted female directors the channel has gone out of its way to hire over the years. Even in this day and age, it's no secret that the film industry is in many ways notoriously sexist, but even back in the pre-Harvey Weinstein exposé era, the channel was determined to put much of its fare into the hands of women. 

Actress Diane Keaton made her directorial debut on Lifetime in the form of Wildflower, one of the channel's first "cerebral" movies, and actress Angela Basset directed Whitney (as in Houston), one of the channel's most successful biopics to date. Other star directors include Mary Harron, Allison Anders, and Agnieszka Holland. A pretty impressive and intellectually impressive lineup, for a channel that started out tabloid.

Legendary actors have a habit of showing up in Lifetime movies

The number of now-famous stars who got their start — or at least made burgeoning or mid-career appearances — in Lifetime movies might really surprise some people, too. As pointed out by Glamour, the then largely-unknown Reese Witherspoon, for example, co-starred with a pre-True Romance Patricia Arquette in the aforementioned Wildflower, a story about the friendship between a deaf girl and a hearing girl. 

A not yet Twilight famous Kristen Stewart tore up the screen in 2004's Speak, about a high school student trying to cope with the aftermath of sexual assault. In 2004, before he broke ground with High School Musical, Zac Efron appeared in Miracle Run, the gripping story of two autistic brothers. And in 1998, Kirsten Dunst, then still primarily famous for playing child vampire Claudia in Interview With the Vampire, starred in Lifetime favorite Fifteen and Pregnant, playing the proverbial young mother in trouble.

Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black also commanded the Lifetime screen, circa 2005, in Dawn Anna, a film about the Columbine High School massacre. And Nina Dobrev of The Vampire Diaries starred in 2007's Too Young to Marry, the tale of an ardent and impetuous teenaged couple who are determined to get hitched, even though everyone else thinks (correctly) that it's a terrible idea. 

From weepy schmaltz to distinguished Emmy Award nominations

The number of Emmy Award nominations Lifetime has racked up over the years is pretty impressive. In fact, the channel has a total of 23 nominations to its credit. In addition to the aforementioned Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, the network received major accolades for 2012's Steel Magnolias, a remake of the classic film starring Queen Latifah and an all-black cast; said film also garnered a prestigious Screen Actors Guild Award nomination.

Actress Thora Birch (of American Beauty and Ghost World fame) was nominated for her role in 2003's Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story. Shirley MacLaine was nominated for the 2008 biopic Coco Chanel. Iconic actress Gena Rowlands was nominated in 2007 for What if God Were the Sun. Cicely Tyson got rave reviews for her performance in A Trip to Bountiful, and the list just goes on from there.

Kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart produced, and narrated, her own Lifetime film

One of Lifetime's most successful and acclaimed films was 2017's I Am Elizabeth Smart, the graphically-rendered story of Smart's bloodcurdling, and by now internationally well-known, 2002 abduction and rescue. The film received almost unanimously rave reviews for its writing and acting, but it was particularly notable because Smart herself both co-produced it and narrated it. The movie, not un-coincidentally, aired on the fifteenth anniversary of Smart's abduction. 

And although she later said that collaborating on the project was significantly traumatic (and that seeing actor Skeet Ulrich so convincingly done up as her kidnapper was particularly unnerving), Smart made it clear that she didn't regret the experience. 

Lifetime's cast and crew were almost equally moved by participating in the experience, as were many critics. As Variety put it: "I Am Elizabeth Smart is … a remarkable Lifetime movie. Much like Smart herself, it is restrained, unpretentious, and direct. And to the cast and crew's credit, nothing about it diminishes Smart's ordeal or plays it up for manufactured horrors; it simply is, which is plenty horrible enough."