February 15th 2020
I have always found it ironic that the Hallmark channel is adjacent to the Lifetime channel on the dial, at least that's the case in the cable channel lineup where I live. Both channels are mainly targeted at women, but that's where the similarity ends. The Hallmark channel is love conquers all and happy endings. Lifetime channel presents broken relationships, stolen babies, and serial killers. In short, the Hallmark channel is all about hope, and the Lifetime channel is all about fear.
It's interesting and eye-opening to contrast the two approaches to luring people to sit on the couch through commercials. And, even more can be learned about us from the way we react to these two programing philosophies.
To say that the movies on the Hallmark channel are formulaic is true. The stereotypical Hallmark plot involves a successful woman who travels to a small, picturesque town for what's planned to be a short stay. Fate intervenes, and the main character meets a flannel-clad sweet potato farmer with a well-hidden heart of gold, often a widower with a cute kid as a bonus. After initially feuding the pair fall in love. Then the successful woman abandons her sterile life in the big city for happiness in the small town. Oh, and she wins first prize in a baking contest at the annual sweet potato festival in the last scene. Roll credits.
There are variations on this theme, but the above is close enough. Some Hallmark movies have higher production values and/or more famous actors than others. But they all follow the pattern of "woman finds true love and decides to change her life in order to keep it." It's tempting to dismiss it as a type of modern-day kabuki theater, where everyone is just acting out predetermined roles. In my family we even will play a game to spot the "point of maximum drama", when it looks like love will fail and all is lost, usually fifteen to twenty minutes before the end of movie as they cut to the commercial break. But don't worry, a happy ending is waiting after these important messages from our sponsors.
The Lifetime channel takes a different approach. The main character is also typically female, but happiness in not in the cards for her. Heartache and tragedy are inflicted by cruel fate, for her to suffer through and overcome. If there is a male character in a Lifetime movie, he's either a useless idiot, an abuser/serial killer, or if he's worth a damn he'll be dead in the first twenty minutes to supply the requisite tragedy for the main character to triumph over. To be sure, lifetime movies can have female villains as well. The female baddies are usually the above-mentioned deranged baby stealers or religious fanatics, sometimes both at once.
Another notable aspect of Lifetime movies is that they are often based on actual events. The pages of newspapers provide an inexhaustible supply of bad news from which to manufacture scripts, with enough drama added to make it exciting. The sheer variety of the ways people can hurt each other makes it seem like the movies are all different. But Lifetime dramas all follow a pattern as well: woman suffers tragedy and must find the inner strength to overcome it. Oh, and it's all the guy's fault. Roll credits.
Despite their differences, both Hallmark and Lifetime fill needs in the entertainment ecosystem. Hallmark reassures you that happy endings are possible. Lifetime shows you what, and who, to watch out for.
Lifetime basically deals in relationship horror movies. "These are the terrible things which could happen to you." It's like the ghost and demon stories, except that the bad things in a Lifetime drama are real. There are bad people out there. And yes, they carry tragedy around with them like some communicable disease. Ironically, those people are relatively rare. You're much more likely to die in a traffic accident than from a psychopath's axe. Doesn't matter. Horror movies are wildly popular, whether the subject is a ghost, or a monster, or merely a charming stranger who actually plans to break your heart, kill you, or steal your baby.
I suspect that the same people who watch the Lifetime channel watch the Hallmark channel. That's probably why they're next-door neighbors on the TV dial. So you can flip back and forth, as mood dictates, or during commercials.
Just as ironic is the fact that while the dramas on the Hallmark channel are clearly fantasies, they apply directly to ordinary lives. Shorn of the dramatic elements which keep us watching, Hallmark stories could drop right into any of our lives. The characters find love, and through that, happiness.
The secret to happiness is simple: find someone to love and build a life with them. Of course, the skeptic will object: Just that easy, hey ?
No, it's not easy. In fact, finding someone to love is likely to be the hardest thing that you will ever do. But it is simple. And, difficult as finding that someone is, most of us manage to accomplish the task. Love may not last forever, but when it's real it's well worth the effort.
This is the actual underlying truth of the frivolous fantasies on the Hallmark channel. Those who denigrate them for encouraging modern women to give up their independent lives for the questionable benefit of being shackled to some flannel-clad sweet potato farmer in the middle of nowhere aren't looking past the surface. In reality, the female character is in charge of her life, and she has a choice to make. Most women have to make that decision, and it resonates with the audience. Real love costs. It costs a lot. Love is hard. It requires sacrifices. The biggest sacrifice is making someone else's wants and needs at least as important as your own. If you're lucky enough that your love brings you kids, you'll sacrifice for them as well. It's been that way since people have been people.
It's true that love makes the world go ‘round. But, as Sonny and Cher reminded us, "Love don't pay the rent." ...unless you're the Hallmark channel.
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