The Lifetime movie turns 30: Escape reality with a marathon of nannies, cheerleaders & kids in peril

If you're exhausted, join Niecy Nash in this celebration of Lifetime Original Movies

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 30, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Flowers in the Attic (Lifetime)
Flowers in the Attic (Lifetime)

Look, the notion of celebrating the 30th anniversary of Lifetime's greatest contribution to Americana, the Lifetime Original Movie, seems every which way but right in the context of the here and now. It's been a week, a month, an eon. The world is on fire, and the very racist supposed leader of the free world is blithely endorsing the use of lethal violence on American citizens.

People are dying of violence and a highly contagious virus. People are very tired. Black people, especially, are beyond tired. That very condition – marrow-deep fatigue and the acute onset of situational depression – makes a numbing, weekend-long marathon, preferably viewed sideways, an offer worth accepting.

Does it help to know Niecy Nash is hosting this weekend's kick-off? Oh yes: Nash is lending her star power to wrangling the titles being paraded before us this weekend, including her own Lifetime achievement, "Stolen By My Mother: The Kamiyah Mobley Story," which plays an entirely true crazy story bone straight more or less.

Nash's endorsement of this invitation to stay in bed and eat that entire box of cookies adds an air of legitimacy to this enterprise. You know she's exhausted too, right?

I mean, she made a flawless satirical video about white fear that posted on the New York Times Opinion Page waaaaaay back in 2018. Two years ago. Plenty of time for Amy Cooper to check it out and perhaps make a different decision from the one she made on Memorial Day.

So yes, Nash is right there with us, navigating us through the small screen's simplest temporary respite from the world's problems, an avalanche of Lifetime Original Movies.

If there's one quibble to be had with this marathon, it's that it takes the Lifetime Original Movie mantle a little too seriously for my "not planning to bathe or be vertical for 48 hours because I need a break from the tire fire of it all" needs.  Honestly, how could a network launch a B-movie bacchanalia like this with 1994's "Death of a Cheerleader," which stars Tori Spelling, instead of a fearmongering classic like "She Woke Up Pregnant"?

Perhaps network programmers didn't want to overshadow the prime rib of this buffet, which is the encore (encore!) airing of 2014's "Flowers in the Attic," at 4 p.m. on Saturday, otherwise known as the It's Not Like You Have Any Plans to Go Anywhere time slot.

When you think about it, "Flowers" is the ur-Lifetime Movie of the Week tale even though the 1979 publication of V.C. Andrews' novel on which it is based predates the first Lifetime Original's debut by 11 years. This literary rite of passage for Gen X tweens hits all the made-for-TV buttons: there's trauma, parental abuse, a sexual taboo (that is actually sexual abuse, hello), problem children, and an evil grandma poisoning the kids with treats.

Consider this toxic treat an amuse bouche (or bush, given Andrews' penchant for plantlife). Later this summer, Lifetime has planted a five-week movie series event of V.C. Andrews adaptations, beginning July 27 with "Heaven" and coming to a gothic end on Aug. 24 with "Web of Dreams."

Andrews' winning formula of featuring a resilient young woman who overcomes abuse or neglect by a loved one, usually a family member, and emerges stronger and ready to move forward with her life, is pure Lifetime. The good stuff. In spite of this, Lifetime may take issue with my characterization of the Heather Graham and Kiernan Shipka version of "Flowers" as the main course, given that the marathon is built around the 8 p.m. world premiere of, wait for it . . . 

"The Captive Nanny." (Original title: "Nanny Lockdown.")

Now, you might think I'm being flippant about the dire, gruesome, dispiriting and enraging state of the world right now; I assure you I am not.  You may also be wondering whether I am raging against the hallowed institution that is the Lifetime Original Movie on the occasion of its 30th anniversary. Quite the opposite.

I am entirely serious when I say that for a lot of people this marathon is a temporary hiding place from reality which, in case you haven't noticed, is a horror show running by killer clowns with a yen to pile disaster on top of a thick layer of worse, which was already resting on a tuffet of bad.

And you do realize that sinking chin deep into a Lifetime movie bender isn't entirely a vacation from our problems, right?  In the same way slumping one's way through hour after hour of "Iyanla Fix My Life" isn't designed to repair your problems, just to make you feel better about your life in comparison to somebody else's, Lifetime Movies allow us to tour our anxieties without succumbing to them.

America circa 2020 resembles an abattoir, let's be honest.  And yet the thought of gawking at these relics of mindless days gone by, such as Jennifer Love Hewitt breaking bad ("The Client List") or Denise Richards as a demanding cheerleader mom in the second cheerleader film of the marathon, "The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders," feels about the right speed.

Since I'm ready to face plant into my keyboard as I'm typing this, allow me to share this dead-on summation of why Lifetime's movies have been going strong for 30 years, courtesy of TV Tropes. These films, the site's write-up points out, are "designed to play on the fears of their target demographic." It goes on:

"Thus, the themes of violent or uncaring men, female rivalries, smothering mothers, difficult children, and absent support systems are prevalent. Though notionally intended to send a message of empowerment by having the female triumph, it can seem like they have the opposite effect, as the world is depicted as harshly uncaring and even antagonistic toward "good" women, and rarely does a protagonist succeed without help from a male ally."

Good luck to that nanny, who is played by Karynn Moore.

This marathon celebration might also double as a case study in the ways that TV dramas as we know them feed the American story of the fragile and perpetually endangered white girl. Spelling's "Death of a Cheerleader," Richards' "The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders," 1996's "No One Would Tell" starring Candace Cameron Bure, 1998-edition Kirsten Dunst in "Fifteen & Pregnant" – these stories all confirm how menacing the world is for these delicate buds of humanity, some of whom are Karens.

This is the same fuel upon which Oxygen, Investigation Discovery and NBC's "Dateline" runs.

Lifetime's thematic portfolio has evolved beyond a steady diet of white women in peril films since 2009, when the network was acquired by A&E and made conscious efforts to diversify its audience. This is evidenced by Nash's movie, the 2012 remake of 1989's "Steel Magnolias" with a black cast – one of the highest-rated films in its history, and its biopics on Gabby Douglas, Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, and Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, or elevating awareness about the ongoing water crisis in Flint.

This weekend's marathon features none of those, but that's not a problem since the Lifetime movie celebration is set to roll through the summer. Instead we're getting the disappointing 2017 remake of "Beaches" starring Nia Long and the 2016 adaptation of Toni Braxton's memoir "Unbreak My Heart" which is . . . fine. It's fine.

Besides, those other movies also serve as demonstrations of the dominant culture's insanity. Dealing with that in real life can send a person over the edge but watching Richard's bitch it up in a fictional trifle is damn entertaining. Let another white girl contend with that drama for a change.

For all of these reasons and others I can't bring myself to think about right now, hell yes, I will slide into this opening day virtual day drink-at-thon, whatever Father's Day loco the network cooks up, and maybe even the network's Independence Day festival of thrillers.

It's not the cure of what's ailing us -- that would be justice and equality for all, and a steady leader devoted to repairing our divides and guide us to the other side of this morass. But we don't have that. So let us drink the palliative medicine of warped cheerleaders, plucky escorts and locked-up youngsters. Allow them to be the extra-strength aspirin for the shared national headache caused by the tumor that's nobody's operating on – and yes, Arnold, it's actually a tumor.

Throw 30 years' worth of Lifetime Movies at me already. Niecy knows I need to lie down for a minute.

The 30th anniversary marathon of Lifetime's Original Movies kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 30 and 10 a.m. Sunday, May 31 on Lifetime. Don't fight it. 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Denise Richards Flowers In The Attic Kirsten Dunst Lifetime Niecy Nash Tori Spelling Tv