Columns > Published on January 17th, 2014

LURID: Lifetime (Movie) Achievements

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Once upon a time, women had to be protected from lurid fictions. It was thought that exposure to salacious details of lechery, adultery, envy, greed, murder, conspiracy and lies would send them teetering towards the nearest fainting couch or, worse, corrupt their fragile little minds.  A true gentleman, possessed of a robust moral constitution, could glean valuable lessons from tales of sleaze and depravity without damaging his good character, but a lady risked destroying her virtue entirely and was best advised to avert her eyes. 

Reading itself was an appropriate leisure pursuit for a quality dame, but her reading material had to be carefully policed. For many a Victorian paterfamilias, his wife or daughter’s perusal of anything other than religious tracts or light romances was downright dangerous, to be prevented at all costs, or else it would spiral into an inevitable “Never darken my door from this day hence, Harlot!” scenario. Good men trembled in their pulpits at the dire consequences of women reading Bad Books.

Even in our twenty-first century, bookstores and libraries carry shelves full of specially designated chick lit, sugarcoated yarns about The One, Shopping, Softcore Sex and BFFs. It’s safe, morally edifying (bad girls come to a sticky end, good girls get a man), and decorous, incorporating nothing that might imperil a damsel’s basic decency. Movie studios target female audiences with romcoms, family dramas, and adaptations of novels by Nicholas Sparks. No change there, then. After all these centuries, that’s still what women want: a little light, non-threatening entertainment. Leave the hard stuff for the big boys. Right?

A true gentleman...could glean valuable lessons from tales of sleaze and depravity without damaging his good character, but a lady risked destroying her virtue entirely....

Wrong. Developments over the past couple of years show that this paternalistic, overprotective attitude to women’s fiction might be going the way of the VCR. Y’all already know that Fifty Shades of Grey is the fastest selling paperback of all time, shifting more than 90 million copies to date. Last year in movie theatres, romcom The Big Wedding didn’t make its nut, instead female moviegoers flocked to see Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock fighting and swearing in The Heat, and Jennifer Lawrence kicking ass as Katniss. The fastest growing network on US television is Investigation Discovery, serving its signature smorgasbord of informative murder porn to slathering female audiences.  Increasingly, women don’t want their entertainment to be fluffy or ladylike, they want lust and blood.

Over at Lifetime, they’ve known this for a long time.  Although the “Television For Women” slogan was abandoned back in 2006, they’re still the go-to programmers of made-for-TV movies for women who love movies about women, ideally starring Rob Lowe. Once, the Lifetime label implied a mundane romance, a fatal ailment of the week, a shamelessly uplifting family reunion drama. It was a sly insult – “sounds like a Lifetime movie” equaled a conversation-ending critique of a screenplay as dull and without merit. Yet these days, the output on the Lifetime Movie Network – targeted specifically at the adult female audience – has definitely raised its game. A quick scan of the schedule would make a Victorian patriarch’s blood run cold. 

The titles are all about titillation, pearl-clutching combinations of keywords such as Murder, Lies, Truth, Choice, Temptation, Strangers, Trust, Indiscretion, Secrets, Betrayal, Lives, Lovers, Sisters, Babies and Regrets combined with potent qualifiers such as Deadly, A Mother’s, Silent, A Date With, Crazy, Nightmare, Perfect and Presumed.  Go ahead and make up your own.  They refer to stories of unhinged women, traitorous men, vengeful neighbors, feckless children, conniving control freaks and true-life criminals. The movies themselves may not quite deliver on the title and trailer, forced to tread a low-budget line between showing and telling the graphic details, but some of them are really, really good.

We’re talking guilty pleasures, especially when it comes to the ripped-from-the-headlines stories that Lifetime does so well.  Running at almost twice the length of a procedural like Law And Order, a Lifetime movie can utilize the same kind of true crime material, but go much deeper into the emotion and drama (the so-called woman’s angle) of the original incident.  They often focus on the victim and consequences of a violent act, rather than glorifying the act itself.  On the down side, Lifetime Movies are never about regurgitating the concrete facts, but highlight the more scandalous and outrageous gossip surrounding a case.  They’re not about responsible journalism, quite the opposite, and enjoy generating controversy in a manner that would make Harvey Weinstein blush. Lifetime Movies operates by ripping stories from news outlets and tossing those tasty headlines right back.  See: Lindsay Lohan and the fuss about Liz And Dick, or the column inches devoted to Mary Harron’s epic prosthetic breast-laden biopic of the stripper turned Guess icon turned billionaire consort turned reality star turned bloated corpse, Anna Nicole.

The controversies amp up the guilt factor.  It seems shameful, anyway, to admit to sitting down with a bottle of wine and a Lifetime movie of a Saturday night. It seems even more deliciously wrong if you’re tuning in to Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret, which lurched into production before the trial had even drawn to a close, or Amanda Knox: Murder On Trial In Italy, which the families of both Knox and the victim, Meredith Kercher, tried to ban, or Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story, against which Porco tried to get an injunction (overturned) because Lifetime didn’t get permission to use his name. Lifetime clearly has an excellent legal team who will defend the network’s right to broadcast muckraking true crime movies under the aegis of free speech, public interest and a ‘don’t need ‘em’ attitude to life story rights – all in the name of movies for women who love movies about women.

Rob Lowe is the current undisputed king of the Lifetime movie, thanks mainly to his jaw-dropping performance as (at the time of broadcast, alleged) serial wife-murdering cop, in Drew Peterson: Untouchable (a production which also garnered a cease-and-desist letter from its subject’s lawyer).  Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated Lowe, one of the most preternaturally beautiful human beings you could hope to meet in real life, might seem like the last actor to be found slumming it in a Saturday night made-for-TV-special.  Proving that guilty pleasures don’t just belong to the audience, however, Lowe relished donning the extra poundage plus a grey moustache and strutting around the small screen giving an uncannily accurate impersonation of the man on trial, growling jury-deciding lines such as “I’m untouchable, bitch”.  The movie was first broadcast in May, 2012.  Peterson was found guilty of the murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, the following September. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

These lurid Lifetime Movies are in fact following a paradigm that’s centuries old.  Their origins can be traced back to the broadsides (cheaply published ballads) commemorating contemporary criminals of the seventeenth century, which evolved into the penny dreadfuls and dime novels of the nineteenth.  Women were avid readers of these texts, often featuring notorious female killers, especially poisoners and babyfarmers: Maria Marten, Mary Ann Cotton, Florence Maybrick, Martha Grinder, Amelia Dyer, et al. While the Victorian lady might have read the morally upright Middlemarch in front of her husband, privately she begged her maid for copies of the latest sensational pamphlet charting a murderer’s path towards the gallows.

This month’s Lifetime Movie Network premieres therefore seem especially resonant, a closing of the circle, a vindication of what women really want.  First up, tomorrow night, is the much anticipated remake of Flowers In The Attic, a book beloved of this column, made into a terrible TV movie starring Louise Fletcher, Kristy Swanson and Victoria Tennant back in 1987.  The new Lifetime version promises to be much more faithful to the source material (they won’t avoid the incest) – after all, crazed grandmothers, greedy socialites, poisoned donuts and lustful adolescents are totally in their wheelhouse. The starry cast includes Heather Graham as Corrine, Ellen Burstyn as Olivia and Kiernan Shipka as Cathy. V.C. Andrews fans everywhere have been rejoicing, and her ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman has even given some rare interviews in honor of the occasion. Can. Not. Wait. To add even more delight to proceedings, Lifetime have already announced plans to film the sequel, the utterly trashtastic Petals on the Wind, which deals with adult Cathy’s attempts to get revenge on her mother – and a whole other boatload of suicidal, brotherloving, hemophilia-inducing batshit.

If a brand-new version of Flowers In The Attic wasn’t enough of a contribution to the cause of movies for women who love movies about women, Lifetime are also premiering Lizzie Borden Took An Ax on January 25, starring Christina Ricci. Borden was charged with the murder (by ax, naturally) of her father and stepmother in 1892, leading to a sensational trial – and acquittal – the following year. Lizzie Borden Took An Ax ramps up the gore and the sexual jealousy/incest angle (one theory suggests Lizzie was living as her father’s wife until a new woman came along) and has Ricci commit the murders naked. Clea DuVall (last seen in Argo) plays Lizzie’s suspicious sister and Billy Campbell (The Killing) rounds out the cast as her lawyer. Once again, this looks like a campy, deliciously lurid treat.

Most of us have an inner Victorian Dad, with beetle brows and frown lines, dictating which stories we should and should not feel guilty about consuming. That’s why it’s so great to dwell in 2014, when we can dismiss his censorship with a flick of the TV remote. Love Lifetime Movies? Be out and proud about it, problematic though the focus on victimhood might be.  You’re carrying on a fine tradition of lurid entertainment; human interest stories boiled down to the core concepts of sex and death.

What’s your particular guilty pleasure? Does it star Eric Roberts and/or Anne Heche? Share your favorite lurid Lifetime Movie experiences in the comments below.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: