Dear Lifetime, Television for Women (and Gay Men): we're back on speaking terms. I can finally forgive you for nixing Designing Women and The Golden Girls from your regular lineup (although I will never forget that you inflicted reruns of Reba on the unsuspecting public). No, sorry, I never got into Dance Moms; I grew up in kiddie theater and have seen too many productions of Gypsy to get any enjoyment out of that show. In this last year you have revived one of the most truly American art forms and with it, you've revived my affection for your channel.
Hallelujah, the made-for-television movie has been reborn!
I'll admit, it didn't look promising at first. La Lohan's Liz and Dick was beyond disappointing ("I'm bored! I'm so bored!" Lohan as Liz screams midway through the film, mirroring the audience at home) and the Steel Magnolias remake (or as I like to call it, Tyler Perry's House of Magnolias, not because of the all African American cast but because of the churchy tone and lack of coherent direction) sent me running back to the original to cleanse the aftertaste of Queen Latifah from my palate. Those films are nothing more than the labor pains that preceded the birth of your two genre homage masterpieces of 2013: your telefilm biopics of those two media sensations we all secretly love. Anna Nicole Smith and Jodi Arias.
If ever there were women destined for the made-for-television-movie treatment, it's these two. One is a bombshell tabloid queen that's received more air time for her troubled romances and over-the-top antics than anyone since Marilyn Monroe. The other is Anna Nicole Smith. But seriously, stalker, codependent and convicted boyfriend murderess Arias has the kind of story that recalls the early '90s glory days of the genre when A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story and dueling Amy Fisher: Long Island Lolita movies populated the airwaves as freely as reality shows do now. It even has a worthy subtitle (a must for a mftv classic) Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret. It's a subtitle the exploitative (but still commercial TV friendly) sex scenes, melodrama and eventual shower murder more than live up to. This movie was my "dirty little secret" from the minute it aired and it can be yours too.
By contrast, Anna Nicole (directed by I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho auteur Mary Harron with all the mirth of a high-born bohemian slumming it across the tracks for a night) goes as avant-garde as the format will allow. Instead of just depicting the rise and fall of America's favorite gerontophiliac Playmate, we get a glimpse inside the short life of Anna Nicole Smith, a.k.a. Vicki Lynn Hogan, and the constant Norma Jean/Marilyn struggle of duality at play. But remember, this is still Lifetime so it's extremely literal. Young Vicki Lynn knows she's born to be something greater than a flat-chested chicken fry girl when the buxom future ghost of Anna Nicole Smith materializes to her in the trailer park mirror (a future ghost, get it? I've asked a Dickens scholar to get back to me on the specifics of that one). And the fame tortured Anna Nicole knows she's lost herself when a young Vicki Lynn appears to her in the lush gilded mirrors of Hollywood shaking her head in dismay. The day Lifetime decided to start embracing the cliches of the genre and their own network is the day a thousand drinking games were born.
It looks like the fun is just beginning. The channel has just announced that this October we can look forward to Gina Gershon in House of Versace, a film that mixes high class credentials (it's based on a best selling book by Wall Street Journal writer Deborah Ball) with all the spectacle we love about Lifetime (it's the story of the Versace family, after all). Gershon promises to be an inspired choice for the film's lead role, Donatella Versace (we hope there's a Game Change moment where Gina/Donatella watches Maya Rudolph as her SNL alter ego a la Julianne Moore/Sarah Palin watching Tina Fey). And who isn't looking forward to Raquel Welsh as Versace matriarch Aunt Lucia? Crystal Connors and Myra Breckinridge together in one film: the gods of camp have smiled upon us all. Just in time for Halloween!