The end of summer is like that shadowy dark part of the television kingdom. Even though we live in a world of Netflix and DVR, pickings dwindle and the hyenas get restless for entertainment; you can only binge watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians reruns so many times.
Luckily, there's a wide variety of oft-overlooked made-for-television entertainment out there, like 12 Men of Christmas, a Lifetime television original movie from 2009 starring Kristen Chenoweth. Will E.J. Baxter, our strong female lead, realize that there's more to life than public relations and New York City? Will her stubborn-but-sexy love interest finally give in to their very dramatic height difference? Will Anna Chlumsky's character be cheery enough to literally cheer the pants off of her random man crush? How will the town's volunteer firefighters get the money they need if not by posing for a calendar where they are half nude? Who knows! I certainly don't, but I would love to.
"Few artifacts of popular culture invite more condescension than the made-for-television movie," wrote John J. O'Connor in 1991 at the start of his New York Times review of the CBS made-for-tv movie Her Wicked Ways starring Barbara Eden and Heather Locklear. Despite this proclamation, O'Connor was optimistic about Her Wicked Ways, writing that "Television movies can be vehicles of substance," and he seemed quite sad when he had to report that it was nothing more than a "rip-off of All About Eve."
O'Connor had plenty to be sad about; there's nothing worse than knowing that something has failed to meet its potential. That being said, it's hard to feel too bad for him, given that the real joy of a made-for-TV movie is in how carefully it can walk the line between terrible and fantastic. As follows, here are the things it takes to make a good/bad made-for-TV movie.
It airs on ABC Family, the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime.
Along these lines:
It must be somewhat low-budget.
The reason Liz & Dick was such a phenomenal failure, among other things, is that it was too high budget. It tried too hard to be "a good movie," but failed so stupendously, despite all those amazing costumes. Liz & Dick tried too hard. We all know that if it's on TV, it's not a good movie — and I write those words as someone who likes television far more than most movies.
It's a biopic.
I personally can't abide the "scary retelling of real-life stuff" category of made-for-TV movies that many people love; anything that's about a pregnancy pact falls in this category. There's not enough time here to deal with the horrifying number of women-being-killed-and-raped-but-are-empowered-afterwards drama that Lifetime likes to populate their line-up with. Sorrymovingonnext.
That being said, the biopic category is ripe for the picking when it comes to fantastic made-for-TV movies; they often have a loose commitment to getting the facts right (Anna Nicole Smith) and let you relive the moments of a famous person's life that the inevitable E! True Hollywood Story would gloss over (TLC). Compared to the beauty of a terribly done biopic, the "scary retelling of real-stuff" category is like an episode of Law and Order: SVU. If I wanted that sort of thing I'd stay home on a Friday night, which I definitely will not be doing because that show is the scariest thing on television and I can't even enjoy it on mute at the gym.
If it's fiction, it should be a romantic comedy.
This goes without saying and almost feels dumb to write out but a good made-for-TV movie must have romance, however fledgling, unbelievable and sappy.
Moreover, make it a holiday movie.
The holidays are a perfect time for people to come together, especially if they are in a made-for-TV movie and need some faux-family togetherness, stat. Whether it's a tenuous remake of A Christmas Carol (A Diva's Christmas Carol with Vanessa Williams, A Carol Christmas with Tori Spelling, Christmas Cupid with Christina Milian) or just a general "let's bring home a fake boyfriend because my family will judge me if I don't have one" flick (Holiday Engagement, Holiday in Handcuffs), holiday movies have it all: family tension, romantic intrigue and lots of fake, fake snow.
On that note:
It should have either a totally predictable or completely ridiculous conceit.
See: I Do (But I Don't) with Denise Richards which is a clear ripoff of The Wedding Planner. Alternatively, My Future Boyfriend stars Barry Watson as a man who literally...comes from the future and talks like a robot. A good made-for-TV movie cannot just have a basic plot; it must be convoluted in some way that has either been seen many times before or is totally weird and therefore should definitely not have been seen before.
The main character should have some weird quirk and/or a sad backstory that makes him or her interesting because you really don't have time to learn that you're supposed to like them.
The best example of this is Lucky 7, a 2003 movie starring Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Amy) and Patrick Dempsey (Peter) and my personal pick for best made-for-TV movie of all time. The conceit of this film is that Amy's mother died when she was young, but before she died, she drew Amy a plan of what her life should be like, one that Amy has stuck to so religiously that she can't see it when love is standing right in front of her, in the form of Patrick Dempsey who works at a bagel place. ZAAANEY.
The friends should also be "weird" and unique.
The quirky best friend is taken to new lows (or highs, depending on how you look at it) in made-for-television movies. She or he is just around as a cheesy foil, meant to say the right thing and live only for the moment and the heroine. She wears funny chopsticks in her hair (if it's the early 2000s). She hasn't grown up entirely so she still falls when she gets out of bed (This Time Around). She's so relatable. It's only in these movies that people who have mild personality ticks are displayed as bizarre examples of human beings who walk among us.
The love interest has to be only moderately attractive and bonus if there is actually some believable chemistry between them and the main character.
No to Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez in Holiday in Handcuffs (she literally steals a dude to bring him home for the holidays. Where have we heard that one before?); yes to Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence in My Fake Fiancé. She was so good at bickering with Lawrence in My Fake Fiancé that the brilliant minds at ABC Family went as far as to ruin it by giving their own show, the uncreatively-named Melissa and Joey, thus taking the magic too far. Together and apart, Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence inspire within people the kind of comfort that can only come from watching people who are attractive but not like Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt level attractive. If someone is featured in a made-for-TV movie and they're too good-looking, just know that the costume and makeup team behind said film will do they best to make sure the "stars" look far closer to average than they normally do.
On that note:
It's nice if there is a Potentially Famous Person of interest involved.
See: Bradley Cooper in I Want to Marry Ryan Banks (also known as Reality of Love, because every good made-for-TV movie will have two titles). It's fantastic to see an actor do a movie before he is famous and then become famous and have that movie basically skyrocket in value due to the sheer hilariousness that he was once in a bad made-for-TV movie. Take how much better Northern Lights got once you realized that Eddie Cibrian and LeeAnn Rimes were actually Doing It during the filming.
Additionally, if one of the very popular actors used repeatedly in made-for-TV movies (Jenny McCarthy, Sara Rue) shows up, that's great. They own the genre.
The acting cannot be the WORST thing you've ever seen but has to be sort of bad.
This is a difficult barometer to discuss because it's so vague but trust me; if you see it, you know it. For instance: Hillary Duff in Beauty & the Briefcase totally crosses the line from tolerable to just terrible. Seriously woman, I love The Lizzie McGuire Movie much more than your average person but that movie is unwatchable. It's fair to say that Duff wasn't given much to work with – she has to spend the entire movie talking about how she's trying to find her "magic man", which is weird, because she could have just bought a vibrator and called it a day – but writing like this hurts so much more when the actor in question isn't a total joke.
It's gotta have a heavy degree of camp.
These movies do not work unless there is something ridiculous about them. Whether it's the repeating product placement in Lucky 7 (no one likes Welch's Grape Jelly that much) or the outfits that always try to be cutting edge but all end up looking like they came from the same Contempo Casuals (if that store was even still around), camp is the best part of the made-for-TV genre. Why else is the movie 12 Men of Christmas all about making a calendar of half-nude men to raise money for the volunteer fire department in a small town? Naked men = camp.
Finally, children as main characters and weird magic stuff should be handled with care.
Kids in made-for-TV movies are even more painful than the actors that play their dumb parents because their overacting is that much more obvious. Magical realism is best left to the professionals like Gabriel Garcia Marquez but made-for-TV movies will always try to throw in a life-sized doll that turns into Tyra Banks to spice things up. They should avoid it, but they'll do it anyway, and we'll watch lovingly because there is nothing else on TV right now, either quite as bad as this, or at all.
Image by Jim Cooke.