On Tuesday, after it was reported that actor Lori Loughlin was indicted on federal mail fraud charges stemming from $500,000 worth of bribes she and husband Mossimo Giannulli paid to ensure their daughters’ admission to the University of Southern California, #AuntBecky trended on Twitter.
The reference was, of course, to Loughlin’s role in the sitcom Full House and its Netflix reboot, Fuller House. Though Aunt Becky is likely Loughlin’s most iconic (or at least enduring) television role, since 2013, she has established herself as the face of the Hallmark Channel, appealing to the network’s core demographic of older women and, increasingly, 18- to 49-year-old women viewers as well. Loughlin, who stars on the Hallmark Channel series When Calls the Heart, as well as the recurring TV movies Garage Sale Mysteries, embodies the network’s feel-good brand, exuding the warm charm, accessibility, and homey comfort that has made the Hallmark Channel a major ratings player. (A recent report noted that the network outperformed other major cable networks, including ESPN and Nickelodeon.)
Loughlin has managed to corner every environment of Hallmark’s ecosystem, starring in many of the network’s Christmas movies, a feel-good faith and family period drama, as well as the kind of cozy mysteries that have come to define Hallmark’s sister network, Movies and Mysteries. She’s fully embraced Hallmark’s idiosyncratic iteration of fame, an actress who is recognizable without being intimidatingly famous, who vaguely conjures up the nostalgia that the fuels the company. In her varying roles, she’s ready with a smile under soft light; she’s the kind of woman viewers eagerly welcome as a friend or extended family member. Whether or not Loughlin’s relationship with Hallmark will survive her arrest remains to be seen. Crown Media, which owns Hallmark and Movies and Mysteries, prides itself on being a nostalgia bubble, ostensibly free of politics and scandal. In 2017, Crown executive Bill Abbott told the Washington Post that the networks were a haven from an “undeniable contentious” environment, referring to the 2016 election. “We are a place you can go and feel good,” he added.
A spokesperson for the network had no further statement for Jezebel on Loughlin’s future with Crown Media beyond, “We are aware of the situation and monitoring developments as they arise. Thank you.”
Loughlin’s most visible work (outside Hallmark’s core audience) is undoubtedly her starring role in the annual “Countdown to Christmas” lineup, which now exerts an incredible hold over popular culture in November and December thanks to sheer commitment to the bit. Loughlin is one of a stable of actresses vaguely recognizable from something current moms may have watched in their youth, including Lacey Chabert (Mean Girls), Danica McKellar (The Wonder Years), Alison Sweeney (Days of Our Lives), and Candace Cameron Bure (Full House).
Loughlin’s contribution to the genre this year was Homegrown Christmas:
After stepping down as CEO of her dream job, Maddie (Loughlin) heads home for the holidays to gain perspective. She finds herself running into her old high school sweetheart Carter (Webster), and tensions quickly arise. When forced to put together a Christmas dance for the local high school, Carter and Maddie find themselves putting their differences aside and just might rediscover what made them fall in love all those years ago.
She also features heavily in the company’s catalog of movies from previous years, hence a prominent place on the channel in the weeks during the holiday season.
When she’s not making Christmas movies, Loughlin also stars on one of Hallmark’s first original series, When Calls the Heart. The series, lightly based on a series of Christian novels written by the network’s favorite Christian novelist, Janette Oke, is the familiar stuff of Hallmark: a family-friendly drama set in a small town that follows the life of schoolteacher Elizabeth Thatcher and her wise and strong older friend, Abigail Staunton (Loughlin). The arc and characters are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a single moment of any of Hallmark’s original programming, reinforcing the nostalgia for small-town values, of family and friends who come together and support one another, and who vaguely value Christian faith. Unlike the network’s Christmas movies, When Calls the Heart is a period drama set in the Canadian West. Yes, there’s a Mountie.
Loughlin’s character is central to the show but, perhaps more importantly, Loughlin herself is central to the small group of the show’s superfans known as Hearties. When Calls the Heart isn’t just a television show for Hearties, but a community of support. Using the hashtag #Hearties on both Instagram and Twitter, Hearties share memes proclaiming their devotion to the show but they also share Bible verses, Christian devotionals, and challenges both big and small, from spiritual failings to body positivity and parenting. In addition to their online presences, Hearties host watching parties (HeartiesParties), as well as an annual “family reunion” that’s effectively Comic Con for Hearties, complete with costumes.
Loughlin regularly engages with the Hearties on social media (her accounts have since been deleted), tweeting with them nearly every Sunday night, through six seasons of the show. In Loughlin’s six years on the show, she isn’t just Abigail Staunton—she isn’t just an actress playing a role—but rather a real-life friend who inspires and uplifts. Take, for example, Loughlin’s response when the male lead of When Calls the Heart was killed off last year. She appeared in two Facebook live chats to help fans “process their feelings,” as well as a lead-up video reminding Hearties that “our community needs you now more than ever.” In the video, Loughlin looks sober and holds the hand of lead actress Erin Krakow. Neither of them are in costume.
There is, of course, a strong crossover between Hearties and Loughlin’s Hallmark trifecta: the Garage Sale Mysteries series, in which she plays an antique store owner who seems to encounter an alarming quantity of items related to crimes which she is then forced to solve. Yes, that’s right: Loughlin was solving cozy crimes at the same time she was allegedly doing crimes.
The series airs on the company’s second channel, Movies and Mysteries, and is composed almost entirely of reruns—Matlock, Murder She Wrote, Perry Mason, Psych—as well as original cozy mysteries and adaptations. Those include Morning Show Mysteries, the Aurora Teagarden Mysteries (in which Candace Cameron Bure plays a librarian), Crossword Mysteries (starring Lacey Chabert), and Chronicle Mysteries, featuring Alison Sweeney as a crime-solving podcaster. (Previously, she was on Murder, She Baked, but that ended in 2017.) Particularly as executed by Hallmark, it’s a genre of mystery that is dedicated to death without gore. Wholesome, family-friendly murder.
Garage Sale Mysteries are generally released in batches in late summer, and this August was supposed to bring installments 16, 17, 18, and 19. First up and currently filming is Garage Sale Mysteries: Searched and Seized. Their fate is uncertain.
(Both Garage Sale Mysteries and When Calls the Heart are filmed in Canada. It is likely that Loughlin left filming to return to Los Angeles. She is expected to surrender to authorities and be arraigned on Wednesday).
Outside of her acting work, Loughlin has come to occupy a larger role within the Hallmark ecosystem. She does promo for the “Countdown to Christmas” as a whole, not just her own movies; she hosts the Valentine’s Day premieres. That makes her a big star in the media universe where Hallmark dominates. She makes the rounds in places like Parade and Country Living, which covers Hallmark with the dedication that the New York Times covers the Pentagon. Loughlin’s arrest puts Hallmark in a very tough spot, because it’s not just a matter of reshuffling their studio system lite roster of stars—it could very well cost them somebody with pretty good name recognition who served their PR purposes very well.
Loughlin’s future with the network is uncertain, but they’re surely going to have to do something. She has been instantly recategorized from the wholesome mom who’s not overtly evangelical but appealing to “faith-based” audiences, to cheating, line-cutting Hollywood elite asshole. Comments on Hallmark’s social media accounts include: “I hope Hallmark takes immediate action and does not air any of Lori Loughlin’s series or movies. She taught her kids a horrible lesson.”
This woman is clearly rage-typing:
Love Halmark movie & mysterious, however, I love my morality more. I’m sorry but Lori Laughlin MUST GO! She is a farce & believes she is so special that it’s fine to cheat hard working legitimate children out of their EARNED right to go to best schools. It is unconscionable! Abuse of her power as a celebrity. She is now garbage and needs to be take out of the garage and put on the curb.
Here’s somebody who is mostly just deeply disappointed:
Garage sale mysteries was my favorite. I love Lori Laughlin in them but now I will only think of her bribing College authorities. I don’t know if I can watch it anymore.
But there are plenty of dissenters who suggest a potential road to redemption for Loughlin, in keeping with the channel’s more evangelical undertones. Hearties, in particular, seem keen on forgiving Loughlin; some cite Bible verses while others address the “community” directly. “#Hearties,” one fan wrote on Twitter, “WCTH has shown us that offering forgiveness and second chances can be an amazing thing. So many of you today seem to enjoy watching it, but don’t want to actually practice this in real life.” Others expressed dismay and heartbreak, promising to pray for Loughlin and her family.
The strong possibility that Hallmark will cut Loughlin loose to protect its brand leaves us with one question: Who will emerge victorious from the resulting power vacuum?
Candace Cameron Bure is perhaps the most obvious candidate—she’s also heavily featured in their Countdown to Christmas promo and has the same large outside platform as Loughlin in the form of Fuller House. But she’s maybe too overtly evangelical to totally nail Hallmark’s vague approach to faith, which is simply evangelical-friendly but does not alienate with straight proselytizing. Also, she’s weirdly grating, and her magical Christmas shoe movie, A Shoe Addict’s Christmas, was bad even for Hallmark.
That leaves an entire universe of up-and-comers that you may vaguely recognize from a previous career. Lacey Chabert, for instance, has appeared in many Christmas movies as has Danica McKellar, aka Winnie from The Wonder Years—she is currently in pre-production on The Matchmaker Mysteries.
Perhaps best positioned to take advantage is Holly Robinson Peete, who’s already starring on Morning Show Murders and has the rare Hallmark reality TV show, Meet the Peetes. Description: “Follow Holly and Rodney Peete’s hectic lives as they attempt to balance raising four kids, including one with autism, running their HollyRod charity and spending time with Holly’s 81-year-old mother Dolores, who moved in with them after retiring from her career as a talent manager.” Hallmark has taken a lot of heat in the last couple of years for being whiter than a redlined mid-century suburb, and Peete could really seize the dethroning of Loughlin as her moment.