The overlooked feminism of the Hallmark channel
When Lori Loughlin was arrested earlier this year for her alleged participation in a college admissions scam, Crown Media Holdings announced the actress had been dropped from her Hallmark Channel series When Calls the Heart. Crown also suspended production on Loughlin's Hallmark Movies & Mysteries series Garage Sale Mystery, with no plans to air the already completed 16th film or to finish the almost-wrapped 17th.
This was shocking news to a lot of TV viewers, raising some unsettling questions. Like: What the heck are When Calls the Heart and Garage Sale Mystery? How could these series have been on the air continuously for over five years, when no one's ever heard of them?
Don't feel bad if you were one of those folks scratching your head about the existence of two — two! — thriving Lori Loughlin series. If you're not a regular viewer of Hallmark programming, there's little chance you would've encountered either.
But don't assume that no one knows anything about When Calls the Heart or Garage Sale Mystery, just because the showbiz press pays them almost no attention. Believe it or not, nearly every night over a million viewers tune in to one of the Hallmark channels, to watch smart, engaging middle-aged women run businesses, raise families, find romance, and solve crimes. One might even say that Garage Sale Mystery — like much of the original programming on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries — is, in its own way, progressively feminist.
More people than you may realize are tuning in, too. The When Calls the Heart Christmas special on Hallmark last December drew 3.7 million viewers for its first airing. For context, consider that the much-buzzed-about Killing Eve on BBC America typically gets under 500,000 per episode. Veep and Barry on HBO each average about a million viewers (and they both come on right after the juggernaut Game of Thrones). Last year, Hallmark ranked eighth on the list of most-watched basic cable channels, which is about on-par with USA, TBS, and TNT, and well above the more-talked-about AMC and FX.
How can this be? It helps to know a little bit about the history of Hallmark. The main Hallmark Channel began as a re-branded version of the Odyssey Network, which itself had taken over for the old Faith & Values Channel, cobbled together from multiple Christian broadcasting companies. These were all intended to be outposts on cable for anyone seeking family-friendly, overtly inspirational entertainment — not unlike the acclaimed network TV movies that the Hallmark greeting card company began producing periodically in the 1950s.
Hallmark and its various cable offshoots today are no longer explicitly Christian, but they're still strictly TV-G/TV-PG: very much aimed at viewers who don't want to see anything too upsetting or vulgar. Some of the most popular programming on Hallmark are its annual multi-month Christmas marathons, where both the main channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries run original holiday movies round-the-clock. Fans can gorge on romantic comedies and heartwarming melodramas, often set in charming middle American small towns.
In a way, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries' various ongoing film series look and feel like those Christmas movies. Hailey Dean Mysteries (which returns with a new installment this Sunday night), Aurora Teagarden Mysteries, Garage Sale Mystery, Flower Shop Mystery, Morning Show Mysteries, Darrow & Darrow and Murder, She Baked are upbeat and upscale, set in thriving little communities filled with quirky locals and quaint shops, where everyone's dressed like they stepped out of a Land's End catalog. These places are like mini-utopias ... or would be, if the residents didn't keep turning up dead.
The Angela Lansbury TV classic Murder, She Wrote is the clear influence here (and is itself a staple of Hallmark Movies & Mysteries). Like that show, these TV movies put women at the center, both as their leads and as their target audience. Many of the heroines have the kind of fun, creative, satisfying jobs that might appeal to people who spend all day working in an office. These ladies run bookstores, or antique shops, or bakeries. They have a supportive network of friends and family. And while they're generally down-to-earth, they're nearly always the smartest people in the room.
It'd be a stretch to say that Hallmark is turning out top-shelf, can't-miss television, given the elevated standards of this prestige drama era. But the HMM movies are likable time-wasters — which is something TV could use more of. And whether they mean to or not, they do make a statement, just by providing an alternative to the dude-centric genre shows that dominate network TV.
Here's an infamous case-in-point: Last December, The New York Times broke the news that actress Eliza Dushku had been terminated from the CBS legal drama Bull, because she'd complained about the show's star Michael Weatherly's habit of making sexually suggestive remarks. Her story inspired a wave of think-pieces about the macho corporate culture at CBS, and how it's filtered into the network's many procedural crime dramas about difficult-but-brilliant men: like Bull, Elementary, MacGyver, and Magnum P.I.
CBS doesn't stand alone. Fox has favored prickly male geniuses, too. (Remember House? Or 24?) TNT has had Leverage. USA still has Suits. Amazon has Bosch. The list goes on. A lot of these series do feature prominent female characters — and strong ones, too. But the dynamic remains skewed. The men are odd but indispensable, no matter how obnoxious they may get; while the women are interchangeable scolds, there to listen to the heroes make brilliant deductions and to help them clean up any messes.
On Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, meanwhile, it's the women who are a little bit eccentric and obsessed with every minor detail, while the men are often cops or lawyers who shake their heads in irritated disbelief for the first two-thirds of any given story, before showing up at the end to provide backup. Not only are the traditional TV gender roles reversed, but the tone of these Hallmark series is very different from the likes of Bull. The heroines express more self-doubt and reach out for help more. They're modeling a different kind of leadership: less "cowboy," more "community organizer."
Do the fans of Hailey Dean Mysteries and Garage Sale Mystery and Darrow & Darrow watch them because of their more feminine point-of-view? That's hard to say, because again, the Hallmark phenomenon has largely happened quietly, without much media analysis. Frankly, for anyone who grew up watching television in the late 20th century, it's been hard to adjust to this new reality, where TV series that barely draw a million viewers an episode run for a half-dozen seasons, and where shows that everyone's talking about on Twitter are less popular than the ones that hardly ever get covered.
But there've been some positive outcomes to this new TV business too, where the metrics for "success" have changed. If the Hallmark channels have proved anything, it's that it's easier now for both creators and audiences to find a cozy little niche, where they can enjoy each other's company and share their values.