More than perhaps any other cable network, Hallmark Channel knows its brand. Buoyed by the respected Hallmark Hall of Fame movie series, Hallmark has established itself as a home for comforting, inspirational, blithely bland films about love, romance, and people overcoming difficult circumstances to come out triumphant on the other side. In the Hallmark world, struggles don’t devastate; they’re just character-building roadblocks on the way to a fuller, happier life.
This is the contract the network has made with its audience. Though the movies themselves might not be innovative or narratively daring, they all have a life-affirming quality that, if they don’t necessarily always make you feel good about wasting two hours watching, definitely never make you feel bad. It’s the television network equivalent of a warm bath after a hard day, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
Cedar Cove is Hallmark’s first foray into original series, and it’s as on-brand as it gets. Based on Debbie Macomber’s bestselling series of novels about a small coastal town near Seattle, Cedar Cove revolves around long-time judge Olivia Lockhart (Andie MacDowell) who, after presiding over the law in her hometown for her entire career, is on the cusp of finally getting her dream job as a big city federal judge. Complicating matters is new town resident—and newspaper editor—Jack Griffith (Dylan Neal), who takes an immediate interest in Olivia, both in the courtroom and out.
Everything about Cedar Cove—both the town and the show—is as blandly picturesque and predictable as you would expect. This is the sort of place where the local small-town newspaper is still relevant, where finding the oldest resident in town might be your best way to get answers about the identity of the mysterious statue in the town square, and where the biggest court cases involve divorce. It’s the kind of place you can imagine wanting to run far away from, right up until the moment you realize there’s probably no better place on earth and stay forever.
And therein lies the problem with the show, at least in the movie-length première: There’s no reason to believe Olivia would ever ditch her cushy life (and let’s face it, her insanely gorgeous house) in Cedar Cove for a more prestigious position in Seattle. As presented by the writing and by MacDowell’s very low key, stern-yet-lighthearted performance, the idea of Olivia’s ambition is never depicted as more than lip service, while she instead happily burrows even more fully into things that tie her to her hometown. It’s fairly obvious Hallmark was purchasing this as a pilot but hedging their bets on it actually going to series, making the two-hour première work as its own self-contained, programmable movie if the show didn’t go forward. In that respect, the pilot is fatally bland but not terrible, hitting the expected story beats of a classic Hallmark love story. As the beginning of what is supposed to be a continuing series, however, it is more problematic.
In addition to exploring Olivia’s new job prospects and Jack’s integration into Cedar Cove (and Olivia’s life), the show also features several other residents of the town, all connected to Olivia in one way or another. There’s Olivia’s nosy mother Charlotte (Paula Shaw), Olivia’s daughter Justine (Sarah Smyth), Justine’s older fiancé and town villain Warren (Brennan Elliot), and Justine’s long-lost high school love, Seth (played by Greyston Holt in the pilot and then recast with Corey Sevier for the series). These stories have somewhat diminishing returns, especially the strange non-love triangle between Justine, Warren, and Seth, which hangs over the pilot adding more slow menace and stilted dialogue than any of the obviously desired romantic tension.
Later episodes will add additional characters, most notably Olivia’s best friend Grace (Teryl Rothery) and the two innkeepers at the local bed and breakfast, but they—along with the town itself—suffer from what separates Cedar Cove from some of the better original Hallmark movies: the lack of any sort of distinction. Cedar Cove is meant to be a quirky small town filled with loving, quirky small-town residents, but the show struggles mightily to differentiate any one person from another. Other than newcomer Jack, who has a bit of a spark to him thanks to Dylan Neal’s sympathetic performance, this is a town full of really boring people doing really boring things really boringly. Cedar Cove strives to be a show about small town communities and the way people support each other (as evidenced by future plots where people come together to save a historic lighthouse or the local library) but somewhere along the line forgot to give a personality to any of its residents. The only person spared is town pariah Warren, because although he’s the obvious villain at least he has something to distinguish himself from the pure beige that defines everyone else.
The thing is, though, Cedar Cove is not an unpleasant show. Hallmark doesn’t do unpleasant, and someone tuning into Cedar Cove specifically looking for a Hallmark experience is most likely going to get exactly what they wanted. MacDowell and Neal have an easy chemistry that makes their scenes together satisfying enough to watch even when the writing isn’t very exciting. There’s a slow-play aspect to their romance that is a nice nod to their mutually damaged history and a sort of classic, old-fashioned way to tell a love story. But it’s all so middle-of-the-road it almost hurts.
That being said, there’s a segment of the television viewing population that will likely be very pleased with what they see here. Given the explosion of original television content across the cable landscape, Hallmark is smart to want to expand their success with movies into the world of original scripted series. If their goal is to bring new viewers to the network, this isn’t the show that’s going to do it. But if they just want to keep the viewers they already have pleased? Cedar Cove is certainly capable of that.