There’s a certain pallor that’s fallen over Lifetime programming lately. In a rebranding attempt to escape its reputation for soapy agita about the dangers of being a woman, Lifetime has shifted focus and tone, aiming for a certain bland competence that undercuts a lot of its material, as if the network’s determined to grow up and vanish. Sure, it’s adapting the Flowers In The Attic books, but it’s adapting them extremely seriously. And frankly, it’s hard to make a case for Lifetime actively wanting to do better when it keeps putting out quasi-exposé ratings grabs like the Saved By The Bell movie.
But then there’s Deliverance Creek, as sincere a TV movie as ever farmed the West, in which a Missouri widow and her family get tangled up in half a dozen subplots—politics, family, romance, and stagecoach conspiracies—just begging for a season order. Given its geography, and the fact that it opens with a Union soldier stepping on the wrist of a dead Confederate, it’s best not to expect this to be an issue drama that handles its issues very well. (Three of the ostensibly Confederate protagonists are conveniently involved in the Underground Railroad.) That said, some relatively violent beats suggest a potential show unafraid to raise the stakes if given the chance, and it handily maneuvers heroine Belle Barlow (Lauren Ambrose) into situations that seem believably untenable in the long term. Her financial problems, her brother’s visiting gang of bushwhackers, family troubles, romantic overtures from suitors past and present; they all converge, if not quite to excuse, then to explain her initial ambivalence about encroaching activism. (Don’t worry, she changes her mind and embraces the cause; this is Lifetime, and there’s only so much unlikability one heroine’s allowed.)
Deliverance Creek is most decidedly a backdoor pilot rather than a movie with an exit clause—so many things are left up in the air by movie’s end that it’s hard to imagine making this for any other reason than to introduce a series. But there’s also a pulpy enthusiasm surrounding its many twists and loopholes. That might be surprising, given how the project has been attributed to formula-factory Nicholas Sparks, who’s also concurrently developing two ideas at other networks, and whose best writing in years might be a promotional Q&A where he manages to avoid ever directly saying that script credit for Deliverance Creek belongs to Melissa Carter. That’s perhaps unfortunate for Carter, but it does mean the protagonists stood a chance of being written as human women.
That’s to the movie’s advantage; if nothing else, the centralization of women’s experiences here makes Deliverance Creek an unofficial response to the hyper-masculine Hell On Wheels. Accordingly, Ambrose does everything she can with what she’s given. It’s not entirely unexpected material—to no one’s surprise, she’s a hardy soul shaped by hard times, quick with a gun and slow with her heart—but working against the tradition of angelic Lifetime heroines, she gives Belle enough brittleness to make her interesting rather than just central. Plus, in a TV movie that’s not above a Bible-quote throwdown in the middle of a bank, she’s duly game. Her sister Hattie (Caitlin Custer) carries most of the burden of goodness, her angelic abolitionist leanings rendering her irresistible even to the local saloon owner (Skeet Ulrich—the 1990s seem determined to filter into Deliverance Creek one actor at a time). And Yaani King, as runaway slave Kessie, has the potential to be a compelling player as soon as she has anything to work with. (The setup means she spends much of her early screen time planning her escape.) And though she establishes herself as a central presence, she’s also uneasily occupying those narrative places where the producers seem afraid to commit to any moral gray areas.
That would make the finer points of Confederate territories the only Western trope to which the movie doesn’t want to commit. In an era of deconstruction, TV that leans into its inherent formulas is often regarded with suspicion; it’s not entirely unfair, given that things that embrace tropes rather than subverting them are under greater pressure to execute them superbly. On the other hand, there’s a space on television for dramas with a sense of the absurd (Reign), where there’s less emphasis on artistic greatness than on playing in a fun sandbox.
Certainly there’s space on Lifetime—not overburdened with scripted shows and which currently boasts Witches Of East End—for a Western that attempts to do as much Civil-War Westerning as it possibly can. With every leering solider on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line and every stolen calf fetched back at gunpoint, Deliverance Creek’s Trope Bingo card fills up with a determination that will delight or distract, depending on how much trope viewers are comfortable with. But by the time someone suggests a bank heist—this is a movie unafraid to be all things to all people—it begins to feel like that distinctly unusual thing in a Nicholas Sparks production: a labor of love.
Whether Deliverance Creek gets picked up to series will depend at least slightly, one assumes, on how many people tune in for the movie in the first place. There are so many subplots as to frustrate a casual viewer, and it’s a tough call to decide how much to invest in a drama that loves its particulars but is still trying to balance the political implications of one of its overarching premises. But if the series that follows this could commit to examining the necessary politics that surround it, Deliverance Creek loves its trappings enough to have a bank-robbing good time with them.