If reality TV had been a thing in the early ’90s, Tori Spelling’s reign as queen of the Lifetime movie may never have happened. Google her name, and page after page of tabloid headlines come up, each tied to a different talk show appearance or Tori-centric reality (or faux-reality) TV series. Many of the latter have punny names—So NoTORIous, Tori & Dean: Inn Love, Tori & Dean: STORIbook Weddings— all tied in to Spelling’s on-camera persona as someone who gets it. She knows that she’s never going to win any Academy Awards, so she’ll take criticism of her acting abilities with good humor—in public, at least. And she’s well aware that the only reason she’s famous is because her dad was a mega-rich, big-time TV producer in the ’70s and ’80s—even though, as she “candidly” reveals in interview after interview, she still has money problems, just like you!
But while Spelling will talk about her finances and her children and her husband all day long, one thing she doesn’t talk much about is her work in TV movies—which is odd, considering that they’ve become as much a part of her brand as Donna Martin on Beverly Hills, 90210. In fact, searching for interviews with Spelling on her career at the Lifetime network, most of what you’ll get are stories about how she cheated on her first husband with her second husband on the set of the 2005 Lifetime movie Mind Over Murder. And that’s frustrating, because the movie sounds totally bonkers—Spelling plays an assistant D.A. who gains psychic powers after getting hit by a car!—and has all but disappeared in the 15 years since its release, surviving only in the form of YouTube clips and, of course, those tabloid headlines.
The 2006 Entertainment Weekly interview “Tori Spelling Looks Back At Her Campy TV-Movie Career” is an exception, but even then Spelling’s calling the shots. Her comments are minimal, gracious, and ride the line between disarming honesty and coy denial with the skill of a practiced professional. “Audiences could never relate to me as anything other than Tori Spelling,” she says—very clear-eyed, very post-Paris Hilton—“but TV movies don’t have to be relatable, because you’re, like, being stalked with amnesia.” Oh, Tori! She’s just like us! Except she’s not!
Spelling made her first TV movie, Shooting Stars with Billy Dee Williams and Parker Stevenson, when she was 10 years old. But she didn’t really come into her own in the genre until 11 years later, when she was freed from the virginal constraints of 90210’s good girl Donna and allowed to play a real bitch in the 1994 NBC TV movie A Friend To Die For. The film is based on the real-life murder of Kirsten Costas, a popular cheerleader in Orinda, California, who was stabbed to death by a classmate 10 years earlier. That classmate in the movie is Angela (Kellie Martin, all hunched shoulders and dorky enthusiasm), whose obsession with queen bee Stacy (Spelling) culminates in a confrontation on a suburban front porch where Angela stabs Stacy with the vegetable knife her sister inexplicably left in the family car earlier in the film. Stacy’s apropos final words? “You are so weird! Go away!”
A juicy blend of bitchy teenage melodrama, true-crime scandal, and processed low-budget cheese, A Friend To Die For was a ratings hit when it aired on NBC as a Monday Night Movie following an episode of Blossom. Originally launched in the early ’60s as a volley in the cold war between film and TV—why go to a theater when you can watch new movies at home?—network made-for-TV movies had their campy heyday a few decades earlier, with preachy teen-tragedy fare like Linda Blair as Sarah T.- Portrait Of A Teenage Alcoholic (1975) and Desperate Lives (1982), a.k.a. the movie where a young Helen Hunt jumps out of a window while high on PCP. But by the mid-’90s, audiences were increasingly turning to cable networks for their TV-movie programming. NBC stopped airing its weekly Monday Night Movies in 1999; CBS was the last major network to abandon the practice, discontinuing original weekly made-for-TV-movies in 2006.
Along with what was then known as the Sci Fi Channel, the Lifetime network, which had rebranded from talk shows to a women’s-interest format in 1988, was on the forefront of this shift. Lifetime premiered its first original movie, Memories Of Murder, in July 1990, setting the soapy tone with Nancy Allen playing, as the network puts it, “a wife and stepmom who hits her head, gets amnesia, and forgets that a psychopath is trying to murder her family.” (Note that “wife and stepmom” are the operative descriptors for the character.) But the operation was still a fledgling one, so throughout the ’90s, Lifetime bought up the rights to network TV movies that fit its melodramatic, woman-centric brand to pad out its catalog. Once Lifetime got ahold of these films, it made them its own, renaming them with even more outrageous titles and replaying them so often that their primetime origins were all but forgotten.
A Friend To Die For is one such film. Renamed Death Of A Cheerleader for subsequent Lifetime airings, it’s available to stream on Lifetime’s subscription service and kicked off the network’s 30-year collection of “throwback titles” at the end of May. Several Tori Spelling teen cautionary tales from the era would receive the same treatment: 1996’s Co-Ed Call Girl, in which Spelling runs the entire virgin-to-bad-girl gamut over the course of one horribly awkward performance, originally aired on CBS before becoming a Lifetime staple. In 1995’s Awake To Danger, Tori awakens from a coma to discover that her family is dead and she may be next; the movie’s use of the memory-loss trope made it a no-brainer for Lifetime to purchase from Fox. Even Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, the quintessential Tori Spelling Lifetime movie, was made for NBC in 1996.
Aside from its outrageous title, Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? contains many of the characteristics that make a made-for-TV film a “Lifetime movie,” regardless of its origins. It’s a broad, campy treatment of a serious social issue, starring Spelling as a college student whose abusive, controlling boyfriend, played by Ivan Sergei, turns out to be a homicidal maniac living under an assumed identity. It’s female-led, and designed to both put fear into the hearts of middle-aged moms that their daughters are in danger every moment they’re away from the family home, and to reassure those mothers that their intuition can save the day. (Spoiler alert: Spelling’s character’s mom, played by Lisa Banes, knocks Sergei into a lake with an oar like he’s Jason Voorhees at the end of the film.) And, no offense to the self-aware Spelling, but her performance is pretty wooden—another Lifetime staple.
Given that it can be applied to movies that weren’t actually made for the Lifetime channel, one could argue that, as an aesthetic, a “Lifetime movie” is something like a “film noir”—a genre category applied after the fact by outside observers to something that, to the people creating it, is simply a thriller or a drama or whatever. But there’s too much intention behind Lifetime’s strategy for the comparison to fully track; after all, the channel wasn’t buying up every TV movie with a female lead made in the ’90s, just the over-the-top ones.
Phrases like “cult classic” and “binge-worthy” appear throughout marketing materials for Lifetime’s many movie marathons, and in recent years the network has begun producing remakes of classic acquisitions that embrace, even play up, the camp factor. Take James Franco’s 2016 remake of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, which reframes the story in such a self-consciously over the top light—it’s about lesbian vampire theater students rehearsing a mall-goth version of Macbeth, for fuck’s sake—that it seems as if Spelling, passing the generational baton by stepping into the mom role, is the only one not in on the joke. Except she’s built her entire career on being in on the joke.
Spelling didn’t make a movie for the Lifetime channel proper until 2005, by which time her (fictional) image had shifted from bitchy popular girl to bitchy career woman in TV movies like A Carol Xmas (2003) and Family Plan (2005), both produced for Lifetime’s more wholesome cousin the Hallmark Channel. Her two Lifetime TV movies that year included the aforementioned Mind Over Murder, and Hush, which casts Spelling in yet another Lifetime stock role: the innocent woman tortured by her husband ’s psycho ex. In Hush, Spelling plays Nina, who becomes a target of her husband Noah’s crazed former girlfriend Callie because she and Noah are trying to have a child, after Callie aborted his baby many years earlier.
So what goes into the “Lifetime movie” formula? First and foremost, the intended audience has to be women, specifically women in the 25-54 demographic—mostly white women, although the network does have some films with Black leads and/or majority Black casts. The subject matter has to have some element of titillation to it, either adapting a notorious true-crime case for the screen, playing on social fears like kidnapping or STDs, or borrowing setups and plot points from steamy hit movies like Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. The combination of these two factors puts a lot of women—usually moms, or their teenage daughters—in danger in Lifetime movies, but calling them “damsels in distress” isn’t quite fair. These women often get themselves (or their kids) out of trouble on their own, unable to trust anyone or anything except for their gut and a handful of close female friends.
Over the next few months, we’ll be diving in to the many ways a woman can find herself in trouble in a Lifetime movie: Bad men are the most common threat, whether it be a husband with a shocking secret or a male authority figure like a doctor or a teacher abusing his power over an impressionable young girl. But women can also be the villains, particularly if they’re homewreckers trying to steal away one of the few decent yet stupid men who exist in this universe. Children can also go bad after falling in with the wrong crowd, like dope-smoking dropouts or the twisted sisterhood of a cheerleading squad. And in the age of social media, the mere act of opening a laptop exposes Lifetime movie characters to all manner of threats, from porn addiction to serial killers lurking on dating apps. The important thing to remember is that you, the audience member, must remain ever vigilant—and never change the channel.
Next week: The many ways that betrayal (and men) can kill when a Lifetime romance goes bad.