Gillian Flynn loves Lifetime -- Our TV Critic reveals her secret appreciation for the drama-driven network

By Gillian Flynn
Updated April 13, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Gillian Flynn loves Lifetime

Is there any simpler joy than curling up on the divan and watching a cheerleader die of multiple stab wounds, or a schoolteacher rocket into mania, or a single mom chasing the dragon? I speak, naturally, of Lifetime Movie Network, which features a dazzling, 24/7 rotation of mostly made-for-TV films, usually of the women-in-jeopardy variety, typically retrieved from the mid-’90s, and generally starring at least one former Charlie’s Angel, one blond TV mom, or one 90210 alum. When the moon is full and the cheese is ripe, you may even see two of three: This month, Cries Unheard stars Jaclyn Smith as a terrorized housewife with a young, soon-to-be 90210er Hilary Swank as her teary stepdaughter.

Why watch this stuff? naysayers ask. There’s the admitted nostalgia factor: LMN’s Clinton-era fare harks back to a time when women weren’t afraid to pair lace collars with overalls or slip into massive, severe lady suits from the Byrne Women’s Fashion Line. On a societal level, a day of LMN is like perusing a detailed catalog of fear (Catalog of Fear —I can already see Markie Post as a fashion designer who takes a chance on love…fatally). These movies are a fascinating parade of old panics: over steroid abuse, anorexia, the possession of our children by satanists, and, of course, amnesia (the ’95 pandemic hit us all hard). Many of these unnerving themes are still bouncing around; they’ve just been repackaged. Any news segment fretting about ”Hollywood’s weight obsession” is a spin on anorexia-themed movies like For the Love of Nancy; the Dateline series To Catch a Predator is a proactive update of Do You Know the Muffin Man? Heck, even 24 is a movie of the week — with terrorists instead of wife-murdering hedonists.

Turning on LMN, I head straight to movies of madness or menace, because these follow predictable dramatic fever charts. Open on a scene of poignant placidity: ducks on a pond, children riding bikes. Then red-flag that normalcy! In Death of a Cheerleader, when fringe kid Kellie Martin stares at her grease-monkey father as a piano tinkles in the background, you just know she’s going to stab that rich Tori Spelling with a cucumber knife. Similarly, in Cries it’s clear Jaclyn Smith will be trapped in an abusive, vaguely kinky marriage because she washes the car a bit too chipperly after a date with said nutjob. (TV movies love the ”carefree fun-time car-wash scene”— clearly no TV-movie writer has ever actually washed a car.) Following the red flag comes a peak (rage, treachery, or binge eating) and a valley (forgiveness, treatment centers, death, or a family picnic). What storytelling purity! Another reason to love the madness/menace flicks: They often involve wigs. How well I remember Kate Jackson, on the run after kidnapping her grandson in the aptly named A Kidnapping in the Family, flipping burgers underneath a scraggly Grecian hairpiece that I think recently resurfaced in 300. Hoo-ah!

Wigs or no, LMN provides many satisfying thespian jazz hands! moments. These movies require actresses to ”stretch,” and by stretch I mean jump on a child’s plastic Weeble, screaming wheee! in a bipolar euphoric state (Marcia Cross in All She Ever Wanted); pretend to understand chemistry (Elizabeth Berkley in Student Seduction); or not giggle at the title of your movie (Tori Spelling in Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?). Anything, in fact, with Spelling or Shannen Doherty is a must-watch. Spelling, because she’s so adorably awful — as a mean girl in Cheerleader, she actually conveys anger by way of an exaggerated Black Bart-style squint. And the consistently pissed-off Doherty stalks through every scene — love, danger, conversation with the mentally disabled — with such acidic disdain, she seems to have turned the emoting over to her prominent nipples (they do a great job facing down a psychotic in The Rendering).

If you’re new to LMN, where to begin? I’d advise flipping through the eye-grabbing titles, titles that could be either jokes or porn: Past Sins, A Date With Darkness, Mother Knows Best. I also recommend A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story. Oft-rerun, AWS:TBBS is the mother of all TV movies, starring Meredith Baxter as the mother of all mothers. Baxter plays the real-life Broderick, a wealthy, screwy, dumped California housewife who ultimately kills her ex and his new wife. Baxter, wearing a sensible hairdo and expensive, boxy separates, lumbers angrily through her scenes like a just-woken bear. It’s a charismatic, clever performance, and the movie is better than any nighttime soap. More scheming than Desperate Housewives! More despairing than Grey’s Anatomy! More Baxter than Birney! Watching LMN can be a bit like looking at a glorious, overpacked menu of TV comfort food — it’s a bit overwhelming, but everything’s good here. As for me, I’ll start with one twitch-eyed female stalker, two these glasses have spots again! bullying husbands, a regressive-therapy memory triggered by hypnosis, and a heaping side of cuckoo!