Flowers in the Attic, which aired last month on Lifetime, has the standard plot points of a made-for-TV melodrama: There’s a beautiful young heroine who’s been dealt a terrible hand, an inexplicably mean maternal figure (in this case two), and a forbidden love. Noticeably absent are cheesy tricks such as fuzzy-lens shots and soaring strings. And instead of D-list stars such as Sally Struthers or Yasmine Bleeth, viewers are treated to the emoting of Oscar-winning actress Ellen Burstyn. The movie’s polished 1960s-era set feels like a colorful, demented Mad Men, especially because the film also stars Kiernan Shipka, the actress who plays Sally Draper. Flowers was a hit—it drew in 6.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen, a two-year high for the network.
Lifetime, a subsidiary of A&E Networks, was launched in 1984 with a mission to focus on health and wellness programming for women. Over the next 15 years, it refocused on original movies and reruns of sitcoms such as Designing Women and became known as the channel where middle-aged moms went to unwind with a chardonnay and a good cry. Now it’s in the midst of yet another makeover—and who doesn’t love a makeover?
The network dropped its “television for women” tag line in 2012, because it “basically said, everyone else stay out. Which is definitely not the message we want,” says Robert Sharenow, Lifetime’s executive vice president and general manager. And it’s rethought the Lifetime Movies franchise, which the New York Times criticized in 2010 for being too formulaic: “A woman (sometimes with spouse and/or children) is in danger; is she intrepid enough to save herself?” That blueprint’s still intact, but execs are choosing projects better and hiring more famous actors.
Network casting directors have realized that actresses who aren’t interested in doing big-screen adaptations of comics or dumbed-down rom-coms are looking to television: Lifetime worked with Lindsay Lohan, who played Elizabeth Taylor in 2012’s Liz & Dick, and Heather Graham, who starred as the creepy mom in Flowers in the Attic. It also tapped Mary Harron, best known for directing American Psycho, to helm last summer’s biopic about Anna Nicole Smith. “Major studios aren’t making a lot of the kind of movies that we’re making now,” Sharenow says. “I think it’s opened a real door for us into the feature film talent pool.” This past January, the best Lifetime has had in six years, saw a 13 percent increase in total viewers from the year before.
That bump was aided by another hit, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, starring Christina Ricci as the historical hysterical spinster, which drew 4.4 million when it aired on Jan. 25. Younger viewers may not have heard of the Borden murders, a literal hatchet job that sparked a turn-of-the-century media circus, but they probably recall Ricci as Wednesday Addams in the early ’90s Addams Family movies and from 1995’s Now and Then. And they’re certainly familiar with tabloid-friendly court cases that have young women at the center—Lizzie Borden is Amanda Knox in a corset. She’s also the perfect example of how the network has combined campy subjects with culturally relevant themes to find a whole new audience for its brand of drama.
In some ways, Lifetime has the Internet to thank. “There is a nostalgia element,” Sharenow says of the new programming’s appeal. “We brought premium elements to very poppy stories.” Kitsch is the stuff virality is made of; when an audience can’t figure out whether something is good-bad or bad-bad, it goes online to discuss it. Some fans tweet critical analysis: “ ‘Flowers in the Attic’ is the American ‘Downton Abbey’ ” —@SarahThyre. Others offer grand praise: “But flowers in the attic is actually the greatest movie ever” —@blanklystyles. Often these missives are accompanied by grainy, oddly angled photos of the writers’ televisions.
Later this year the network is launching some original programs it hopes will get a similar reaction. In February it purchased Un-Real, a mockumentary-style unscripted comedy that lambastes the marriage-seeking women of The Bachelor. Then there’s The Lottery, a dystopian drama that presents a future where women can’t have children. Note to Sally Struthers: Don’t call us, we’ll call you.