Self-destruction takes many forms. On a recent Monday night, my self-destruction (along with that of 5.4 million other viewers) was The Craigslist Killer, a Lifetime original movie about Philip Markoff, a medical student who was accused of assaulting various "masseuses" he found online, and murdering one of them.
It wasn't quite as campily entertaining as Fatal Desire, in which Eric Roberts is seduced into murdering Anne Heche's husband after an online fling, but it was still representative of what is lovable and loathsome about the channel.
The world of Lifetime movies is one where every handsome husband could be a con man/ serial killer, where your neighbors are rarely who they say they are, where losing vigilance over your teens will result in their being kidnapped/ molested/ murdered and/or addicted to drugs/ alcohol/ Internet pornography. If they only get pregnant, they're getting off easy.
The Craigslist Killer offers yet another variation on the idea that you just can't trust anybody, perhaps best summed up in a montage where Markoff's fiancée (Agnes Bruckner) tries out wedding dresses and cake samples while Markoff (Jake McDorman) buys a gun and untraceable cell phones. By the end, the greatest tragedy seems not to be the loss of life but that this affluent girl has to delete her wedding countdown website.
During the show, there are frequent advertisements for forthcoming Lifetime titles—based on true stories, natch—including Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story, with Taraji P. Henson and Terry O'Quinn in a tale of a mother rescuing her abducted son from South Korea. It's paired with an image of an empty swing set. Another upcoming Lifetime production, starring Heroes' Hayden Panettierre as convicted murderer Amanda Knox, bears the subtitle Murder on Trial in Italy. There's also a pregnancy-themed reality show titled One Born Every Minute, reflecting P.T. Barnum's musings about "suckers." Lifetime knows its audience.
For all my sarcasm, let's not lose sight of the fact that I voluntarily watch this channel. There is something weirdly compelling about the sort of movies Lifetime (and such sister channels as Lifetime Movie Network) spew forth into the airwaves. The acting and production values have improved mightily from the Tori Spelling-starring television movies I recall from high school, which had such awesomely overwrought titles as Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? and Co-ed Call Girl. The latter had enough oversaturated colors and symbolic imagery to qualify as a modern-day Douglas Sirk melodrama.
Lifetime movies I've watched in the past year include one starring John Stamos as murdered real estate developer Andrew Kissel, Thora Birch as a reporter covering The Pregnancy Pact, and Reckless Behavior: Caught on Tape, where innocent schoolteacher Odette Yustman sees her reputation ruined after sleazy Antonio Sabato Jr. splices her into a porn tape while she's drunk on vacation.
Most of these are "based on a true story," though disclaimers often add that names, places and events were changed to create a story that many times has little to do with what actually happened. They're produced quickly, often airing just a few months after the events. We may well see something like Targets of Hate: The Jared Lee Loughner Story, although nothing has been announced yet.
What's fascinating about a Lifetime movie—aside from the fact that there are usually a couple of faded stars you recognize in the leads—is the unintentional psychological insight its brand of cinema offers, and what unites most of this material is fear. Or, more appropriately, anxiety. To have a child is to always fear for his or her safety; to enter into a relationship is to fear that the possibility of something good might be too good to be true. And apparently, going to a foreign country is to fear that you'll be abducted or tortured, which is the only explanation for the popularity of the xenophobic feature film Taken or the basic cable series Locked Up Abroad.
Lifetime's exploitation of fear is, from a business standpoint, genius. Watch the evening news or read the paper or visit your favorite news-aggregating website, and you will be righteously convinced that you live in a world full of murderers, terrorists, pedophiles and fallen starlets. While much anger is justifiably leveled at the appalling content of reality television, there's plenty of offense to be found in made-for-TV and crime procedural series' exploitation of the darkness of the world. Forget Fox News—if you want evidence that the world is falling apart, try looking at the schedule on MyLifetime.com.
Between reruns of Desperate Housewives, Gray's Anatomy and Unsolved Mysteries, here are just some of the Lifetime titles that played on a single weekend earlier this month: Deadly Relations, Selling Innocence, Fatal Desire, Personal Indiscretions, The Boy She Met Online, Another Woman's Husband, The 19th Wife and, of course, several encores of The Craigslist Killer.
This is darkness writ large. Virtually every one of these films is about fear and exploitation—adultery, molestation, murder, anything that says "your secure world is insecure." The world isn't perfect. We each only see a little of it, whether it's from what we observe at our jobs, at school, while we're out with our friends or, yes, what we read in the paper or see on TV. But from what's on TV, what's most fascinating to the general population is the idea that no matter how unstable our lives might seem, everyone else is just as afraid.
On TV, be you rich, poor or middle-class, the dysfunction is always the same. You can always luxuriate in the tawdry details of some true crime through fiction or docudrama, brushing off any insights into the darker nature of human behavior because the bad guys always get caught. It's been more than a decade since CSI started, two since Law & Order began, and even more since women-in-jeopardy became the status quo for TV movies. And given the ratings and popularity of this material, it's not going away anytime soon.
Of course, there is a ray of hope, namely, the reason why many of my friends chose to watch The Craigslist Killer—to laugh at it. There are plenty of people who recognize the histrionics of Lifetime and its ilk as campy escapism—or, more accurately, anti-escapism. The problem arises when you look too hard to see the truth in fiction and forget that the ugliness of the real world is but a small part of it—even if it's all you can find on TV.
As for me, I'm cutting back my basic cable order. It would be ironic if it turned out that among the remaining channels, I still got Lifetime. But then, at least I'd get to see Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy.