The great joke about the original movies on Lifetime, the grande dame of gynocentric cable channels, is that they present unvarying visions of women as victims—pap weepies about cancer and kidnapping or plump melodramas about awful men. No one has made this joke better than the satirists at the Onion, which once reported that wife murderer Scott Peterson was "issued a Lifetime Channel sentence during the penalty phase of his trial" and elsewhere imagined such fare as the "Emotional Manipulation Hour" and "The Abused Wife Who Didn't Mean To Kill Her Policeman Husband in Self-Defense." But the times, they do change, and the network's new slate of Saturday-night movies sees those melodramas getting a moderate makeover. Bright and loud and sort of peewee post-feminist, this is your daughter's Lifetime, belatedly curtsying to the culture of Us Weekly, girl power, and hooking up.
We begin with Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal (Saturday at 9 p.m. ET), based on some nonsense that transpired two years ago in the town of McKinney. The new cheerleading coach found herself outgunned by the squad's most imperious clique, students more powerful than administrators. They misbehaved, got drunk rather ostentatiously, and flouted both school rules and "the cheerleader constitution." The coach, daring to challenge them, got fired.
The scenario would seem to call for a John Waters kind of treatment, with tons of fun sadism and salacious kitsch, and Lifetime, within its sappy limits, delivers this—a corruption of the uplifting-teacher plot. The outfits pop with outré color, and the girl-on-girl violence is quite lively. Tatum O'Neal, having developed into a fine camp figure, sells her performance as a cheerleader mom (also the school's principal) whose main concern about her daughter's boozing is that there's enough tequila left over for her to make a decent margarita. Everyone learns an important lesson in the end, of course, but the naughtiness presented along the way intends to thrill.
The same dynamic is at work in True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet (Aug. 9 at 9 p.m. ET), which stars young pop singer Joanna "JoJo" Levesque. It cannot be a coincidence that Levesque's pinchable cheeks and squeezable chin closely resemble those of Lindsay Dee Lohan. Her character, Morgan Carter, is a hard-drinking movie star. In lieu of a proper stint in rehab, Morgan takes refuge in Fort Wayne, Ind., which certainly does sound sobering. Morgan's guardian is her aunt Trudy, played by Valerie Bertinelli, who, with Meredith Baxter and Judith Light, was a mainstay of the old Lifetime and thus serves as a link between the network of old and this odd new thing, which simultaneously celebrates glamour and valorizes us regular folk.
The premise is that Morgan slips into a public high school incognito, assuming an identity as just your average transfer student and keeping up the ruse well into the film's second act. That she's able to pull this off is an affront to the tabloid literacy of kids today, but whatever; we get to cock our heads at the sight of a Lohan figure enduring the taunts of mean girls and to play along as she develops a crush on a thoughtful young man (She: "You don't watch reality TV?!" He: "No, I read."). Just below the surface of Hollywood Starlet, the only thing below the surface, is the idea that a glossy kind of victimology—one that tweens and twentysomethings might want a vicarious jolt of—is ascendant. Morgan has been abused by the entertainment industry. Tune in!
And how do you follow that? With a flick that seems to be titled Confessions of Go-Go Girl (Aug. 16 at 9 p.m. ET). Are these confessions, in contrast to the starlet's, not true? Absolutely, given their utter implausibility. The setting is Chicago—that urban atrium in the heartland—where lives Jane McCoy. Oh, the prim plainness of that Jane! She's graduated from college to find herself bored with the upper-bourgeois life determined for her by her prissy parents and ratified by her preppy boyfriend. She chucks law school on the eve of matriculation because she needs to express herself and so enrolls in acting school, supporting herself with a job at a department store. But spritzing perfume does not pay the bills. Lugging her pragmatic backpack around campus one day, Jane meets a wanton-eyed minx with a 10-gallon handbag. This is Angela, who is hustling the head-shot skills of her no-good photographer boyfriend and who ultimately explains that Jane can earn great gobs of dough by working the stage at a "go-go club." She doesn't even have to take off her underthings at this establishment! Doing so is forbidden, moreover!
Jane yields to temptation, choosing "Dylan" (with its touch of the rebel poetess) as her stage name, doffing and donning outfits evocative of schoolgirls and farmers' daughters (for that whiff of spoiled innocence). It is not my place to inform anyone's unworldly wife of what adult entertainment consists of, but c'mon. Nowadays, go-go dancing exists as an entr'acte at burlesque shows and as an amusement at nightclubs. If there exist venues where men give scads of cash and pledges of ardor to female performers who do not remove their brassieres, then I would like to know where they are, so as not to lurch erroneously into one.
The concept is perplexing enough to inspire the thought that "go-go girl" here stands as a euphemistic metaphor for more plausibly lucrative types of sex work. But then you get to the scene where the heroine buys an inappropriately racy dress to wear to her brother's wedding, and the possibility slinks into view that Jane/Dylan's situation speaks to the generic nightmare of parents that their little girls will become fast women—and also to the generic daydream of every well-raised daughter of looser inhibitions and tighter skirts. Go-Go Girl,in its synthesis of cautionary tale and very soft-core porn, represents the essence of the new Lifetime movie. It's a guilty pleasure with a traditional sense of shame.