Over the last thirty years, Lifetime's made-for-TV movies have earned the channel a special place in the pantheon of pop culture. But while the female-targeted network is best known for turning harrowing, real-life stories into entertainment (often with tongue firmly planted in its cheek — how else to explain recent titles like Soccer Mom Madam and Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer?), ripped from the headlines is by no means the only Lifetime original movie genre. From “Woman in Peril” dramas to “Christmastime Crushes,” we've classified each of the different types of TV movies you'll find on Lifetime:
When it comes to females in peril, Lifetime doesn’t discriminate. The network cut its bones in the endangered women genre, and over the years its films have put women of all ages — from young girls to the elderly — in increasingly terrifying situations. In fact, the network’s very first made for TV movie, Memories of a Murder (1990), set the stage for future horror stories with a plot that centered on a wife (played by Nancy Allen) who hits her head, suffers amnesia, and forgets that a psychopath is trying to murder her family. It’s nice to know that some things never change.
When it comes to the difference between Women in Peril and Ripped From the Headlines dramas, imagine a venn diagram with a very large middle section. Many (but not all) of Lifetime’s films about endangered women are based on real-life stories, while just as many (but not all) of its Ripped From the Headlines stories feature women in peril. That said, Lifetime tends to devote a bit more of its marketing budget to its true stories, and in recent years, the network has even released an official programming slate of dramatized films followed by Beyond the Headlines-style specials. In early 2021, that lineup included The Long Island Serial Killer: A Mother’s Hunt for Justice, about Mari Gilbert’s search for her missing daughter, and Girl in the Basement, based on the story of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian girl who was held captive for 24 years by her father, Josef Fritzl.
Consider the "Liar Liar, Pants on Fire" genre a corollary to the first two categories on this list. While a good amount of the network's TV movies are based (often very loosely) on true stories, plenty of Lifetime original films are straight fiction, with zero basis in reality, and almost all of them have amazing titles. Case in point: Sex, Lies & Obsession (2001), starring Lisa Rinna and Harry Hamlin as couple affected by sex addiction; Nightmare Nurse (2016), a drama about a nurse harboring dangerous secrets; and the legendary A Deadly Adoption (2015), a black comedy starring none other than Will Ferrell and Kristin Wiig as a couple that takes in a young pregnant woman in hopes of adopting her child.
Finally a bright spot in Lifetime’s original movie lineup. Between the doom and gloom sits the network’s pop culture programming, which is filled with TV movies like Wendy Williams: The Movie, Salt-N-Pepa (both 2021), and Whitney (2015), directed by Angela Bassett and starring Yaya DaCosta as Whitney Houston. Typically these films dramatize a specific pop culture star’s rise (and because it’s Lifetime, their fall), but the network has also put its own spin on popular series with its Unauthorized Story franchise, which introduced modern-day viewers to the “behind-the-scenes” drama on Beverly Hills, 90210, Full House, Melrose Place, and Saved by the Bell.
Technically this category should be named “Things That Were Nominated for Awards” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well, so award winners it is. Once every few years, Lifetime airs a film, typically a biopic or adaptation, that generates enough awards buzz to earn execs a trip to the big dance. Over the past 30 years, Lifetime has earned seven Outstanding Television Movie nominations — for films like Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy (2007), Coco Chanel (2009), and Flint (2018) — and 23 performing nods at the Primetime Emmy Awards. In thirty years, only one actor — Stolen Babies (1993) star Mary Tyler Moore — has gone home with a trophy, but that hasn’t stopped the network from chasing made for TV movie glory.
Over the years Lifetime has practically been a required stop for young actors looking to break into Hollywood. Many of the industry’s biggest stars got their start in Lifetime films, including Reese Witherspoon (Wildflower, 1991), Jason Momoa (Tempted, 2003), Hilary Swank (Cries Unheard: The Donna Yaklich Story, 1994), and Zac Efron (Miracle Run, 2004). It may seem like Lifetime’s star-making power has diminished, but twenty years from now we could very well be talking about future Oscar winners who emerged from recent titles like Gone Mom or Girl in the Basement.
Just as the calendar year ends with Lifetime holiday movies, so does this list. In mid-November, Lifetime ditches its hard-nosed dramas and pivots to festive romantic comedies like A Christmas Wish (2019), The Spirit of Christmas (2015), and The Christmas Setup (2020), the network’s first LGBTQ Christmas movie. While the channel is working to diversify its offerings — it aired its first Hanukkah movies in 2019 — its end-of-year films are still primarily Christmas-oriented, hence the name of this genre.
In 2021, Lifetime viewers will experience new Christmastime Crushes with two throwback holiday movies. The first, Blending Christmas, reunites Brady Bunch stars Barry Williams, Christopher Knight, Mike Lookinland, and Susan Olsen, while the second, A Christmas Dance Reunion, features former High School Musical actors Corbin Bleu and Monique Coleman. Plus, Lifetime will debut new movies starring Reba McEntire and returning favorites Kelly Rowland, Melissa Joan Hart, Jana Kramer, and Mario Lopez.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.