Lemonade Mouth. Yes, those two words exist together and no, it doesn’t make any sense as to why. The Disney Channel seems to think this was a cute title for one of their original movies involving a band with an affinity for citrusy beverages. I think it’s part of a secret government torture cell where inmates are faced with one decision: write titles for these Disney Channel films or face a long and torturous death. “Lemonade Mouth” was just a desperate plea for help. Then again, many made-for-TV movies are.
Somewhere beneath the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards occur, there is a dank and dusty hall full of oddities. These are where the made-for-TV movies are held captive — suffocating under the shadow of real cinema. “Lemonade Mouth” is there along with fellow DCOMs (Disney Channel Original Movies), “Cadet Kelly” and the Ryan Merriman double feature: “Smart House” and “The Luck of the Irish.” They sit side by side ABC Family’s fun-time films, “Princess: A Modern Fairytale” and “Another Cinderella Story.”
But, the deeper you go into this dungeon, the darker the fare becomes. Rob Lowe can be found lurking as a wife-killer in Lifetime’s “Drew Peterson: Untouchable.” Cowering in the corner is Jennifer Jason Leigh as an anorexic teen in ABC’s 1981 classic “The Best Little Girl in the World.” And at the end of this bizarre and often twisted maze of battered wives, bad dialogue and questionable special effects is the demon that haunts the whole shebang. It’s Crocosaurus! He’s fresh off his latest battle in SyFy’s 2010 masterpiece, “Mega Shark versus Crocosaurus,” and he’s hungry for more.
And so am I. These may not be Oscar bait. You won’t see ABC Family’s “School of Life” nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Not with sterling dialogue like, “Everyone look to the person on your left. Each one of you is looking at a miracle.” This movie is a miracle. It has a young Ryan Reynolds as an inspiring teacher with cancer! There couldn’t be anything worse, but I’m caught — hook, line and sinker.
Made-for-TV movies are, of course, nothing new. Like regular cinema (i.e. theatrically-released films), TV movies have been around for decades and exist in droves. Some have even earned critical admiration like the infamous tearjerker “Brian’s Song” or my favorite post-apocalyptic, anti-communist Steve Guttenberg vehicle, “The Day After.” But, for the most part, these movies exist on the second-lowest level of television hell: between QVC and The Weather Channel.
So, is this where film goes to die? Where has-been celebrities go to ride out the rest of their lackluster lives? I don’t know. The answer is unclear because the spectrum of TV movies, like anything on television, is too vast to generalize. But, one thing is certain. These films aren’t diminishing anytime soon. In 2005, where major networks like ABC may have ceased production of original features, the basic cable channels picked up the slack.
Because of their cheap production costs and fast turnaround, channels like TNT are able to franchise their own Indiana Jones-esque character with “The Librarian” series — films, I’m assuming, centered around the perils of the Dewey Decimal system. Lifetime has cornered the ladies-like-to-watch-other-ladies-crying niche with an entire network devoted to their original movies. And this week, it was announced that Netflix is courting the idea of producing its own features.
The question remains as to whether this increase in quantity will develop a similar trend of enhancement in quality. However, I would argue “quality” isn’t the reason these movies exist. Originality, as so many of these networks advertise, isn’t even the reason. If you’ve seen one Crocosaurus, you’ve seen ’em all. But, people continue to watch them because, unlike the Oscars, there’s no pressure to admire them. They are the romance novels of visual media — quick, fun and often dirty. They are the bacchanalian orgy beneath the stately senate of the Academy. They are, simply put, the ephemeral sweetness that is lemonade in one’s mouth.