The Lifetime Original Movie is a time-honored tradition of lazy weekend afternoons, even for those who will never admit that they stayed glued to the couch all the way through “The Pregnancy Pact” or “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?” Or especially “My Stepson, My Lover.” These movies, filled with bizarre plots and comically over-intense acting, always cover serious topics that are a sharp contrast to how shamefully entertaining they are to watch.
That’s why it’s so disappointing that the channel’s potentially engrossing new concept, a docu-series called “My Life Is a Lifetime Movie,” lands with such a thud. The show profiles actual women who have lived through incidents so crazy, so utterly unbelievable that they could happen only in a Lifetime movie. Debuting Wednesday night, the show is a half-scripted, half-documentary described as a “wink and nod” to Lifetime movie viewers.
The problem is that the hybrid format simply doesn’t work.
It’s unsettling to see Jodi Barrus, an Iowa teacher falsely accused of sleeping with a student, talk about the nightmare that her life became when she went to trial for sexual exploitation by a school employee (and was found not guilty) — all while cutting back and forth to a “dramatization” of her experience starring a glamorous model-type acting out the scenes Barrus’s narrating.
In presenting the story this way, the show delivers a mixed tone.
The re-created scenes are so cheesy (close-ups on a stern police officer’s face, special effects of Barrus “disappearing” from family portraits when she talks about the possibility of jail) that it looks like the series doesn’t want to take itself too seriously. Then we see the real Barrus nearly break down during her on-camera interview when she recalls police telling her that they believed the student who said she had sent him sexually charged text messages.
In fact, the show seems like a missed opportunity for a straightforward documentary-style approach, which would have been an effective hook — especially given the sensational, headline-grabbing nature of the actual case in 2010. The story is a disturbing study of what happens in a small town when rumors start to fly, as Barrus discusses how nearly everyone assumed she was guilty when, in the end, her attorneys found 50 inconsistencies in the student’s story.
In one particularly horrifying anecdote, a former juror from the trial appears on camera. “Before the trial even started and I’d seen her, I was kind of thinking she’s guilty, just from looking at her,” the juror laughs. “’Cause I mean, she’s pretty — it happens.”
Zeroing in on those types of statements would have had enough shock value; the silly dramatizations don’t do much except slow the story down. The same goes for the pilot episode’s second story, about Ana Margarita Martinez, a Miami mother of two who unknowingly married a Cuban spy.
Ultimately, the network misses the point of its own franchise, spending too much time poking fun at its classic guilty pleasure instead of giving something that viewers of “Mom at Sixteen” really want — actual information.
(one hour) debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.