Why Do We Love Lifetime’s Tame “Unauthorized” Movies About ’90s TV Shows That Weren’t Even Good?

Tomorrow night, Lifetime will air The Unauthorized Beverly Hills, 90210 Story, the third installment of an unofficial, unauthorized series which has already included Saved by the Bell and Full House. (Melrose Place‘s will premiere next week, on October 10.) The decision to air these movies is at once understandable and confusing: Nostalgia — and scandals — will always be big, but why are audiences sucked into tame behind-the-scenes depictions of series that weren’t that great to begin with?

Before we answer that question, let’s try to understand Lifetime’s reasoning behind creating and airing these movies. For a while, Lifetime’s brand — and what makes its very name a punchline — has been “woman-in-danger” movies: sensational, often ripped-from-the-headlines original movies about women being kidnapped, tortured, abused, and so on. These are usually faux-triumphant: the five-minute moment of victory comes after 85 minutes of devastation. Still, it’s an approach that has worked for the network (I’m not immune to its dark charms, either), and it segued seamlessly into their unauthorized (and, er, not exactly great) biopics: Brittany Murphy, Aaliyah, Whitney Houston — all were women, all were tragic figures, all had heavy and, for lack of a better description, fucked-up dealings with fucked-up men. Yet  jumping from those movies to surprisingly wholesome behind-the-scenes looks at  entirely wholesome sitcoms is a big leap.

According to Tia Maggini, Vice President of Original Movie Programming at Lifetime, the Saved by the Bell movie was “sort of accidental.” Lifetime acquired Dustin Diamond’s book  Behind the Bell and the network’s executives, Maggini tells me, “were fans of the show, and they thought that would be an interesting thing to explore. Once we got started, people got more and more excited. Once the movie started happening, it generated so much buzz and enthusiasm and, ultimately, ratings. It also attracted an audience that was a bit younger than what we’ve gotten before, and certainly one that we are eager to move toward. All in all, it ended up being this big, fun, surprise success for us. After that, we were like, ‘Well, that was really fun! What else can we do?'”

One of the key points here is the audience. Lifetime is a network whose viewership historically skews older, but, as Maggini says, it’s also “trying to make sure that we have captured a wide audience… We certainly like to be appealing to more millennials, and certainly these movies are part of that project.” While the younger crowd might not be tuning in to something like Cleveland Abduction or With This Ring, they will almost definitely have an interest in a movie exploring a show that they grew up with. It’s no secret that nostalgia is “in” right now — Maggini name-checked both the Twin Peaks and The X-Files revivals in our conversation — and no network is immune to hopping on that trend.

Instead of reviving an old show or making a sequel (like the upcoming Fuller House, which already radiates desperation), Lifetime seems to prefer going back to the actual time period when these shows aired, and bringing out those fuzzy nostalgic feelings by recreation, not continuation. Plus, it’s damn near impossible to resist a juicy behind-the-scenes story of something that we once loved, even if — or especially if — the show wasn’t that great to begin with. (Have you gone back and watched Full House or Saved by the Bell? Not many episodes hold up.)

The cast of The Unauthorized Full House Story. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov Copyright 2015
The cast of The Unauthorized Full House Story. Photo by Sergei Bachlakov
Copyright 2015

What is curious about Lifetime’s approach is that the network isn’t particularly interested in portraying the seedy, dirty rumors surrounding these shows and their actors (note how there was no mention of Jodie Sweetin or the Olsen twins’ later problems in the Full House movie) — an approach that seems almost contrarian when contrasted to the network’s generally sensational movies. While Maggini mentioned that the two upcoming movies will be a little more scandalous — especially 90210, because “you had young 20-somethings who went from nowhere to big stardom and it was such a roller-coaster ride for those guys. There was a lot of dating off the set and a lot of scandals, so that one in particular really had a lot of good, juicy drama that we had fun with.”

“But at the end of the day,” says Maggini, “the movies are not about throwing anyone under the bus or unearthing some scandalous story. It’s telling the stories of how they came together and what happened behind the scenes. [The movies] are positive stories for people who loved the shows and don’t want them picked apart, but want to see the fun things that reminds them of when they watched it back in the day, and kind of bring it alive all over again.” According to Maggini, viewers can get excited about subtler revelations and bits of trivia: “Even if there’s no great scandal, it’s fun to know about [how] Bob Saget wasn’t the first person who was going to play that character… I think humanizing these characters and seeing the real people appeals to audiences. It brings you into the series in a way that makes you feel closer to the show and to the characters that you really love.” These movies are for the fans, to create a sort of reunion-like feeling when they remember certain aspects of the show, or are reminded of a rumor. It’s fan service.

This, of course, has some drawbacks: Diehard fans are always going to nitpick specifics and be vocal about complaints on social media, from the depictions of sets and costumes to the casting. Discussing the latter process, Maggini says, “I think it’s hard! We work really hard to try to find the best actors that we feel capture not just the look [of the character] but also their spirit, so sometimes you compromise a little bit on looks because somebody is a really good actor” It’s understandably frustrating for Lifetime, because the network tries to make do as best they can while facing legal limitations on the verisimilitude of their depictions.

One example? The set of the Tanner house in the Full House movie was backwards and otherwise slightly different from the real set, prompting many fans and online media outlets to complain about the inaccuracy. “It’s frustrating to see people get upset about the Full House house not looking exactly like the original,” says Maggini. “People are like, ‘Those terrible executives at Lifetime can’t even get that right!’ But the truth is, we spent more time looking at that than they even know — but legally, because these [movies] are unauthorized, we cannot recreate accurately those pieces, so we have to do the best we can to create a set, or a backdrop, or a dress that invokes the time but [doesn’t] exactly depict it because we do not have the rights… But at the end of the day, we hope that the spirit of it is right and that the stories that we’re telling are right.”

Photo courtesy of Lifetime
Photo courtesy of Lifetime

In fact, Lifetime puts in a lot of work vetting the accuracy of these movies, no matter how “unauthorized” they may be. While The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story largely came from Dustin Diamond’s book, the other movies didn’t have a single source to adapt. According to Maggini, Lifetime is reliant on stories and rumors in the public domain, but the network makes sure it has enough sources to properly vet the gossip. Researchers are sent out to dig in to rumors and go through everything from old Tiger Beat issues to old interviews, spending “weeks in the dusty microfiche library pulling up old stories.” From there, the writers “decide how to best tell a story that actually feels like a story rather than just a string of things that happened.” It’s another reason why these movies aren’t as scandalous as you’d imagine: Lifetime doesn’t just want to portray hearsay from tabloids.

Regardless of your personal opinions on the finished products, you have to admit that Lifetime has a pretty fascinating thing going on with these movies. The network has not only tapped in to nostalgia, but tapped in to the specific kind of nostalgia that we want, and that we find familiar. The network is picking series that audiences watched in “their teens and 20s, so these audiences are now mid-30s to early-40s” and eager to watch and relive that time when the episodes were new. There’s a nice, communal feeling to them: they are movies that are built to be watched (and, yes, snarked on) with friends, that lend themselves well to live-tweeting and day-after bloggy reactions. (Flavorwire is no stranger to this; our take on the 90210 story will go up on Monday.)

There is something strangely magnetic and irresistible about these unauthorized movies, even if some viewers are putting them on just to hate-watch. But hate-watching is still watching, and that’s also part of why movies are successful. It’s a strategy that Lifetime is clearly having fun with, and one that they’re going to keep doing. Maggini couldn’t reveal exactly which unauthorized TV show stories are in the pipeline, but did say that the network has “a couple that we’re developing.” These movies are also a sign that Lifetime is continuing to work on becoming a more balanced network. Yes, there will still be woman-in-jeopardy movies, but combined with these fun, nostalgic movies and the surprisingly brilliant scripted drama UnREAL, Lifetime is managing to move forward without abandoning its origins.