The lack of weirdness is the weirdest thing about Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell’s Lifetime movie
To the untrained eye, the Lifetime channel’s programming slate on Saturday night might not have seemed out of the ordinary. There’s I Killed My BFF, one of those Lifetime Original Movies that ends up being exactly what it sounds like. And that led straight into A Deadly Adoption, yet another soapy melodrama about an ideal family torn asunder by an interloper who brings sex, drugs, and danger into the happy clan’s lives. At a cursory glance, everything appeared to be in place for another evening of comfortably overblown entertainment. Except, wait a second. That can’t be right.
The cast list reads “Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig”.
Those lucky viewers who actually saw A Deadly Adoption on Saturday night bore witness to one of the most surreally subversive televisual experiments since Adult Swim loosed “Too Many Cooks” on unsuspecting audiences in the middle of the night last October.
Excepting the last five-or-so minutes, the entirety of A Deadly Adoption is played completely straight — relative to the pre-established camp of the Lifetime subgenre, that is. It’s not quite a parody, because there’s no graceful way to parody a style that’s already, for all intents and purposes, a parody of itself. In a fit of inspired pretzel logic, Ferrell and Wiig flawlessly execute what plays more like an anti-parody, a baffling form of postmodern humor that mines laughs from sincerity, and the absence of jokes.
When I first caught wind of the core concept for A Deadly Adoption#, it bothered me. I was under the impression that this would be a good-natured ribbing of Lifetime’s pet tropes, and while that does sound like a promising starting point, the fact that it’d run on Lifetime seemed irksome, like when BuzzFeed tries to play ClickHole and satirize its own idiocy. A brand known for poor quality can either recognize that it’s fucking up and do something about it, or remain willfully ignorant of its own shortcomings, but it can’t have it both ways. Laughing it off like, “Ha ha, look at how terrible we are!”, and then continuing to be terrible doesn’t fly with me.
Fortunately, Ferrell, Wiig, and the movie’s writers (the team also responsible for the similarly allusive comedy Spoils Of Babylon) know better than this. All they had to do was play the usual components making up a Lifetime Original completely straight, and allow the ensuing cognitive dissonance to provide all the laughs for them.
In the simplest possible terms, kitsch is just camp that’s aware of itself, and A Deadly Adoption works the boundaries of irony for all they’re worth. Watching the film, a viewer patiently waits for the moment where Ferrell will take his shirt off and start wailing like a giant baby, or when Wiig will quietly and quickly mumble cutting remarks about the characters around her. But both performers maintain unshakably straight faces for the ninety-minute run time, committing fully to their ludicrous characters. That sense of lingering anticipation, the false certainty that something broadly goofy must happen at any moment — that’s where the big laughs are.
Wiig and Ferrell get a doozy of a plotline, too. It’s a wonderfully trite pastiche of the usual building blocks comprising Lifetime movies. Under the facade of a happy family, a hotbed of tainted morals roils, ready to explode at a moment’s notice. Wiig plays an all-organic baker named Sarah Benson and Ferrell’s her economics-guru husband Robert. But this wouldn’t be a Lifetime movie if he didn’t have a dark past.
Back during his wild and crazy book-tour days, Robert was known to raise a bit of hell, get his drank on, get his sex-in-motels-with-economics-book-groupies on. Sarah brings emotional baggage to the table as well, having lost her unborn child’s life five years prior after falling off of a dock while pregnant.# The foreshadowing nearly blots out the sun when a young pregnant woman (Jessica Lowndes) stumbles into their lives and offers her services as a surrogate.
Everything’s in its right place, from the ominous violins to the symbolically placed family portraits to the ridiculous deluge of exposition at the film’s climax. The weirdest thing about A Deadly Adoption is the show’s firm resolution to not being weird. (Again, relative to other Lifetime classics such as CyberSeduction and The Pregnancy Pact.) The movie certainly has points where its perverse brand of sincerity works better in theory than in practice. To put it in Onion terms, sure, it’d be funny if we all went to Applebee’s, but at the end of the day, we’re still all eating at Applebee’s. But it only toes this territory in passing, its unfailing earnestness preventing the tone from devolving into mean-spirited mockery.
A Deadly Adoption will enchant devotees of the Lifetime oeuvre, but the obsessive specificity of its homage may be lost on casual viewers. Once the meta aspect of casting two of the funniest actors alive in roles that force them to emote as if their lives depended on it has faded away, this may not feel like the daring experiment it truly is. Future generations, who will undoubtedly all still be watching Lifetime movies, might not get it. But today, we do, and let us give thanks that there are still networks willing to take a chance on a concept as passionately weird as this one. Even if that network is Lifetime.
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