Underrated in America: The Hallmark Channel

I have a dirty little secret. Sometimes, when nobody is looking, and I'm sure my wife isn't around, I sneak into my room, turn out the lights, draw down the shades, and... I turn on the Hallmark Channel.

It's not something I'm really proud of. I should be watching something more in my demographic, like Spike, where I could watch a show called The Ultimate Fighter, or maybe catch a CSI: New York episode. My wife loves VH1. Heck, my parents love Lost on ABC. And while I tend to gravitate toward USA, where I'm hooked on detective series like Monk, Psych and even Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, I admit that when I'm looking to see what's on, I will often make a stop at the Hallmark Channel.

When you watch the news and see the Dow constantly plunging, and countries like Iceland are going bankrupt, and there are still murders in America and problem in Iraq, sometimes it's nice to turn on a channel where it's a little more like 1988 than 2008.

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Of course, maybe my tastes are skewing older because I'm getting older (I'll be 39 in about three months), but I do think it's this post-9/11 apocalyptic-seeming world we live in that makes me nostalgic to occasionally watch shows, or the types of shows, that my 83-year-old grandmother enjoys viewing. During the 1970s and 80s, when I was a kid and then a teenager, my grandmother would tsk-tsk most of the shows in the TV Guide but then she'd point to something like Barnaby Jones and Murder She Wrote, and talk about what a "clean show" it was.Hallmark is about as clean as it gets. Along with family TV series like Seventh Heaven and Little House on the Prairie, and reruns of Murder, She Wrote and Matlock, they air a lot of two-hour family drama TV movies, starring someone whose career is either past its peak or in a lull, although they often get actors who are on the cusp of doing something big. Katherine Heigl starred in a couple romance dramas a few years ago, before making it big with Grey's Anatomy.

For my money, I especially enjoy turning on the channel and seeing favorite actors from bygone eras still getting work, like Tom Bosley, Ed Asner, Jane Seymour, Doris Roberts, Dick Van Dyke and Ernest Borgnine. For the last two years, for instance, the amazing and affable Van Dyke, 83, has been starring in Murder 101 mystery movies, which are slow-moving plots where nothing much happens, but it's still nice to see him in action. Although, maybe action isn't quite the word. For instance, in the film, Murder 101: If Wishes Were Horses, in the climactic scene where Dick Van Dyke is chasing a bad guy, I couldn't help notice that the director had the bad guy quickly injure his knee, so that it might be more believeable that an octogenarian college professor who studies crime might be able to catch a criminal mastermind half his age.

And then Borgnine -- talk about inspiring. The cinematic legend is 91, and according to the Internet Movie Database, Borgnine has at least two more films coming out, and possibly four, if the rumors are true. Last year, when he was 90, his film A Grandpa for Christmas debuted on the Hallmark Channel, and I watched the film in slight awe. Granted, George Burns used to carry a film well into his 90s, but it's still impressive to see, especially since Borgnine looks at least 20 years younger than he is. Plus, as an added bonus, Jamie Farr, famed for his role of Klinger in M*A*S*H, had a small role in Grandpa for Christmas.

And, sure, the movie was hokey, and you could guess the ending after watching the first five minutes, but arguably in this day and age, that's sometimes exactly what you need: no unpleasant surprises.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale). He estimates that he has seen all of the Matlock TV movies that have ever aired--twice.
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