Next time you’re wondering why broadcast television still matters, consider A Deadly Adoption. This perfectly pitched pastiche of Lifetime original movies would entertain if accessed from any platform, but aired on Lifetime during the Saturday evening timeslot reserved for premieres of genuine original movies it pushes the limits of hoax or even cultural terrorism. As a Brit with an interest in the history of television, A Deadly Adoption reminded me of Ghostwatch, a pre-recorded BBC TV horror drama from the early 90s styled as a live factual special of the kind that were popular on the BBC around those years.
Ghostwatch and A Deadly Adoption exploited their network and timeslot to convince audiences of their veracity, the former as a piece of primetime public service television and the latter as a legitimate original movie ‘inspired by a true story’. Both programmes used, at cross-purposes, a mixture of familiar faces from the genre they were approximating and those that you wouldn’t expect to see. In both cases, the anomalies were supposed to tip off the audience as to the subterfuge. But while widely-known comic actors Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig nudge the viewers in the direction of parody, the same couldn’t be said for the jobbing BBC character actors that Ghostwatch’s producers naively assumed would lead a Saturday evening audience to conclude it was a drama. Ghostwatch recruited actual BBC presenters of the moment to play themselves while A Deadly Adoption called upon veterans of the casts of Lifetime movies. Again, this had mixed results. The agency of presenters affiliated with a broadcaster reputable for its trustworthiness contributed to viewers becoming disturbed, confused and angry while watching. Having Erik Palladino play the cop he always plays asking the questions he always asks increased the plausibility but was also a satirical detail.
Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two programmes lies in the execution of the deception. Neither seems to let the mask drop, and yet they seem to be pointing you to the inauthenticity all the time. Crucially there is no over-acting, at least none outside the conventions of infotainment or TV movies. In Ghostwatch, direct address to the camera is a two-way street. It’s part of the fraud and also tells viewers to their faces that what they’re doing is tantamount to a hoax. It even has the audacity (and foresight) to pre-emptively chide parents for letting their children stay up to watch. Like any skilled comic actor (I’m put in mind of Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy here too), Wiig and Ferrell’s faces can simultaneously pay lip service to the earnest drama around them while sporting an inner smirk that lets the audience know they’re in on the joke. While they (wonderfully) break character in the final scene, the leads in A Deadly Adoption are generally content to merely stand near the entrenched clichés and overwrought conventions of the Lifetime movie canon and gesture to them discreetly. The comic agenda, like Ghostwatch’s dramatic one, is effaced.
Another lesson that A Deadly Adoption learnt from Ghostwatch is that the most effective spoof is the one that runs like the real thing. Ghostwatch should have been by rights shot on film but the choice was to make it as if it were at every stage a piece of factual television broadcast live from a studio. That meant both the audience and the ‘actors’ were reacting as they would to the very thing it was not. I think this is also why Police Squad! is such an exquisite send-up of Dragnet, largely because it wasn’t much different in production values. Apparently, some BBC executives didn’t get what the Ghostwatch directors were trying to do and rejected some of the shots as cheap and amateur. A Deadly Adoption is going for the clunky symbolism and magazine-plate portraiture of the Lifetime in-house style, not trying to improve on it. To expect A Deadly Adoption to live up to the cinematic comedy of Ferrell, Wiig and director Adam McKay’s previous work is to miss the point. It’s a clever move, and one that demonstrates confidence in the art, that the movie was poised to allow audiences to occasionally forget it was parody.
Ferrell and Wiig’s IFC mock-miniseries The Spoils of Babylon played a similar game, invoking a phony industry backstory through trailers and faking-of documentaries, and playing on a network that revives obscure cult media. However, I stick with my Ghostwatch comparison. The aim is never truer when you become your target.