When Calls the Heart: After Five Seasons, I’m Feeling Iffy

*Be advised: my reflections here include some When Calls the Heart: Season Five spoilers.*

While the TV show’s plot reflects a more recent spin-off series from Janette Oke and her daughter, Laurel Oke Logan, the show gets its name from Book One in the Canadian West series by Janette, first published in 1983.

I’m a big fan of wholesome television, and I’ve got quite a love for historical fiction books and historical/period dramas. Even so, after finally watching the fifth season of When Calls the Heart, I’m not sure if I’ll be going on to watch the sixth.

I’ve heard a Heartie or two compare WCTH to one of my all-time favorite television shows: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. As someone with an appreciation for both shows (as well as admiration for the spirit in which Janette Oke has authored her trailblazing Christian Fiction books), to the WCTH and Dr. Quinn comparison, I must give a respectful but honest “no.”

Neither of these television shows is flawless. But WCTH doesn’t compare to Dr. Quinn.

I’ve not read this novel yet, but I hope to do so sooner than later!

While both shows have their own kind of beauty, Dr. Quinn has a depth and grittiness to it that WCTH simply does not have, and I don’t think WCTH aspires to do so. For viewers who are serious about complex, nuanced, hard-hitting stories; impressive, believable acting; and historical drama that thoughtfully incorporates, reflects, and gives relevant commentary on major and minor aspects of history, Dr. Quinn is easier to take seriously.

Not to mention Dr. Quinn’s racially diverse cast of characters, all with their own rich stories woven into the whole, as opposed to the few, nameless faces of color that hover in the background of WCTH sometimes. Apart from a moment I recall from an earlier season, the actors of color on WCTH never get to say anything besides the brief, negligible, faint comments they might make, again, somewhere in the background.

(If I’ve missed or forgotten an episode or two when a person of color is more than just a background face and actually plays a consequential role on WCTH, someone let me know.)

Now, I don’t consider WCTH to be poor at what it does. Hallmark has a brand, I believe they know their audience, and they cater to it. What’s more, there are moments when WCTH really does shine.

Still, much of the time, the shine, or shininess, goes overboard. The tone and execution is often cheesy and hyper-bright. Plus, there are episodes when the show relies on almost nonstop background music. There’s a difference between well-placed music that enhances scenes here and there, and music that doesn’t stop long enough to let the acting or story stand or build on its own for a while. Too much music in the background can make the emotion feel more forced or manufactured than organic. (I will say, though, that the music in this show isn’t as excessive or overbearing as it is in some Hallmark movies I’ve watched.)

Hope Valley (formerly Coal Valley, when it had an open coal mine) is supposed to be a frontier town, with dirt/gravel roads, fields and woods all around, horses for transportation, and all that. Yet, the actors—the female ones especially—tend to look so…shiny. Super smooth, pink, and glossy, even when their characters are supposed to be makeup-free, and not a hair or a flowing curl out of place. (Also, while film and television actors/actresses often wear wigs and hair pieces onscreen, it shouldn’t be obvious. Erin Krakow, playing Elizabeth, is a lovely actress, but it’s unfortunate that her wig in Season Five looks as unnatural as it does.) Even AJ Foster, a female outlaw living a rough life on the run, always has on thick, dark eye makeup and conspicuous lip color.

Because Elizabeth comes from an affluent family in Hamilton, I can go with some of her wardrobe choices. But when the outfits of so many of these frontier townswomen (several widows among them, who aren’t supposed to be well-to-do) are light and powdery or appear rich in color and texture, it’s hard to get a “frontier” vibe from them.

I know that television aims to give viewers something nice to look at, but WCTH seems rather blatant about wanting to look bright and pretty more than it looks realistic.

Granted, I might not have said all this if not for the passing of Jack’s character. It’s tough for a television series to lose one of its leads, and with Daniel Lissing’s choice to leave the show, Jack’s death was the only option that would ultimately make sense for his character. Yet, although I found it to be a rushed and anticlimactic plot twist so soon after Jack and Elizabeth’s long-awaited wedding, and a part of my imagination isn’t fully settled or convinced by a major, sudden death that happens offscreen and shows nothing afterwards but a closed coffin and then a closed grave, I want it to be clear that Lissing’s exit isn’t the only issue that’s made me iffy about continuing to watch the show.

Again, I’m a lover of wholesome, hopeful television—life-affirming stories that make you laugh, cry, sigh, and remember what’s good in the world. And even with the aspects of WCTH that have bothered me, I’ve experienced enough enjoyment to keep watching it through five seasons.

But I’m not sure yet if the show’s good points are enough to bring me back for Season Six. I might rather spend that time rewatching Dr. Quinn yet again, to get my “wholesome historical” fix with excellent writing, depth, diversity, and grit to go with it.

We’ll see.

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Film reviews are subjective. I tend to rate films not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018) from Blueprint Pictures
Rated TV-14. Drama, Historical, Romance, War

My thoughts: “You have to write about them… This is your story to tell, as sure as I’m sitting here. And you will not be right until you do.”

Every writer needs to be inspired. In the aftermath of World War II, Juliet, a writer in London, follows the tug of inspiration to visit a hodgepodge of book club members on the island of Guernsey.

And here we have a lovely and compelling story about the blessing of books in the midst of horror, and finding people with whom one belongs. Though it didn’t captivate me at every moment, this is one of those rare instances when I like a film better than the novel it’s based on.

Granted, for me, a story told entirely through characters’ written correspondence does not work in a novel’s favor. While it has its creative points, that type of (rather choppy) storytelling tends to make me feel removed from a story, as if I’m reading bits “about” what’s happening and never get to step into the story itself and experience it right along with the characters.

The screen brings these people to life in a different way, making them more accessible. I couldn’t be so indifferent to Juliet here as I was when I read about her. This story truly benefits from giving its audience a chance to look into The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society members’ eyes, and having the music there to enhance certain images is a notable advantage.

I enjoyed seeing the vitality of book discussions, the illustration of what literature, and the sharing of literature, does for us. Plus, being a writer myself, I’m partial to books and movies about writers. I’ll admit I cried while watching Juliet truly go to work toward the end (well, maybe I cried through most of the last fifth of the film or so), and the opening of the closing credits is just brilliant.

I also got a kick out of seeing the nice handful of actors from Downton Abbey, but that’s beside the point.

My corresponding reading: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

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Love Comes Softly (2003)

Film reviews are subjective. I tend to rate films not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

Love Comes Softly (2003) from Hallmark Entertainment
Rated TV-PG. Drama, Historical, Romance, Family Film

1/2

Description (from the film case): Based on Janette Oke’s best-selling book series, and directed by Michael Landon Jr., Love Comes Softly is inspired storytelling for the whole family. Marty and Aaron Claridge (Katherine Heigl and Oliver Macready) travel west in search of new opportunity. But when tragedy strikes and Marty is suddenly widowed, the young woman must face the rugged terrain, bleak weather, and life among strangers—alone. That is until a handsome widower named Clark Davis (Dale Midkiff) suggests a platonic “marriage of convenience” until Marty can return home. As the months pass, though, Marty and Clark discover an unexpected new love where there was once only loss.

My thoughts: The first and strongest movie of this series. The acting isn’t always the best, but the story holds its own. It’s wholesome and a good reflection of the much-loved novel it’s based on. There’s a relevant faith thread, of course, as Clark is a man of faith, but he doesn’t go spouting scriptures or shouting “hallelujah” all through the movie or anything. 😀 Faith is an unpretentious, natural part of his character, and it’s thus woven naturally into the story.

Now, the seven related movies that follow this one go gradually downhill in some ways, and not because the stories stray further and further away from the original novels (which is kind of a pity but doesn’t bother me so much because they’re movies, not books.) I think the overall quality goes down, in large part due to the virtually never-ending music that plays through the background of most (or all?) of them, sometimes at an excessive volume. An all too obvious attempt to push the emotion, and I have to tune the music out as much as possible to focus on the characters and enjoy the movies for what they are.

Fortunately, that’s not a problem with the first movie. And if you’re like me, you may want to go on and watch the following seven anyway, if you appreciate family-friendly, life-affirming flicks.

My corresponding reading: Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke.

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The Chosen (1981)

Film reviews are subjective. I tend to rate films not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

The Chosen (1981) from Chosen Film Company
Rated PG. (Contains some disturbing Holocaust footage.) Drama, Faith Theme, Historical

Description (from the film case): Set in 1940s Brooklyn, The Chosen is the story of two teenage boys who become best friends despite huge differences in their upbringing. Danny (Robby Benson) is the son of an orthodox Hasidic Rabbi (Rod Steiger). Reuven (Barry Miller) comes from a progressive Jewish family whose father (Maximilian Schell) stands at the forefront of the battle for Israeli statehood. Danny’s every moment is devoted to religious study, while Reuven plays jazz piano and is intensely interested in changing the world around him. Their family differences soon force both to make difficult choices.

My thoughts: A film based on one of my all-time favorite books.

Although politics are a passionate part of the story, I don’t like it for the politics. (You know, sometimes I almost hate to use the word, for its connotations. It can be easy to minimize or brush off a complex and crucial human issue by saying it’s “just politics.”)

Anyhow. I like this story for the way it portrays how there are differences within groups, behind the broad labels. “I thought you people only studied Talmud.” You people. One Jewish young man speaking to another.

I like this story for its reflection of fathers and sons. Of friendship. “It is not easy to be a friend.” Especially when your friend is someone you don’t understand.

Reuven has an appropriate level of understatement, Danny has an appropriate level of strangeness. Now, what hit me as the most powerful scene in the book didn’t need as severe a close-up as the film generously gives it. But it still has its own power onscreen, and I can otherwise forgive the moment’s over-generosity for being a product of 1980s filmmaking.

A compelling coming of age story indeed.

My corresponding reading: The Chosen by Chaim Potok.

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I’m not a super-fan of the trailer, but, hey. Maybe it’s also “1980s forgivable.” 🙂