Who’s Afraid of a Woman in Peril?: Revamping the Lifetime Movie with Doug Campbell

How the gleefully over-the-top "Stalked By My Doctor" franchise ignites a quiet revolution for TV movies.
Ryan Coleman

Stalked By My Doctor (Doug Campbell, 2015).

Recently I was flipping through the seasonal calendar at a Boston-area repertory cinema, and a program dedicated to the enterprising feminist filmmaker Joyce Chopra caught my eye. I wondered how Chopra’s six-decade career, spanning everything from short-form documentaries and TV movies to Sundance-winning features and stage plays televised for PBS, would be condensed into a curated selection of screenings. In fact it would only be two: Smooth Talk (1985), one of Chopra’s two theatrically-released features, and Joyce at 34 (1972), a short documentary that she co-directed with Claudia Weill early in her career.

I’m not ignorant of the creative merits or historical importance of these films, nor the rights/access issues resolved by Criterion’s recent physical release of a 4K restoration of Smooth Talk, which includes Joyce at 34 as a special feature. But as I look at rep theater programs across the country and see these two titles consistently selected to “re-introduce” Chopra to the filmgoing public, some questions arise. To date, Chopra has directed 27 films, seventeen of which are made-for-TV movies. Did the sixteen years during which Chopra was provided with consistent opportunities to explore different genres, techniques, and subjects like domestic abuse and abortion really produce nothing worth screening for an audience? Based on the subtitle of Chopra’s  memoir, “Adventures in Hollywood, Television, and Beyond,” she’s clearly interested in exploring the television portion of her magnificent career. So why aren’t we?

As a form, the made-for-TV movie has long been relegated to the margins of respectability by the film world’s critical, curatorial, and tastemaking apparatus. Even at the height of their production from the ’70s through the ’90s, when TV movies like Brian’s Song (1971), The Burning Bed (1994) and Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal (1982) were winning awards and winning over audiences alike, they still bore for many members of this apparatus a certain mark. One which designated them as little more than the excretal products of a mindless, churning content machine programmed for speed, sensation, and serviceability over artistic merit. Their rigid adherence to formula, their ultra-low budgets and rudimentary production design, their generic descendance from the melodrama, their categorical slipperiness in straddling television and the film form, and above all their laser focus on their target audience—suburban stay-at-home moms and their daughters—has largely removed them from serious considerations of contemporary film history.

In the age of streaming, the estimation of made-for-TV movies has sunk even lower. The major broadcast networks once ordered the production of hundreds of original films every year for their “Movie of the Week”-style programs. But the rise of the rental market and on-demand viewing struck those programs dead by the late ’90s. Premium cable networks like HBO continue to produce well-made original biopics and true-life stories, but their rate of production has markedly slowed. Increasingly, these channels are pivoting to develop more documentaries, which are cheaper to make and enjoying a surge in popularity.

Streamers like Netflix have taken the opposite approach, producing a ton of cheap originals to fill the gaps around their big, auteur-driven investments like Roma (2018) and The Irishman (2019). The hundreds of unpromoted, service-driven rom-coms and genre films that populate this vast wasteland have been heralded by some as “the new made-for-TV movies.” But “don’t call them schlock!” they add in haste to differentiate them from the last standing strongholds of original film production on linear television—namely, Hallmark and Lifetime, which continue to thrive on basic cable. But the ultra-low-budget, hyper-topical, grind-’em-out style that typifies the cable model has very little in common with what’s developed on streaming.

Original movies made for basic cable must adhere to a rigid 87-minute, nine-act teleplay structure built for commercial breaks. They also have the unique burden of family audience content considerations to contend with, which explains both the uniquely didactic, moralizing tone many share, as well as the saucy, pre-Code-style subterfuge tactics employed when explicit content must be handled. In contrast, the streamers must chase after trends in the absence of a winning formula or many structural restrictions to work within. Despite the accusations that streamers like Netflix have turned into undiscerning, wide-mouthed content hoses, they actually produce fewer originals per year than the cable networks. In 2022, Netflix produced 76 English-language fiction features in-house, which pales in comparison to Lifetime’s 126. And their vast and diffuse corporate structures render an “assembly line” production model impossible, leading to far less cohesion among their originals.

Hallmark and Lifetime both do great business on television. But the comparative audaciousness of Lifetime’s content—its willingness to touch the furthest extremes of female victimization and villainy—and the network’s ability to subsist without making an overall streaming deal like Hallmark’s with Peacock make Lifetime’s business model particularly interesting. Though media analysts purport that the made-for-TV movie is “at risk of extinction,” Lifetime’s programming continues to score top rankings for the most-watched telecasts on linear television. Yet outside of brief business write-ups in the trades and the few blogs and podcasts dedicated to Lifetime originals, little serious attention is paid to them. When these films are written about, if at all, it’s with a kind of compulsory antipathy, the unconsciously repeated scorn of generations of critics who felt that TV movies were, as a class, inherently beneath critique. At best, Lifetime movies are deemed “guilty pleasures” or “so bad they’re good,” and at worst, they are “maudlin,” “derivative,” “sexist,” and “exploitative."

Under this cover of ignorance and antipathy, the Lifetime Network has quietly transformed itself into one of the most prolific and idiosyncratic producers of subversive, low-budget cinema in the world. Assuming the role that Poverty Row production houses played in the studio era and that exploitation factories played into the New Hollywood period, Lifetime has responded to the needs of an underserved audience by going straight for the jugular of their deepest fears and desires, all the while cranking its output to eleven. The channel’s signature “woman-in-peril” thrillers strike an utterly original tonal balance, always vacillating between painfully sincere sentimentality and ironically detached brutality, traditional family values and riotous feminist anarchism, cheap, formulaic grist and boundary-pushing art. Yet these domestic thrillers’ unyielding adherence to the pleasures of formula and repetition reinforce them with a Teflon-like resistance to critical scrutiny.

In 2023, we find Lifetime movies in an odd place. Over the last decade, the network has made strides to marginalize the woman-in-peril films which first put them on the map, instead prioritizing prestige content which has won them newfound acclaim. At the same time, Lifetime continues cranking these films out for an audience whose devotion to them has never waned. Like spores shoved into a dark corner, this era’s woman-in-peril films have begun to mutate, becoming more self-aware though no less sincere, far more reckless, and so ruthless in their pursuit of a highly specific kind of pathos that there’s nothing they won’t exploit to get it. Indeed, spurned by their own makers, the woman-in-peril films have begun to react to their own marginalization.

The most prolific writer and director of this contemporary strain of films, Doug Campbell—best known as the director of the Eric Roberts–led Stalked By My Doctor—has emerged as the most prominent voice of a kind of revolution brewing inside the network. Delving into the 30+ originals Campbell’s made for the network in just over a decade can do more than tell us how this unique substratum of films came to be and why it ultimately needed reimagining. Taking his work seriously means challenging foundational concepts around spectatorship, the perceived value and even the function of formula and cliché, and the possibilities of “feminine media forms” like the melodrama. When it isn’t taken seriously, we as movie lovers only stand to lose a great deal of insight and pleasure—and pleasure is something Lifetime has always taken deadly seriously.

Stalked By My Doctor: Patient's Revenge (Doug Campbell, 2018).


Lifetime made history when it was established in 1984, becoming the first television network whose content focused exclusively on women. The fact that it has outlasted competitors who emerged later, like the Style Network and WE: Women’s Entertainment, is understood now as the direct result of their eventual pivot to original film programming. But it wasn’t immediately clear what kind of films would attract the coveted 18-to-49-year-old female demographic.

The battlefield was consecrated in 1990 when two of Lifetime's top power players made their bids for the soul of the network in a head-to-head ratings showdown. In one corner was Memories of Murder, a melodramatic, sleaze-sational thrill-ride, and the brainchild of Doug McCormick, who headed up Lifetime’s sales division. In the other was Wildflower, a sentimental coming-of-age film backed by Patricia Fili-Krushel, the head of Original Programming who first proposed the pivot to film. Both films had equitable production value, promotional pushes, and star power. But Memories of Murder—a kind of proto-woman-in-peril film about an amnesiac (Nancy Allen) who must recover her memories to stop a sadistic female killer (the singer Vanity) from harming her family—handily outperformed its competition. The film’s carefully managed tone, which allows for both camp and sincere readings; the complete sublimation of the elements of the thriller into the domestic world (infidelity and loveless marriage figured as homicidal violence); and the story’s complete immersion in the female perspective—all of the ingredients which make a Lifetime original a Lifetime original—were there at the very beginning. Memories of Murder henceforth became the mold in which all subsequent productions would be cast.

By the end of the decade, Lifetime would become the number-one cable network among that prized 18-to-49-year-old demo. By just 1996, however, the film formula spawned by Memories of Murder which made that all possible had already reached peak form with the release of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, as close to a quintessential woman-in-peril film as it gets. Our heroine is Laurel Lewisohn, a bright-eyed college student played by Tori Spelling who’s sucked into an all-consuming romance with Kevin (Ivan Sergei), a handsome, older local who we know from the cold open is actually a girlfriend-murdering psychopath. As Laurel is isolated ever further from friends, family, and even herself, it’s left to Jessica (Lisa Banes), her hard-working single mother, to defeat Kevin in the film’s climactic, lakeside finale.

From the jump there were two strong selling points for the mother-daughter target demo: the crazy title and Spelling, who in her seventh season on Beverly Hills, 90210 had become a major TV star. Teen-soap casting crossovers were a common programming strategy in this era, allowing the cable networks to court younger audiences, the broadcast networks to showcase their biggest stars to a new viewership, and the stars themselves the chance to break out of that limiting teen-idol mold. Lunatic titling was another popular bait-and-switch tactic: lure viewers in with something wild and often beside the point of the film itself, so that by the third act, they’re locked in for some pulverizingly direct moralizing about serious women’s issues that, if advertised up front, wouldn’t help the film’s appeal. 

Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? relentlessly exploits Laurel’s plight in ways designed to hit the youth demo where it hurts. In one scene, Kevin uses eavesdropped knowledge of Laurel’s secret eating disorder to turn her against her mother, which undermines her self-confidence to such a degree that he’s able to sexually assault her in a nightmarishly surreal scene without her even recognizing it as such. The mothers at home, meanwhile, can experience the terrified release of seeing their most paranoid fears about their children realized, yet ultimately feel vindicated when it’s Jessica who swoops in to save Laurel from Kevin, not some prince on a white horse.

Crucially, the film is spangled with as much horror as it is winking humor. When Laurel introduces Kevin to her mother for the first time, Kevin feeds them both the story he cooked up about his parents’ death: “A helicopter skiing accident, in Austria … The whole side of the mountain came down.” “Oh,” Jessica sighs sympathetically. But he reassures her, “They died doing what they loved.” The element of camp produced by these contrasting tones does not distract from the goal of engaging with difficult subject matter, but in fact facilitates it. It’s like a pressure valve: audiences can distance themselves from it safely and at will, whereas a direct confrontation might be too painful, or simply too intense to render the content legibly. 

This sophisticated tonal jockeying is also the thing that has duped critics into dismissing these films as unserious, exploitative trifles. Assuming there’s no degree of sophistication to the stay-at-home audience’s viewing habits, they can’t imagine how easily viewers defuse and circumvent these crude (or, deliberately readable) attempts at manipulation, and thus can’t interpret the parodic element as anything but laughing at the very women these films are about.

Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? (Melanie Aitkenhead, 1996).

For two decades, being treated like a joke seemed a worthy price in order to make films that women could laugh at, laugh with, and cry over, all at the same time. But as the 2010s rolled around, a series of power shifts at Lifetime led the network to reassess its relationship with its audience, as well as its standing in the broader media landscape. The first sacred cow to have its untouchable status lifted was the woman-in-peril films.

The hiring of Tanya Lopez (current EVP of Movies, Limited Series, and Original Movie Acquisitions) in 2007 and the acquisition of Lifetime by A+E Networks in 2009 heralded what I think of as the “great professionalization” of the network over the 2010s. Several noble initiatives were launched during this era, like the push to recruit more women behind the camera and the campaign to shatter Lifetime’s image as a sanctified den of lily-white womanhood by hiring more women of color across the board. But the most successful new programming strategy by far has been to produce and heavily promote prestige projects, like the handsomely mounted stage adaptation The Trip to Bountiful (2014), and heartwarming, celebrity-endorsed vanity projects like William & Kate (2011) or The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar (2018). Films in that vein and shows like Project Runway earned Lifetime an unprecedented 29 Emmy nominations between 2013 and 2014. 

2015 became the tipping point, when the self-skewering anti-melodrama UnReal won the prize that had eluded the network since its inception: polite critical praise. Publications like BuzzFeed News, HuffPost, and the Washington Post, which had rarely if ever covered Lifetime before, all issued lengthy reported features christening the network’s clean-up act a “renaissance,” enthusing about its journey “from guilty pleasure to Emmy awards.” A Hollywood Reporter piece from the following year put it more plainly, announcing Lifetime’s rebrand “from ‘women in peril’ to ‘women in power.’” The message was clear. If Lifetime wanted the feminist bona fides it had been denied for over 30 years, it wouldn’t get them with woman-in-peril films.

And so they got to work. The network now farms the production of 100 percent of the woman-in-peril films out to a constellation of satellite production houses, like Johnson Production Group and MarVista Entertainment. They’ve also been sequestered almost exclusively on the Lifetime Movie Network, an ancillary channel that isn’t built into every basic cable package. The flagship channel is now reserved primarily for the prestige films and assorted series, both original and acquired. I have no insight into the post-professionalization shift in the domestic thrillers’ budget allotments, but anecdotal insight that entire films are routinely shot in twelve days or fewer doesn’t paint a pretty picture. In distancing itself from its twisted and embarrassing eldest children, Lifetime left room for the rise of journeymen with truly radical visions for their remaking. Doug Campbell wouldn’t completely reinvent the woman-in-peril film, but with the freedom afforded by the network’s slackened hold, he’s helped them realize a potency and audaciousness that was once unimaginable.


Stalked By My Doctor: Patient's Revenge (Doug Campbell, 2018).

It’s remarkable how closely Doug Campbell’s ascendancy at Lifetime mirrors the great professionalization period, only in reverse. After two decades spent kicking around Hollywood directing everything from home-video releases for major studios to independent erotic thrillers and occasional TV projects, Campbell finally landed at Shadowland (now Shadowboxer Films), one of Lifetime’s primary production partners. Campbell made his first film for the network, Accused at 17, in 2009, just as Lopez et. al were laying plans to divest from domestic thrillers and rally around prestige projects. When Lifetime finally broke the glass ceiling of respectability at the Emmys in 2015, over on the Lifetime Movie Network, Campbell released one of the most provocative, least respectable films in the network’s history: Stalked By My Doctor. That film is as much a crystallization of Campbell’s revamped woman-in-peril formula as Mother, May I was of the original recipe, and it represents as complete a rebuke of Lifetime’s prestige pivot as any film that has since aired.

By this point, Campbell had already directed fifteen films for Lifetime. That output did tend to cohere around two main themes: the unique dangers of being a teenage girl (Walking the Streets Halls [2012], as the title is stylized on the poster; Betrayed at 17 [2011]; Stalked at 17 [2012]), and the way time, rejection, and unresolved trauma can drive those same girls to the brink as they age (Bad Sister [2015], Dirty Teacher [2013]). But in fairness, so do hundreds of other Lifetime originals. It’s difficult, and in most cases actually inadvisable, to analyze work made in the TV-movie space within an individualist, auteurist frame. The goal is to sublimate your unique vision into the preset model provided to you by the network, not subordinate that model to your commanding authorial vision. The audience doesn’t tune into the LMN to watch whatever a Doug Campbell movie might be; they tune in to watch Lifetime movies, irrespective of who made them.

That’s exactly what makes Stalked By My Doctor’s unique intensity and runaway success with the audience so remarkable. On paper, the film bears a close resemblance to Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, with its wacky title, star lure (Eric Roberts), and factory woman-in-peril character triad (naive young heroine, lecherous older male villain, avenging mother-hero). But the updates to the formula that would become Campbell’s signature strike you right away. An intensified crudeness is immediately met with and undercut by an intensified sincerity. And so it goes: the female character is more aggressively exploited, yet stronger than ever; the male villain is recast as an irresistible anti-hero, yet he’s never been more disgusting; callousness bleeds into sensitivity, mutating into profound empathy for the unforgivable. The viewer is enthralled by just how heightened everything is.

Stalked By My Doctor (Doug Campbell, 2015).

The film opens in an elegant bistro. The venerated surgeon Dr. Albert Beck (Roberts) pleads affably with his date on the phone not to cancel on him—“When we had coffee, I thought we had a really good time.” But she’s adamant, says she’s going to block him, and hangs up. Campbell smash cuts to Beck speeding at 100 miles per hour through L.A. in his sports car, unnerving doom rock blaring, muttering “stupid bitch, stupid bitch.” Then the tone switches on a dime again, as the caterwauling thriller music dissolves into harmless pop rock, and Campbell introduces us to the young Sophie Green (Brianna Joy Chomer), whom the film theorist Carol J. Clover might have called our “female victim-hero” had Stalked By more closely resembled a slasher film. The film truly kicks off when Sophie gets into a nasty wreck of her own and it’s Dr. Beck who performs the heart surgery that saves her life. His god-like power over Sophie causes him to become instantaneously obsessed with her. As his advances escalate from doting and fatherly to menacing and grotesque, her increasingly firm rejections send him into spasmodic breakdowns, as when he tears apart a stuffed bear intended as a present in a mall bathroom while crying, “I’m a doctor! I’m a doctor!”

There are a handful of earlier Lifetime movies that center male perspectives, like 1997’s Unwed Father, starring another 90210 idol, Brian Austin Green. There are also examples of two-handers in which the point of view oscillates fluidly, like the campus rape drama No One Would Tell, which toggles between the victim-heroine (Candace Cameron Bure) and her rapist (Fred Savage). But no Lifetime film before had so successfully split the sympathy between the female victim and the male aggressor. Dr. Beck commits some of the most utterly heinous acts I’ve seen in a Lifetime movie, as when he mounts Sophie’s unconscious body in the recovery room after surgery and sweetly kisses her. He’s immediately disgusted with himself, and so are we. But that doesn’t stop him, and Campbell’s high-wire tonal balancing act makes it so that, despite ourselves, we don’t want him to. 

In the end, Sophie manages to escape Dr. Beck’s last-ditch abduction and sedation attempt, reuniting with her parents at her own wake. But a pre-credits scene showing Dr. Beck evading capture makes us realize in horror that what we feel is not horror or anger, but relief—the very same relief we felt when Sophie escaped from him. It harkens back to Psycho (1960), where Hitchcock violently rips our identification away from the victim-heroine Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and forces them onto the monstrous yet sympathetic Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Moments after her murder, Norman stuffs her belongings into her car and speeds it into a swamp. As the car sinks but is not fully submerged, we feel a shudder of revulsion roiling through our guts. Hatred turns to suspense, then turns to sympathetic panic—“Sink!” we think in confused horror, “sink!” In 1960, there was scant precedent for a film’s heroine to be killed off at the midway mark; before Stalked By, there was as little precedent at Lifetime for an act of such radical defiance against the cardinal rule: the woman comes first, and she will be sympathized with foremost.

Installing a man—a villain no less—in the driver’s seat of the now five-film Stalked By My Doctor franchise, was a shocking twist on the woman-in-peril formula. Campbell also subtly executes a more profound change on the level of character. In the first film, Campbell amps up the polar dimensions of both his victim-heroines (they’re stronger and more capable than ever before, but also more grievously exploited) and his villains (they’ve never been nastier, but never more pathetic, and thus sympathetic). Intensifying the genre’s inherent aspects of camp and self-parody in lock-step with these specifically targeted character traits encourages the audience to not only identify with Sophie’s journey from victimhood to self-actualization, but to also cross the forbidden line and identify with Dr. Beck’s lifetime of rejection, all the way to his eventual psychotic breakdown. There’s a deep, vicarious pleasure to be found in the freedom with which Dr. Beck moves through the sequels, the first two of which Campbell directed—especially Stalked By My Doctor: Patient’s Revenge (2015), a musical in which Beck reteams with Sophie. His indecent obsessions have caused him to fully lose it, the trauma brought on by Dr. Beck has caused her to lose it, and everyone at home struggling to keep it all together can watch with a thrilling mixture of revulsion and envy as they act out diabolical games of revenge. The “trying to kill each other but made for each other” character design is more than a little reminiscent of the generic framework for the slasher film, and so is the fact that, even if our sympathies lie with the victims, we’re locked into Dr. Beck’s point-of-view.

Campbell doubled down on his proprietary tweaks to the woman-in-peril formula in the films that followed. The perspective shifts around liberally, the traumas unique to the woman’s world are confronted in a far more explicit manner, and the titles are correspondingly sillier (Deadly Mile High Club is a personal favorite). But it’s the heightened, self-aware pitch at which these films play, approaching but never, ever reaching irony, that distinguishes them from their predecessors. It’s as if Lifetime movies have become fully cognizant of themselves and, unashamed, have decided to keep playing the hits louder than ever. With films like 2022’s Revenge For My Mother, which is like the Oresteia set in the world of postnatal fitness, or 2018’s Deadly Runway, which culminates in a predatory high school art teacher forcing the girlfriend of her teenage love object to whip him at gunpoint, Campbell has proven that the audience for Lifetime originals is just as game for the formal challenges and narrative subversions that the rep set run to the arthouse for. If not moreso—Convictions, a film Joyce Chopra made for Lifetime, may not be playing at any theaters on the Lady Director book tour, but it’s been regularly rebroadcast on the LMN since its 1997 premiere.


An overwhelming amount of Lifetime hate boils down to one perception: it looks like they tried to make a “good movie” and failed. Since their very inception, though, Lifetime movies have only ever tried to be Lifetime movies. They’re precision-calibrated to hit certain narrative beats. Stock characters and scenarios have been filtered and processed and refined down to their purest forms so they can be deployed like emotional kill shots. Nothing is done by accident, and failure is not within the capacity of a machine that runs this smoothly. 

Between the adolescent fantasies that dominate the box office and the prestige miniseries that clog the arteries of modern television, we’ve entered a cultural moment wherein emotions surround us, yet real feeling is always out of reach. Of course, superhero franchises and prestige television are both products of their respective formulas, after all, however new or hard to recognize. We can learn a lot from a formula as direct in its pursuit of real feeling, as confident in its audience, and as assured of the naked power of formula itself as Lifetime’s. Campbell is not a remarkable filmmaker because his work transcends the Lifetime mold—he’s remarkable because he thrives within it, unlocking even deeper reservoirs of pathos and intensity along the way. 

Stalked By My Doctor: Patient's Revenge (2018).

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