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6 things Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell’s A Deadly Adoption taught us about Lifetime movies

Will Ferrell wears this expression a lot in A Deadly Adoption.
Will Ferrell wears this expression a lot in A Deadly Adoption.
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

For two and a half decades, the Lifetime network has been blessing America with schlocky, made-for-TV movies that fall somewhere between daytime soap opera and America’s Most Wanted reenactments. Some of them focus on celebrities (Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, William & Kate: The Movie); some are true-crime thrillers (The Craigslist Killer), and some are original and possibly instructive tales (How I Married My High School Crush). All of them rely on questionable dialogue, gauzy lighting, and an overdose of over-the-top drama.

On Saturday, June 20, the network premiered its latest work, the highly anticipated and very Lifetime-ishly titled A Deadly Adoption, starring Saturday Night Live alums Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. The stars had reportedly wanted the project to be a secret, going so far as to briefly claim it had been scrapped after details were leaked to the press.

And despite A Deadly Adoption’s high-comedy pedigree — Ferrell and Adam McKay’s (Stepbrothers) company, Gary Sanchez Productions, produced, and Andrew Steele (of the epic romance spoof The Spoils of Babylon, also starring Wiig and Ferrell) wrote the script — Lifetime VP of original movies Arturo Interian told EW the film was not meant to be a joke: "It’s not the Scary Movie parody of a Lifetime movie. [Ferrell] wanted to legitimately do a Lifetime sexual thriller."

And a Lifetime sexual thriller was exactly what he produced: Ferrell and Wiig play Robert and Sarah Benson, a married couple with a 5-year-old diabetic daughter named Sully. The movie begins with a tragic accident on a boating dock that causes Sarah to miscarry their second child, then picks up five years later as they're trying to adopt. They soon meet Bridgette (Jessica Lowndes), the apparent birth mother of their dreams, and they offer to put her up in their house until she has her baby — but it of course turns out that (say it with me) Bridgette is not who she seems. Murder, mayhem, and melodrama ensue.

Here are the six lessons A Deadly Adoption taught us about how to be in a Lifetime movie:

1) Try to out-deadpan each other

Pretend you are a very famous comedic actor who’s teamed up with another very famous comedic actor and the screenwriter responsible for a recent, over-the-top spoof of a different genre for this top-secret pet project. Now totally subvert the audience’s expectations by leaning so far away from broad comedy that you land on "actually kinda dull." If you’re Ferrell, play your character like he thinks he is Frank the Tank but is actually Harold Crick at the beginning of Stranger Than Fiction, before he meets Maggie Gyllenhaal. If you’re Wiig, play all your scenes like you recently consumed a very large dose of Percocet.

2) Say exactly what you’re thinking all the time…

Transforming all subtext into actual text is key. The audience might not understand the motivations for your actions, so you should always be sure to state them clearly and concisely. For instance, when you are trying to adopt a child to fix your marriage, you could say, "Maybe another baby will bring the old Robert back." If you’re sitting on a bench staring blankly into space, you could explain to the character who's sharing the scene with you, "I was daydreaming … I do that a lot." And when you and your girlfriend kidnap a 5-year-old girl to extort her parents, whom you think are rich, you could helpfully remind your girlfriend, "I’m in it for the money and nothin’ else." Side note: A Deadly Adoption is a movie in which a "book tour" — for a financial services manual — is a synonym for "orgiastic partying." Interpret that as you will.

3) …but don’t do anything that makes any sense

You can’t be a character in a spoof of a Lifetime movie without engaging in a series of extremely poor decisions. For instance: when your wife falls off the rotted dock on your property and suffers a miscarriage while pregnant with the second baby you were both so excited for, don’t ever bother fixing the dock; instead, just tell anyone who asks that it’s "off-limits" in as ominous a tone as you can. Want to scam the married guy who accidentally knocked you up once? Instead of blackmailing him by threatening to tell his wife he cheated, cook up a fake personality, pretend to be pregnant, and move in with his family before kidnapping his daughter and then shooting him twice. Also make sure your transition from "saintly pregnant girl" to "evil kidnapper" involves clip-in blonde hair extensions. And if you are a faithful employee of the kidnapped girl’s family, when you happen to see the kidnapper getting into his truck — which the police just asked you if you saw the license plate number of — rather than simply writing down the number, get in your own car, follow the kidnapper into the woods where you are guaranteed to have no cell service, crunch around on the loudest twigs possible outside the kidnapper's lair, and then take a bullet to the face for your troubles.

4) Beware the evil powers of sugar

Big Sugar is the real villain of A Deadly Adoption. More than the crazy-eyed pregnancy-faker who's taken up residence in the Bensons' guest room, the real dangers lie in that unopened box of chocolates in the pantry. Sarah, the good character, owns an organic food stand at the farmers market, where she sells things like refined-sugar-free baked goods. Bridgette, by contrast, shows up at the Bensons' house saying she just had a shake and fries and asking for a big bowl of ice cream, so you know she's up to no good. (Sure enough, Bridgette soon reveals herself to be a crazy, Robert-obsessed grifter named Joni.) The tensest moment comes after Bridgette/Joni and her redneck boyfriend kidnap little diabetic Sully but forget her insulin pump and then try to make her feel better with candy bars. As a bonus, the diabetes plot point also allows for lines like, "You know the dangers of diabetic ketoacidosis!" which are especially impactful when delivered with a totally straight face.

5) When in doubt, add slo-mo

Want your audience to understand that Drama Is Happening? Throw in some slow-motion camera sequences! Watch Sarah fall off the dock …in slow motion. See the flyer Sarah printed with her missing daughter’s picture tumble artistically across the ground … in slow motion. Observe the blood dripping from Robert’s gunshot wound (several minutes after he was actually shot) … in slow motion.

6) Follow the sage advice of Arrested Development's George Bluth Sr.

Although, really, this applies to the majority of Lifetime movies:

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