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Lori Loughlin is out at Hallmark. What does that mean for one of its most popular shows?

After a seven-week break, When Calls the Heart returns with two new episodes.

Lori Loughlin as Abigail Stanton in Hallmark Channel’s original series When Calls the Heart.
Hallmark Channel
Lauren Katz is a project manager at Vox, focusing on newsroom-wide editorial initiatives as well as podcast engagement strategy.

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, officially pleaded not guilty on April 29 to taking part in the college admissions scandal that has left 50 people facing federal fraud charges after an FBI investigation into an elaborate scheme to get their children into elite universities. Despite Loughlin’s plea, her connection to the explosive news story — that she and Giannulli allegedly bribed University of Southern California officials with $500,000 to get their daughters, including influencer Olivia Jade, into USC — seems to have already damaged her reputation.

Loughlin’s professional life has been rocked in the fallout of the scandal: The Hallmark Channel darling starred in two of the network’s long-running TV and movie series, the fan-favorite drama When Calls the Heart and the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries series Garage Sale Mystery, along with seemingly countless Christmas movies.

Loughlin played a major role on When Calls the Heart over its past five seasons, one that’s taken on a new light in the wake of the college admissions scandal. Abigail Stanton, Loughlin’s character in the 1910s period drama, set in a Western Canadian frontier town, is the independent, honest mayor of Hope Valley. The people in the town look up to her, invoking her wisdom often.

Take this exchange, for example, between two characters who are commenting on a big upcoming decision from the mayor:

ROSEMARY: It’s as Abigail said — we’re all family, there are no secrets.

ELIZABETH: I trust Abigail’s judgment. No one has the interest of this town at heart more than she does.

Hope Valley’s mayor might not have had any secrets, but the actress playing her allegedly doesn’t have that in common with her character.

When the news broke, Hallmark immediately cut ties with Lori Loughlin, ending their otherwise long and productive relationship. Garage Sale Mystery was canceled outright; When Calls the Heart, which was two episodes into its sixth season when Loughlin was charged, went on hiatus while the team figured out how to rework the show without one of its lead actresses.

After a seven-week break, When Calls the Heart returns with two new episodes on May 5 and 6. The show has even been renewed for a seventh season. Both announcements have put restless fans — who call themselves “Hearties” — at ease, after a nearly two-month waiting period that left them anxious about the future of their beloved show. And they didn’t shy away from voicing their frustrations.

When Calls the Heart, the fans follow

When Calls the Heart is an original Hallmark series based on Janette Oke’s Canadian West book series. It tells the story of Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), a young, single woman who moves to a small coal-mining town to become a school teacher. Elizabeth navigates supporting her students, falling in love with the town Mountie, and generally figuring out who she wants to be away from her affluent upbringing.

The books are Christian novels, and faith continues to serve as the backbone of the TV series; both the books and the show are basically the definition of family-friendly programming. (Wholesome life lessons are woven throughout the episodes, and any romantic relationships are barely shown onscreen, let alone discussed. The main will-they, won’t they couple in the first season, for example, finally seal the deal with their first kiss in the season finale.)

Season six debuted on February 24, 2019, to the highest ratings for a premiere episode in the show’s history, with 3.1 million viewers. The episode didn’t quite eclipse the show’s all-time highest rating of 4.8 million viewers from the two-hour holiday special on December 25, 2018, which was also the highest-rated telecast to date for Hallmark. The premiere was cable’s second-most-viewed scripted series of the week, behind AMC’s The Walking Dead — not to mention that it was competing with the 2019 Academy Awards, which aired the same night. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime have helped the show expand its reach; When Calls the Heart is the most binge-watched show in the state of Utah.

An army of dedicated superfans, affectionately nicknamed the Hearties, are behind these numbers. The show’s official fan Facebook group has more than 70,000 members, a number that continues to grow as more and more people find the show through Netflix — evidenced by the frequent posts from people who want to discuss major plot points from past seasons they just found out about for the first time. The Hearties go hard on Sunday nights as the show airs, encouraging each other to get the hashtag #Hearties trending and bragging about their stream of live tweets locking them in “Twitter jail, a temporary freeze on a user’s account when they tweet a suspicious number of times within an hour or day.

The fans also rally around specific hashtags to have their voices heard by Hallmark, like #Hearties4S6 to save the show immediately after the show paused, and #HeavenWouldBeSeasonSeven. Most of the cast members live-tweet the episodes on Sundays with the fans, and Krakow tweets a behind-the-scenes photo with the hashtag #SPS (sneak peek Saturday) every weekend before a new episode airs.

So why do fans love this show so much? They’re drawn to the relationships, both old and new, the mix of drama and action, and the overarching theme of hope. With the exception of some tragedy woven throughout the series, When Calls the Heart generally has happy endings, an escape from the real world that many people look to the Hallmark Channel’s programming to provide.

“Faith, hope and love, but in ways that are not corny? People are starving for this,” Sheri Lynn DiGiovanna, a member of the Hearties International board of directors, told the Washington Post.

The Hearties’ love for the show extends beyond the internet. Since the show aired in 2014, four events called the Hearties Family Reunion have taken place in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s a weekend packed with set tours, meet-and-greets with the cast, and a chance for superfans to connect with each other. Author Janette Oke even makes an appearance to sign her books.

What happened to When Calls the Heart post-admissions scandal?

On March 14, two days after news broke of Loughlin’s alleged involvement in the college admissions scheme, Hallmark pulled the next scheduled episode of When Calls the Heart. Fans worried that they should plan for the worst, but Hallmark insisted that it wouldn’t cancel the show entirely. “The show is one of our best performers in the Sunday night slot, and we’re are exploring all sorts of creative options moving forward,” a representative for Hallmark’s parent company, Crown Media, told Variety.

Producers on the show also worked to assuage concerns about the show’s future. On social media, they emphasized that the show was simply going on a “creative hiatus to do some retooling on the remaining season 6 episodes,” with the tacit implication that it was a result of Loughlin’s very un-Abigail-like alleged behavior.

Loughlin’s fellow When Calls the Heart actors mostly stayed quiet after she was indicted by a grand jury on money-laundering charges, only sharing notes of appreciation for the fan support — one example of the strong community built around the series — without commenting on the situation at hand. Krakow, who’s close friends with her co-star in real life, stayed off social media silence for nearly a month, only to break it by sharing a quote that her character says to Loughlin’s in the show.

Jack Wagner, who plays Bill Avery, a Mountie and forensic investigator in the series, recently said he felt the “five stages of grief” about Loughlin’s leaving the show, but kept his comments to how the cast and crew banded together. Only executive producer and co-creator Brian Bird has addressed the issue head on in a YouTube video, saying:

Some of you have asked what will happen to Abigail’s character, and shared your opinion that Hope Valley should be an example of forgiveness and grace. You know, as a human being, I couldn’t agree more, and Hope Valley will always be a place of second chances. But in the real world, that doesn’t mean that justice can be ignored. In fact, forgiveness and justice are sometimes flip sides of the same coin.

When Calls the Heart will go on, but will Loughlin’s character?

Loughlin’s Abigail has been edited out of the remaining season six episodes, but what the “retooling” means for the character’s story is still unclear. The show’s return will answer questions that many fans have been obsessing over for the past seven weeks. In the last episode she was in, Abigail was going head to head with the new town saloon owner, Lucas Bouchard (Chris McNally), who wasn’t keeping his word after he agreed to close up early and keep the noise down. As mayor, she led the charge for the town council to consider a new law about business hours. There was also a moment at the end of the episode between Abigail and former town mayor, Henry Gown (Martin Cummings), a complicated, layered relationship that’s been drawn out over the past five seasons, that made you believe there was more in store for those two.

Some Hearties support recasting the role of Abigail, while others think the producers should write out her character. But losing Loughlin either way comes as yet another blow to When Calls the Heart’s fans, who first suffered the departure of fellow former lead actor Daniel Lissing, who decided to leave at the end of the fifth season in April 2018.

Season six of Hallmark Channel’s When Calls the Heart resumes with new episodes on May 5 and 6.

Listen to this

Remember Aunt Becky from Full House? She might be heading to the big house. Fifty grown-ups, including Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, are facing federal charges over college admissions.

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