Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

TV Review: Promising “When Calls the Heart” needs time to develop

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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When Calls the Heart debuts tonight (1/11) at 9:00 PM ET on Hallmark Channel.

Synopsis (From the Hallmark website): When Calls the Heart tells the captivating story of Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), a young teacher accustomed to her high society life, who receives her first classroom assignment in Coal Valley, a small coal-mining town where life is simple, but often fraught with challenges. Lori Loughlin plays Abigail Stanton, a wife and mother whose husband, the foreman of the mine, along with a dozen other miners, has just been killed in an explosion. The newly widowed women find their faith is tested when they must go to work in the mines to keep a roof over their heads. Elizabeth charms most everyone in Coal Valley, except Constable Jack Thornton (Daniel Lissing) who believes Thatcher’s wealthy father has doomed the lawman’s career by insisting he be assigned in town to protect the shipping magnate’s daughter. Living in a 19th century coal town, Elizabeth will have to learn the ways of the frontier if she wishes to thrive in the rural west on her own.

The series is inspired by Janette Oke’s bestselling book series about the Canadian West, and reunites Oke with Executive Producer and Director Michael Landon, Jr.

Review: I really like the basic premise of When Calls the Heart — a beautiful young teacher from a wealthy family chooses to head west to take a teaching job in a Canadian mining town filled with quirky characters, including the handsome and cocky local Mountie. And, while I never read the Janette Oke’s books the show is based on, I have great respect of Michael Landon, Jr. and Brian Bird (both of whom I have interviewed) who developed and are producing the series under their Believe Pictures banner.

However, I must admit I found the two episodes make available for screening to be a tad uneven — which is not to say I’m not still pulling for the show. One need only look at the first episodes of Bonanza — the iconic western that introduced TV audiences to Landon’s father — to realize a show can have a rough start but develop into something memorable and long-lasting (14 years in Bonanza‘s case) if the basic premise is good and it is nurtured by people of talent. Both situations exist here.

In tonight’s opener, Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), leaves her cushy, well-to-do lifestyle back east to make it on her own as a teacher in Coal Valley, a Canadian community owned almost entirely by Joseph Montgomery (Peter Fleming), a sort of western version of Montgomery Burns, the heartless owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on The Simpsons. Due to a recent fire that burned down the church/school, her classroom is the local saloon which is closed for business in the daytime and is virtually the only local establishment not owned by Montgomery.  That’s a really funny idea that I think could have been played up more in the pilot — and should be in the future. For instance, there’s a potential for comic conflicts between Miss Thatcher and the saloon owner.

Before she even starts teaching, however, things start heading south for the westward ho! would-be teacher. First her stage coach is robbed en route — which has nothing to do with the rest of the story except, I guess, to demonstrate that she had a really hard time even arriving at her destination. The whole robbery scene struck me as rather rushed and the stage coach driver just seemed to disappear in the middle of it with no explanation. It may have actually been funny if he was shown running away leaving his hapless passenger to fend for herself.

Then the all-female school board gets a look at what they see as a soft-and-pampered easterner has what it takes to control — and teach — a bunch of miners’ kids.  One of the women, Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin) who lost her husband and son in a recent mine explosion that also turned several other townswomen into widows, goes to bat for her and convinces the others into giving her a shot. Having barely made it through that hurdle, Elizabeth accidentally burns down her own quarters and is taken in by Abigail. Again, a mishap that I think could have been played to greater comic effect.  BTW, I also think it would have been wise to give Abigail a surviving child both to give a greater interest in the future of the school and to add layers to the home scenes.

Before long Jack Thornton, a good-looking Mountie (and obvious potential love interest for Elizabeth), rides into town as its new constable. Before that (without the benefit of the press release), I would have had absolutely no idea that Coal Valley was in Canada, a fact I believe should have been established earlier (as well as exactly where back east Elizabeth is from). Likewise, when Mr. Montgomery first arrives on the scene, he does so in an aristocratic turn-of-the-century automobile. Prior to that scene, I had the time pegged in the 1870′s. The time frame, IMHO, also should have been established upfront in the story.

Anyway, when Thornton comes to suspect that Elizabeth’s powerful father pulled some strings to get him assigned to Coal Valley to watch after his headstrong daughter, he resents it — and she resents him for thinking it (especially since she suspects his suspicion to be true). Amidst their tension, however, is an undeniable attraction and there you have the basic underpinning of the show. And there is an actually chemistry between the Krakow and Lissing that director Landon skillfully elicits.

There are lots of possibilities — to develop Coal Valley’s collection of offbeat townies (like the British hit Doc Martin) and class conflicts between Montgomery and his miners (like the even bigger British hit Downton Abbey). I find Montgomery, BTW, to be, in some ways, the show’s most interesting character.  He’s not a nice guy — but he’s not completely evil either. Finding his humanity could provide some interesting future episodes.

And I hope the show gets those future episodes. As Abigail Stanton tells Elizabeth in one key scene that solidifies their friendship “The first few days might be a bit bumpy but I have every confidence in you.” That pretty much sums up my feeling about this show. I hope audiences find it, give it a chance to grow and stick with it. And, of course, I hope Hallmark does the same.

When Calls the Heart is Recommended.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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