Barbara Lippert’s Critique

A patient lies on an operating table, and we think, “No, not another one!” At least five commercials in the past two years have used that same shock-value premise and gurney/surgical-scrubs setting. Paddle on, boys. The concept, like the money from that guy in the E*Trade spot, is comin’ out the wazoo.

But wait. The surgeon speaks. He has a robust, sonorous voice, and what he says is so edgy and unexpected that he manages to give us an out-of-OR-experience, a merry verbal chase in which we hang on his every word.

“Nervous, son?” he asks, patting the patient’s hand. “You probably feel the way Glenn Close’s character did when she first set eyes on Kansas in Sarah, Plain and Tall. Helpless. Friendless.” His voice is incredibly soothing, and those around him are so drawn to the yarn that an attending nurse turns the surgical spotlight from the patient to the orator/doctor. “But then she met the lonely wid ower Jacob, as played by Christopher Walken. And in time, she opened up his heart—much like I’m going to do to you today.” With that he smiles and snaps down his surgical visor.

We see a montage of a straw-hatted Glenn, widower-with-an-unfortunate-bowl-cut Chris, Michael Caine, James Earl Jones, etc. (what, no Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain?), and with that the Hallmark Channel is introduced. “The best stories stay with you long after the TV is turned off,” the announcer says.

After the montage, the payoff is equally good. “Is he … competent?” the poor neglected prone patient asks the nurse. “Christopher Walken?” she responds, spraying a hypodermic needle and looking dreamily into the distance. “He was excellent in that role!”

Smartly, the spot focuses on the heart, but not in the traditionally “heartwarming,” uplifting, Hallmark ian sense. What’s refreshing is the absence of sap. Instead, the three spots speak to something darker—our ironic love affair with television, a many-layered thing.

The surgery spot, plain and tall, is by far the best, because the actor never has to break his Walter Mitty monologue. The other two also spin amusing tales. In one, a guy is asked about himself by his date’s father and responds, “I’m a former housewife turned activist …” In the third spot, a New York cabbie in sists he’s being followed, ex plaining, “Ever since I established an underground railroad to help the French resistance, I’ve been marked for death by the Gestapo.” But the spots end up playing it safe, with the storyteller (practically having to clunk himself on the head) saying, “Wait, that was a TV show I saw last week.”

Well cast and acted, the spots play smartly on the idea of memory.

There’s a re liance on the power of the story (and the story within the story) and the classic TV scenarios (operating room, taxi ride, first date) to sell TV. But mostly, the spots succeed in speaking to how TV repackages our expectations. No matter how we felt about certain “Hallmark Hall of Fame” dramas the first time around—how corny or sentimental or sweet—now we feel only comfort, reassurance, escape, nostalgia.

The Hallmark Channel, which launched Aug. 5, was formed when Hallmark Cards Inc. and Crown Media Holdings took over the Odys sey Network. The channel offers some of Odyssey’s faith-based programming in the mornings, classic sitcoms in the afternoons and a movie at night. Original miniseries are in the works.

Given the nature of the new programming (H.G. Wells stories, etc.), this transported-by-the-story idea mimics the drama on the channel but is also a way to get funny, compelling writing into the commercials.

It’s an entertaining introduction to this new Hallmark Channel: When you care enough to repurpose the very best.