The period series from the Hallmark Channel starts like this: Elizabeth, a young teacher accustomed to her high society life, receives her first classroom post in a small prairie town in the Western Frontier. She must deal with her restless students as well as the new Constable in town, Jack Thornton. Sounds good, right?
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Willow and Thatch was raised on the family friendly television period series “Little House on the Prairie,” alongside “The Waltons” and “Grizzly Adams,” and then grew up to love other frontier period dramas. So why did it take me 3 years to watch “When Calls the Heart”?
I give you the True Confessions of a Heartie.
Why wasn’t Willow and Thatch watching “When Calls the Heart”?
It wasn’t because I hadn’t heard of the television series. In fact, any self-respecting period drama aficionado knows that the show has a huge dedicated following, and can hardly avoid knowing about WCTH (the acronym frequently used by fans of the show, known as “Hearties”).
It was because I completely judged the show without having watched it.
My first confession: I thought that the promotional stills I saw made WCTH look, to put it kindly, cheesy. In many of the photos, the actors, who were supposedly living in 1910 in Western Canada, were wearing too much make-up, non-period hairstyles, and inauthentic costumes.
Some of the photos make it look like the show is set at the turn of the century – but the wrong one. The photo below looks as if it could be the 1990s, and no, this isn’t a behind-the-scenes shot.
I also had heard that WCTH was a “clean” period show, which is more than fine with me, as I have a soft spot in my heart for wholesome period dramas. WCTH is produced by Michael Landon, Jr. – the son of “Little House on the Prairie’s” actor / producer Michael Landon, and I was already a “Little House” fan. However, some of the chatter around said cleanliness made WCTH sound like something best described by the French word douceatre. The closest English equivalent is might be sickly sweet but vapid. Ouch. With so many quality costume dramas available, it didn’t sound as if WCTH had much to recommend it.
Eventually I gave in – and tuned in. After all, it was nearly my duty, as Willow and Thatch, to watch WCTH. I’ve already said that these are the confessions of a Heartie – and that Hearties are big fans of WCTH… so what happened to bring me around?
Before we go there, for the record, I still have a few gripes that I’d like to get out-of-the-way: some of the pastel coats worn by the women really remind me of bathrobes, the character Rosemary Leveaux is (initially) so bubbly she’s nearly the personification of champagne, and some of the child actors are still finding their way. There’s a character who I find particularly difficult to watch. It’s not so much because we aren’t supposed to like her at the outset, as it is that I think she was miscast, but I don’t want to be unkind so I’ll leave it there.
Still, I can live with all that, because Willow and Thatch is now officially a Heartie. Here’s how I joined the ranks, and why:
I decided to cut it some slack: After all, WCTH is a G-rated family Hallmark series with episode titles like Love Comes First, Second Chances and Change of Heart. It’s set on the edge of the frontier, in a small town that went from being Coal Valley to Hope Valley, because of its good people. There are plenty of Hallmark Christmas movies that I allow myself to watch with my disbelief and criticism checked at the door, because ultimately the experience is heartwarming. So why not apply this same approach to WCTH? I did, accepting the television series for what it is, and it worked.
The values are in line with my own: WCTH revolves around themes of community, kindness, redemption and second chances. Having faith that one’s life has a purpose, friendship and family are paramount. People communicate with one another, and show compassion for the less fortunate, and for animals.
Elizabeth and Mountie Jack’s dynamic is dynamic: You’ll have to trust me on this one, because I can’t tell you about it without spoiling things for you.
The costumes aren’t meant to be historically accurate: Since season 2, Allisa Swanson and Barbara Gregusova have been the costume designers for WCTH. It turns out that “Hallmark Channel asked Gregusova to keep within the network’s romantic design aesthetic to ensure that all Hallmark Channel’s productions maintain a signature look and feel.”
Additionally, there isn’t the time or the budget to constantly create costumes for the whole cast that are authentic to the era, so costuming a ‘stylized 1910 period’ means that Gregusova can sometimes rework vintage and modern clothes instead of building from the ground up. Swanson said “We’ve taken liberties, as all costume designers do when it comes to making things that are somewhat period appropriate, but also something the audience can relate to that still tells the story of the character. We’re bending the rules, we’re making it a little bit more palatable to our current-day audience than what they actually would have worn, which is okay, because it is almost like a romantic fantasy.”
I don’t like it – (and neither do these 100 people who signed a petition to make the clothes less modern) but I can live with it, knowing the reason behind the outcome.
It’s romantic, but lighthearted too: In some ways, the romance is the most real thing about WCTH. Sure, the romance is idealized and glorified, but among the (mostly) chaste kisses you’ll find good-natured teasing and robust bantering – and plenty of obstacles that need to be overcome. Sometimes the romantic longing is so palpable that you can practically see hearts popping above our character’s heads, but overall WCTH rarely takes itself too seriously in this department. There’s a sweetness to the way the love stories are portrayed, partly because they are filled with fun, and remind us of the best of the romances in our lives.
It’s totally binge-able: There’s something about the way WCTH always wraps on a little cliffhanger that makes me want to play the next episode, even if it is past my bedtime. The episodes are nicely divided where the TV breaks would be, so I can also get a little WCTH fix when I can only have time to catch part of an episode.
It’s action-packed: There’s adversity and drama and tension but it never gets so intense as to break the reverie.
The women are strong: There are almost no wilting violets here. With true frontier spirit, these are independent women who came out west in search of a better life (or to make the lives of others better). The women are really the fabric of WCTH. They’ve know adversity, but have the courage to remain open to love and joy, and continue to support each other.
It’s pretty and fierce: The mountains in the distance are powerfully beautiful and elements of nature often come into play in the storyline. Additionally, the sets, particular inside the houses and the cafe, are done fairly well and there’s a homeyness that is comforting. There’s laundry on the line, and no shortage of homemaking related things, like Mason Cash bowls and aprons and pinafores to look at. There’s almost always tea when it’s needed, pie in the pie-safe, and a charming one-room schoolhouse.
It’s escapism at it’s best: In general, the children do as they are told, the men look the women in the eye and share their feelings, the women have each other’s backs, and the community bands together for the good of all. There are villains, but they are there to show right from wrong, and no matter what is happening, there is always hope. Along with the earnest and teary exchanges, there are plenty of lighthearted moments. In short, WCTH is calming to watch while being uplifting, and always leaves me with a smile on my face. Consider me a Heartie. Sorry it took me so long.
“When Calls the Heart” is only available on Netflix until January 25, 2021, but you can also stream full episodes here.
“When Calls the Heart” is available on DVD.
The series is inspired by Janette Oke’s bestselling book series about the Canadian West. Oke is celebrated across the world for her significant contribution to the book industry. She is credited with launching the modern era of inspirational fiction with the publication of her first novel, “Love Comes Softly,” in 1979. Look for Janette’s newest book, “Where Courage Calls,” a companion story to the “When Calls the Heart” TV series.
More about the TV series: When Calls the Heart tells the story of Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), a young teacher accustomed to her high-society life. She receives her first classroom assignment in Coal Valley, a small coal-mining town in Western Canada which is located just south of Robb, Alberta. There, life is simple—but often fraught with challenges. Elizabeth charms most everyone in Coal Valley, except Royal North West Mounted Police Constable Jack Thornton (Daniel Lissing). He 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. The town of Coal Valley was renamed Hope Valley in Episode 2, Season 2 after the coal mine was closed.
Living in this 1910 coal town, Elizabeth must learn the ways of the Canadian frontier movement if she wishes to thrive in the rural west on her own. Lori Loughlin portrays Abigail Stanton, a wife and mother whose husband, the foreman of the mine, and her only son—along with 44 other miners—have recently been killed in an explosion, which turns out to have been a tragic accident waiting to happen—a result of the mining-company site manager’s irresponsible management and lack of due care in his management of the mine. The newly widowed women find their faith tested when they must go to work in the mine to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and compile a wage for the town’s teacher.
Starring Erin Krakow, Daniel Lissing, Lori Loughlin, Martin Cummins, Gracyn Shinyei, Loretta Walsh, Jack Wagner, Pascale Hutton, Brooke Shields.
Be sure to wander over to the Best Period Films List for more suggestions of what costume and historical dramas to watch. You’ll especially like the Best Period Dramas: Family Friendly List. You may also like 10 Family Victorian Christmas Movies and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.