In ''Baby for Sale,'' the most recent Lifetime Original Movie that continues television's tradition of exploiting women under duress, Dana Delany yearns to adopt a sweet little European-born infant being peddled by a ''baby trafficker.'' When the kiddie cad turns out to be offering the same toddler to numerous clients, chasing the highest bid, Delany and her hubby -- the chin-gifted Hart Bochner -- vow to bring down the bad guy and rescue the tot.
Based on a true story, ''Baby'' is mawkish and predictable at every turn, but then, why shouldn't it be? It's following a time-tested formula: Find a subject with which women can empathize, play out a nightmare scenario, then allow the female protagonist to triumph. We're told at the end of ''Baby,'' for example, that the woman Delany portrays helped get baby-selling laws passed in New York. If you missed the first embrace, you can watch Delany hug her baby again on July 18 at 7 p.m.
This week, Lifetime airs an exceedingly peculiar yet insightful documentary that shows how the telepic formula has worked like a charm -- granted, a cheap, paste-on-jewelry charm -- for decades. TV Movie Superstars: Women You Love interviews stalwarts such as Meredith Baxter, Cheryl Ladd, Donna Mills, Jaclyn Smith, Connie Sellecca, and Judith Light as they watch clips from some of their social-realist epics. But the producers (who include Linda Ellerbee, slumming a bit from doing solid kids'-news specials for Nickelodeon) adopt a tone at odds with their subject. Surveying made-for-TV movies in which women are battered, addicted, stalked, and driven insane, ''TV Movie Superstars'' takes a lighthearted feminist stance in its narration -- ''[They're] empowering in every role they play!'' In the credits and leading into commercial breaks, Sellecca, Light, and others grin and boogaloo to cheesy disco music: That's a real eye averter. And sometimes, watching the clips, they comment sarcastically about their shoulder pads and hair faux pas.
But mostly, the actresses are earnest about their roles. ''I'm really proud of this one,'' says Light, who tears up as she looks at ''Murder at My Door'' (1996), in which she plays a murderer's mom. However, the scene -- ''Roseanne'''s Johnny Galecki walking into a burning house to his death while Light looks on in anguish -- is perfectly...laughable. Let's face it, an opus such as ''A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story'' (1992), about a woman prone to some extremely deadly outbursts, was schlock intended primarily to give Baxter a role that would show she had range beyond Elyse Keaton in ''Family Ties.'' Yet Baxter says she admired ''a woman [who] granted herself full permission'' to kill. ''I loved the empowerment of that narcissism,'' adds Baxter fervently. Despite spouting such psychobabble, Baxter comes across admirably and remains a prime example of why audiences like these movies: She's an actress who has faced down a mid-career crisis and emerged with dignity and a sizable paycheck. Jolly good for her! ''TV Movie Superstars'' also provides subtexts for the observant viewer: When Stefanie Powers reminisces about her 1989 movie ''Love and Betrayal,'' she notes that her costar, David Birney, became upset each time they had a quarreling scene because ''he was in the process of getting divorced.'' Gone unsaid is that he was, of course, divorcing the once Meredith Baxter-Birney.
The white, middle-class women portrayed in these movies are potent fantasy figures for a big segment of Lifetime's audience, and it's clear the actresses latch onto anything relatable in the soapy plots and junky dialogue. Says Mills of ''My Name Is Kate,'' for example, ''There's a lot of alcoholism in my family.'' Sellecca says filming ''A House of Secrets and Lies'' was difficult because she virtually reenacted an adulterous scene that occurred with her ''first husband.'' (She remarried, to John Tesh.) Maybe it's the still-raw emotions that burn through even the silliest scripts -- or the cheerful inanity of ''TV Movie Superstars''' framework -- that gives such mediocre movies an emotional power that resonates for millions.