I was pretty psyched to check out When Calls the Heart. Girls making their way on the frontier? Hell yeah. There’s been a gaping hole in my heart since CBC cancelled its spooky western Strange Empire, and I wondered if maybe this show would be the salve that I needed.
When Calls the Heart is not that show.
It’s set in a frontier town and it focuses on a female perspective, but where Strange Empire is stark and eerie When Calls the Heart is decidedly wholesome. In retrospect, this should have been obvious. It started its run on Hallmark, undoubtedly as something lighthearted and nonthreatening for a nice family to digest on a Sunday night. When Calls the Heart is charming, but it’s also unashamed sappy fluff.
The hour long drama follows Elizabeth Johansson, an heiress trying to make it as a schoolteacher in a backwater Canadian coal mining town. She works, and is sometimes at odds, with the mining widows of Coal Valley to give the town children a better life, and flirtatiously butts heads with the handsome Mountie who has been assigned to the valley, ostensibly as a constable, in reality under orders from Elizabeth’s tycoon father to look out for her. Obstacles come her way–missing town relics, the eviction of the widows–but a pleasant resolution is waiting at the end of every episode.
Elizabeth is scrappy, if a little bit bland. She’s clearly designed to be likable without being edgy, the probable mandate of the show. Much of her conflict comes from her role as a fish out of water/princess out of the castle in the rustic Coal Valley. She’s well bred and educated! She doesn’t know how to do laundry! She leaves her dress too close to the fire and torches an entire building! You know, every day quirky girl stuff on the frontier. This is also what sparks her banter with the Mountie, Jack Thornton. He resents her for taking him from work in a more exciting town, and she resents him for looking at her as spoiled and naive. This ignites a feisty dialogue, and since they’re also both politely good looking and Hallmark hero quality, there is an obvious attraction (in the most PG, family friendly way possible, of course!)
Watching the women of Coal Valley take their destinies into their own hands was fun. Elizabeth trying to forge her own path, the widows collectively owning the school, or fighting to keep their homes, was heartwarming if not enthralling. When Calls the Heart is not subversive and it’s not thought provoking. It’s not meant to be. It’s the television equivalent of warm oatmeal. It’s cozy, it’s filling, and it’s an easy thing to feed your kids, but it isn’t exciting. It doesn’t innovate. Put it on TV if you want something simple in the background, or are just really in the mood to shut off your brain to something saccharine.
Image via CBC