Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person. She was 53 years old by then - a grandmother.
With these words, Baltimore author Anne Tyler began her 2001 novel, Back When We Were Grownups, which the Hallmark Hall of Fame lovingly brings to the screen tonight at 9 on CBS (WJZ, Channel 13) with Blythe Danner as a Baltimore woman in late-midlife crisis who sets out to rediscover who she is. It is the third novel by Tyler to become a Hallmark movie, and once again, just as with Breathing Lessons in 1994 and Saint Maybe in 1998, television is enriched by the marriage.
Excellence begins with the talent that Tyler adaptations attract thanks to the remarkable characters found in her novels. Joining Danner in Back When We Were Grownups are Academy Award winners Jack Palance and Faye Dunaway, along with Peter Fonda and Peter Riegert.
As Dunaway put it in explaining why she took what is essentially a cameo role: "The first reason is that I've long been an Anne Tyler fan. She is such a lovely writer whose work has such glorious texture."
Television also is made better by the refreshingly different depictions that Tyler offers of heroines, families and what constitutes the good life. Grandmothers rarely get to play the romantic lead in prime time, but that's the story here. And, as might be expected in a Hallmark production, happiness is ultimately found within the family - though it is not a typical made-for-TV movie family by any stretch of the imagination. With Tyler, family is defined more by choices that characters make than it is by the blood the flows through their veins.
In Back When We Were Grownups, Danner plays Rebecca Davitch, whose husband died when she was 26, leaving her with four children - three stepdaughters, Nono (Betsy Brandt), Patch (Blake Lindsley) and Biddy (Stacy Edwards), as well as her biological child, Min Foo (Ione Skye). Along with a ramshackle house called The Open Arms, Rebecca also inherited her late husband's uncle Poppy (Jack Palance), now 99 years old.
As the film begins, the children have grown and Rebecca and Poppy are living alone in the big, old house that also serves as home to her event-planning business. Rebecca's career of catering parties for others is one of the truly brilliant aspects of the book and film: Tyler has created a character who helps others celebrate the joyous moments in their lives, but is really not a participant. It is during one of her own family gatherings that she realizes her life bears little relationship to the one she had imagined for herself.
"How on earth did I get like this?" she wonders.
And with that, she is off on a journey back to find the young man she jilted in college - as well as the young woman who left him to marry Joe Davitch and take up residence at The Open Arms.
Screenwriters Susanna Styron and Bridget Terry are guilty of crafting more Hallmark moments than seem necessary. But they and director Ron Underwood also stay true enough to Tyler's sense of storytelling that Rebecca's journey is full of small, wry surprises - several of which are not very pleasant.
As the TV scheduling gods would have it, Back When We Were Grownups will air opposite Desperate Housewives, the hit ABC drama about female angst, anger and discontent in the suburbs. Rebecca Davitch is dealing with many of the same issues and feelings as the ladies of Wisteria Lane.
The answers offered by Tyler and Hallmark are more traditional than those floated along the darkly comic cul-de-sac on ABC. But they also seem more grounded in life as it is actually experienced by many of us. And isn't it nice to have to choose between two engaging dramas featuring mature women rather than wondering why there are no roles for women older than 35 on TV these days?
Back When We Were Grownups
When: Tonight at 9
Where: WJZ (Channel 13)
In brief: Hallmark lovingly brings another Anne Tyler novel to television.