What makes a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie is difficult to define, but you know one when you see it.
What you see is high-quality productions that don't pander to the lowest common denominator. You see telefilms that are literate, intelligent and populated by interesting and believable characters.
As the franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary with its 208th production, "The Flamingo Rising" (Sunday, 8 p.m., CBS/Ch. 2), it remains among the best of what television has to offer.
"We just try to make the very best films we can," said Brad Moore, president of Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions. "Our movies are always designed to be thoughtful."
Which is not to say that they're heavy, ponderous stuff. "The Flamingo Rising," for example, is full of humorous moments and quirky characters — set in the late '60s, it's about a rather unorthodox family.
Hubert T. Lee (Brian Benben) is a free spirit who decides to build a huge drive-in movie theater in Florida — directly across from a funeral home, sparking a feud with the funeral director, Turner Knight (William Hurt). Lee's wife (Elizabeth McGovern) is the level-headed one who tries to reign him in, and together they're raising two children (Christopher Larkin and Olivia Oguma) they adopted from a Korean orphanage.
"Flamingo" isn't one of Hallmark's better offerings, but it has its moments. And it has some wonderful characters. As with all Hallmark Hall of Fame movies, this one is about the relationships among those characters.
"There may seem to be a particular subject, but the real subject is always the relationship," said Moore, who added that the projects are chosen "very carefully."
"We look for projects — either books or plays or original stories — that really deal with relationships and the meanings of the relationships," he said. "We have a kind of phrase that we say: We don't want to just entertain, we want to inform and to inspire. It doesn't mean that we try to preach, but we do try to have some substance. And that substance sometimes can really be mainly entertainment with some wonderful, interesting characters, but from time to time we'll tackle some subjects, too."
Add to that a higher-than-normal budget and production values that rival those of a feature film and the Hallmark Hall of Fame achieves a distinctive edge. And attracts superior writers, directors and actors.
"For an actor with my background and training, a lot of TV can be short-order cooking, so I can be worried," Hurt said. "But in this case I wasn't because I know (director) Martha (Coolidge), and I knew Hallmark and I had seen a lot of things that I valued."