Leave it to VC Andrews to mix in coming-of-age and some kind of warped incest angle with her wildly unpredictable Cutler Saga. The book series may have been ghostwritten, but it captures every bit of the classic Andrews vibe permeating throughout Lifetime’s other adaptations including Flowers in the Attic and Ruby. This time around, domineering matriarchs, forbidden romances, and delectable family secrets take center stage, supported by an ensemble cast that devours their bitchy dialogue with aplomb. In order to critically examine the four-film series at large, the best course of action is to review them piece by piece. Strap in tight for a bumpy trip into Cutler’s Cove, and get ready for some juicy family drama!

Her parents named her Dawn because she was born at the break of day, our lead (Brec Bassinger) narrates at the top of the first feature, Dawn. Constantly on the move, the Longchamp family is always having to settle for being the new people in town. They even have an adorable little family huddle, where they proudly proclaim “family together, family forever.” Our first hint at the incesty trappings of VC Andrews comes when Dawn’s brother Jimmy (Khobe Clark) makes eyes at her while they are both getting ready to head off to the newest destination. Ormand (Jesse Metcalfe) promises that this time will be different—destined for Richmond, Virginia, Ormand will be starting at the prestigious Emerson Peabody School as the new Head of Maintenance. His occupation also means a spot for his kids at the school, which Ormand says could be great for Dawn’s interests as a vocalist. Circa 1973, the world of the Longchamps is about to change forever.

As Dawn starts at Emerson Peabody School, she does not fit in with her elite classmates, particularly the nasty Clara Jean (Elyse Maloway), the heiress of wealthy hotel family the Cutlers. Catty high school drama ratchets up as Clara’s brother, dashing womanizer Philip (Dane Schioler) takes an interest in Dawn. At home, Dawn’s mother is deeply pregnant and about to have a baby. In a shocking turn of events, Dawn discovers that the parents who have raised her are not at all who they appear to be. In the blink of an eye, Dawn is thrust into the family of the Cutlers, overseen by awful matriarch and worst grandparent of all time winner Lillian Cutler (Emmy-winner Donna Mills). Dawn finds herself living in Cutler’s Cove, as her father is carted off to prison and her brother, Jimmy, discarded away to the foster care system. Lillian’s abhorrent behavior, as performed in wicked stern glee by Mills, clashes against Dawn’s brightness and hopeful attitude.

The series-starter here has just about anything one would want from this type of flick, and perfectly emblazons the craziness of Dawn’s new existence. A brother-sister-brother love triangle flips the script on expectations, and builds Dawn up as a character the audience can root for. Near the end, Dawn even gets a proper mic drop moment that is among some of the best VC Andrews has to offer. The explosive nature of this entry right out of the gate subsequently makes the second entry, Secrets of the Morning, considerably less exciting. A shift to New York City and the legendary Bernhardt School of the Arts refreshes the locale at least, but plot-wise there feels like too much regression of Dawn’s badass character.

A big addition in this sequel comes in the form of retired actress Agnes (Fran Drescher), headmistress of a boarding house Dawn resides at while in school, and Dawn’s friendly roommate and confidante, Tricia (Corey Woods). Both are scene-stealers, but sadly underutilized. Dawn’s hunky brother, Jimmy, makes more than one appearance as she still pines for him and his chiseled abs. Michael Sutton (Joey McIntyre) swoops in, a renowned Broadway star, to further confuse Dawn as she tries to figure out a life’s journey for herself. Lillian finds a way to attempt control over Dawn even while out of the picture—Agnes is left a specific set of instructions that Dawn must adhere to while under her care.

A few twists and turns here and there may cause exciting ripple effects in subsequent installments, but the story told is much more streamlined and straightforward than it was in Dawn. The bulk of Secrets of the Morning is mostly spinning its wheels until an epic final few minutes totally changes the game going forward. I expected the third entry, Twilight’s Child, to explore Dawn and Jimmy hunting down a missing member of the family; surprisingly, the film instead begins with a bit of a flash forward. It is 1975, and Dawn and Jimmy start a new life with daughter Christie in tow. Dawn’s mounting responsibilities as new owner of Cutler’s Cove Hotel weigh heavily. She tries her hardest to be the best mother and wife possible, but how can Dawn escape her past? An alleged Cutler family curse, a trademark of Andrews, weighs down Dawn’s attempts at happiness. She becomes quite literally haunted by ghosts of the past, leaving ample room for past characters to reemerge.

Whereas Secrets of the Morning felt a little hollow, Twilight’s Child gets back into the swing of things in a bold way. Lifetime wisely chose to keep the cast the same through all four of these movies, minimally aging them up. In my opinion, this actually works in Dawn’s favor—as an audience absorbing these hour-and-a-half dramas, connecting to the core characters works so much better when we can actually follow them onscreen. Does anyone really care if mothers and daughters look to be the exact same age? If anything, Brec Bassinger and Khobe Clark rock their new hairstyles and spectacles with style.

Twilight’s Child ends with an exciting one-two punch of character deaths, and emotional highs for Bassinger’s Dawn that would be difficult to follow up in even the most perfect of circumstances. The film doubles down on the cursed family elements, and has fun reveling in its ridiculous twists and turns. Final entry, Midnight Whispers, already had its work cut out to close up the Cutler/Longchamp saga in a satisfying way. Dawn’s daughter, Christie (Megan Best), has had a relatively normal upbringing considering her mother’s dark past. With dreams of playing at Carnegie Hall on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Christie learns about the Cutler family curse from Dawn just as she herself is faced with terrible tragedy. Hilariously, Dawn discloses this information just minutes after Christie’s narration tells us Dawn does not like talking about her past.

Keeping it in the murky incest waters, Christie has fallen for her cute uncle, Gavin (Emrik Lopez), who becomes her rock amongst the horrors. Christie must find a way to shield her brother, Jefferson (Sawyer Fraser), and break free of the Cutler curse forever. Dane Schioler’s despicable Philip gets the most to do here, and abhorrent wife Betty Ann (Chelsey Reist) is perhaps even worse. Midnight Whispers feels like more of a reset than a proper conclusion, but it still carries the propulsive energy of Twilight’s Child across the finish line. At the very least, two major face-slaps will prove a memorable and altogether satisfying device.

Measuring the films against one another, my two favorites were definitely Dawn and Twilight’s Child—both give Bassinger excellent material, while reigning free in the VC Andrews sandbox. I think fans of Lifetime’s previous Andrews entries are going to be thrilled and entertained with the arrival of another explosive family saga. What more could one really desire, short of a decadent piano cake?

VC Andrews’ Dawn, the Lifetime limited series, cooks up a dark and twisted take on romance when it debuts the first film on Saturday, July 8th on the Lifetime channel. The original Cutler series by VC Andrews is available for purchase in trade paperback, eBook, and audiobook formats wherever books are sold.

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