“Good Witch,” a Hallmark Channel show set in a middle-American small city, has excellent ratings but is ignored by critics.
For most of May, the No. 1 scripted show on cable (in three-day ratings) was AMC’s “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul,” a prime example of critically hailed, auteur-era, certifiably binge-worthy television.
And in second place each time — four straight weeks — was a show ignored by critics and never nominated for an Emmy or a Golden Globe (or any other major television award in the United States). “Good Witch,” averaging more than 2.5 million viewers on Sunday nights on the Hallmark Channel, consistently beat more talked-about shows like “Fargo,” “The Americans,” “Silicon Valley,” “Veep” and “Pretty Little Liars.”
Of course, we’re talking about the total-viewer ratings here — the ones that include human beings over the age of 49 who can still see, hear and manage a remote. When you look at the more advertiser- and hype-friendly demographics, “Good Witch” sinks like a conjuring stone. In the last week of May, it ranked 15th in the 18-to-49 ratings and 17th in 18-to-34. (And other shows may have accrued more viewers from video streaming.)
“Good Witch,” a gentle, sentimental prime-time fable set in an idealized Middle American small city (not an angsty suburb), is the show you find your parents or grandparents watching when you come home for a visit. In my day, I sat through a lot of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” For you, maybe it was “Everwood.”
Now in its third season, the show — spun off from a series of seven “Good Witch” television movies — updates the grandparent-friendly formulas. Religion is largely absent, replaced by the “magic” wielded by Cassie Nightingale (Catherine Bell), leading citizen of the exceedingly pleasant, pastoral town of Middleton. (It’s location is unspecified, though there have been indications it might be in Illinois.)
Cassie’s witchcraft is mild and undefined. At her New Agey gift store, Bell, Book & Candle — a homage to the 1958 film in which Kim Novak, starring alongside her “Vertigo” co-star Jimmy Stewart for the second time that year, played a well-intentioned witch — she knows just which tea or lotion will help a customer through a minor life crisis. Her real gift is an uncanny intuition she uses to nudge people toward the right path.
What’s most striking about the show — especially if you’re inclined to think that the age of its audience also implies a conservative cultural or political cast — is how thoroughly dominated it is by women. That isn’t necessarily unusual for a prime-time soap, but men in “Good Witch” are a particularly clueless and ineffectual bunch.
Nearly all agency in the show is female, as you’d expect from Hallmark. The main characters are women running their own businesses — Cassie has both her shop and a bed-and-breakfast; her friend Stephanie runs the local restaurant, the redundantly named Bistro Cafe; her cousin Abigail runs the flower shop. In a story in which everyone is on a spectrum from nice to mildly irritating, the villain is the self-absorbed but well-meaning mayor, Martha. (You know right away she’s different because of the theatrical, high-comic style with which Catherine Disher plays her.)
That focus on women is either undercut or reinforced, depending on your point of view, by the show’s corresponding focus on the mechanics of (chaste) romance. Cassie’s magic is most often used for matchmaking, and the show’s larger drama this season revolves around her own relationship with her prickly next-door neighbor, Sam (James Denton); an entire episode was devoted to whether he’d finally be able to tell her he loved her.
Men in “Good Witch” aren’t judged by their ability to orchestrate scams or kill zombies — they’re judged by whether they can be trusted to tell a woman the truth, and whether they try hard enough to make her happy. Binge-worthy or not, it’s a refreshing sentiment.