When news of the college admissions cheating scandal known as Operation Varsity Blues broke back in March, it rocked campuses across the country, from Yale to UCLA. But the revelation that wealthy parents paid into a scheme to get their kids into elite universities also rattled a humble schoolhouse in a small coal-mining town in Western Canada. I’m talking, of course, about Hope Valley, the setting of soapy period drama When Calls the Heart, whose star Lori Loughlin recently pleaded “not guilty” to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering.
After investigators accused Loughlin and husband Mossimo Giannulli of allegedly paying $500,000 to help their daughters get into the University of Southern California, the Hallmark Channel announced that When Calls the Heart would go on hiatus while the makers explored their “creative options.” They assured fans that the show would not be canceled, but Crown Media Holdings, which owns the Hallmark Channel, cut ties with Loughlin, leaving the fate of her character, Abigail Stanton, uncertain. According to Entertainment Weekly, when the show does return in May, it will have removed Loughlin entirely, a decision that reportedly required “highly creative editing, as well as some minor reshoots.”
If that move sounds familiar, it might be because Empire recently did the same thing with Jussie Smollett after he was accused of faking a hate crime, editing him out of at least two episodes of the show that had already been filmed “to avoid further disruption.” (Editing out a major character actually sounds very disruptive, but I digress.) There are currently no plans for Loughlin to return as Aunt Becky for Season 5 of Fuller House, which makes sense, given that she’s a pretty minor character and the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence would make filming difficult. But if her scenes for When Calls the Heart were already shot, what’s the harm in airing them and simply writing her character off next season instead?
The issue may be complicated by the fact that Loughlin is also a co-executive producer of When Calls the Heart, but she’s been an onscreen staple of the show since the very beginning, when it began as a TV movie in 2013. If the When Calls the Heart Facebook page is any indication, fans are split about the decision to cut her out of the remainder of Season 6. “That she broke the law and has been demonstrating an attitude that she could get away with it just shows her true nature of entitlement. Not Hallmark standards at all,” writes one commenter. But others call for a recast Abigail to remain even if Loughlin goes or share suggestions for how the character could be sent away or killed off at the beginning of Season 7. Still more are advocating for “forgiveness and second chances.”
That’s all very noble, but at the end of the day, there’s another, more practical reason to keep Loughlin around for now: When Calls the Heart has been a ratings boon for Hallmark, and the controversy surrounding Loughlin could actually work to its advantage if the network were willing to milk it just a little. Searches for the show saw a bump in March around the time Loughlin was charged, which could translate to a similar, curiosity-driven bump in ratings on May 5 when When Calls the Heart returns. But if Loughlin has indeed been edited out, there’s less of a draw for new viewers who have been following the scandal with interest.
It’s becoming unnervingly common for studios to respond to controversy with revisionism, deleting scenes or even entire works of entertainment (as with the Simpsons pulling an episode featuring Michael Jackson earlier this year) instead of acknowledging reality. Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in connection to Operation Varsity Blues, had her Netflix movie Otherhood postponed, but she still has a starring role in Ava DuVernay’s upcoming When They See Us. A trailer for When They See Us that dropped on Friday revealed that Huffman still plays a significant role, not having been scrubbed from the narrative as Loughlin has been.
Then again, it would certainly be interesting if When Calls the Heart kept Abigail around by replacing Loughlin with Christopher Plummer, instead.