Watching mainstream TV makes Andie MacDowell anxious these days.
The Golden Globe-winning actress says that she can unwind only when watching reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” That’s why when the opportunity arose to star in the Hallmark Channel’s first original prime-time series, “Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove,” MacDowell didn’t think twice.
“We need diversity. We need to have options for everybody, and there aren’t many options for people who want to watch something wholesome,” says MacDowell over the phone from Vancouver, Canada, which stands in for the fictional town of Cedar Cove in Washington state. “A lot of people are complaining about the very real violence in the world. And I’m not saying there’s not a place for it — but we’ve got gobs of it on TV now. When you look back at programming 30 years ago, as opposed to today, you think, ‘How far are we willing to go?’”
The same could be said of sex. And even though MacDowell rose to fame in 1989 thanks to her role in the sexually charged — and at the time shocking — Steven Soderbergh film “sex, lies and videotape,” she’s happy that “Cedar Cove” presents love in a romantic and idealized form.
The initial response has been good. The premiere of “Cedar Cove” pulled in 3.8 million viewers on Saturday night and ranked No. 1 in social media as measured by Trendrr.
“Cedar Cove,” based on a series of books by the same name written by the bestselling romance novelist Debbie Macomber, stars MacDowell as Judge Olivia Lockhart, an attractive, single, middle-aged woman whose position at the Cedar Cove Municipal Court makes her a local celebrity in the quaint, sun-dappled village. Her love interest, Jack Griffith, is played by Dylan Neal, a hunky actor best known for the role of Dylan Shaw on “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Griffith is new to town and edits the Cedar Cove Chronicle newspaper.
In the show, small-town life is very Mayberry. Lockhart rides a bicycle to work, its front basket loaded with fresh flowers. She waves to families playing with their kids on green lawns. Her mother, played by Paula Shaw, is a sweet but chiding gossip; her daughter is artistic and free-spirited and knows how to shoot straight when it comes to her mother’s love life.
“I think it’s important that men and women of a certain age are represented on television, because there aren’t many places that you’ll see that,” says MacDowell, who at 55 looks every inch the stunning L’Oreal model that she is. “It’s so much fun, particularly at my age, to represent characters that are vibrant and sexy and romantic.”
And romance is what the Hallmark Channel is gunning for, says Michelle Vicary, Hallmark’s executive vice president of programming.
“This kind of programming is underrepresented, and we know there is a huge audience for it,” Vicary says. “Debbie Macomber has sold 170 million copies of her books. And there are 11 books in the Cedar Cove series — about this strong, unconventional leader of a town.”
Stories by Macomber have a proven track record at Hallmark. TV movies based on her books, including “Debbie Macomber’s Mrs. Miracle,” “Debbie Macomber’s Call Me Mrs. Miracle” and “Debbie Macomber’s Trading Christmas,” were Hallmark’s most watched movies for three years in a row, with each reeling in close to 5 million viewers during their respective premieres. They also ranked No. 1 among the coveted demographic of women ages 25 to 54.
Up until now, original movies were Hallmark Channel’s bread and butter. In 2012 it had six of the 10 highest-rated original movies on ad-supported cable. But starting with “Cedar Cove,” the channel plans to aggressively develop a string of original series, Vicary says.
“We are looking at three potential new pilots, with two airing this year and one early next year,” she says, adding that, from the beginning, working with Macomber on the first one was a no-brainer. Then when the idea of casting MacDowell came up, Vicary said, the station’s executives decided that no one else would do.
“She’s an international star and the face of our first scripted prime-time show,” Vicary says. “We just love her.”
MacDowell is happy to lend her star power to Hallmark and says that working on the show has been a pleasant and fulfilling experience. Part of her enjoyment stems from the show’s depiction of small-town life. MacDowell raised her children in small towns in Montana and North Carolina and says that a strong sense of decorum, community and good manners does still exist in such places.
“I know what small towns are like, and they are like this,” she says. “And it’s as if that world is no longer represented on television at all — as if it doesn’t exist. But I lived it, and it does.”
In a very real way, the town of Cedar Cove is its own character on the show. It’s quiet peacefulness facilitates the sense of romance that permeates the drama, as does MacDowell’s real-life attraction to her leading man.
“Every time I touch Dylan’s arm I swoon,” says MacDowell, laughing. “It truly is like something out of a romance novel. When you watch him walk into a room, you can see his pecs because of the way he cocks his shoulders, and I get a little breathless.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)