On The Way Home, a time-traveling pond takes a Canadian family back to the past to relive a tragic loss. Expectedly, the show has many twists, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that it’s on... the Hallmark Channel.
When my comfort network — the place I turn to for cozy romances and feel-good Christmastime fare — debuted The Way Home last winter, I was intrigued. The premise sounds more likely for the CW or a dark Netflix thriller. Theorizing isn’t something I usually do when watching Hallmark, but this invited a closer reading.
The series, whose second season premiered last month, untangles the divergent lives of three generations of women: grandmother Del Landry (a commanding Andie MacDowell), her daughter, Kat (Grey’s Anatomy alum Chyler Leigh), and 15-year-old Alice (newcomer Sadie Laflamme-Snow).
When the teenager inadvertently travels back to 1999 — right before her uncle disappeared as a boy — the women, convened on a family farm in New Brunswick, Canada, try to work through the reverberations of their loss. And, maybe, prevent it altogether.
As soon as I started the show, I was hooked. And I’m not alone. According to Nielsen data, The Way Home was the No. 3 most-viewed cable series of 2023, surpassing several titles in the Yellowstone universe.
Hallmark itself is the No. 1 entertainment cable network for women, according to Vulture. Another of its titles, When Calls the Heart, was the most-viewed cable series last year, per Nielsen.
Sure, Hallmark’s DNA is central to The Way Home — family, strong women, and a hint of romance — and nothing ever gets too distressing, despite the focus on grief. But still, the show feels decidedly different, like finding out your favorite bakery can somehow make an amazing pizza, too.
“People are so loyal to the brand, because they know that they’re safe there [and that] they’re not going to be offended or traumatized by this content,” says Evan Williams, who plays Elliot, family friend and crush-worthy accomplice to the Landrys’ time travel. “But we took that one step further and said, OK, from that base, how can we tell a story that has narrative heft that takes risks, that has stakes?”
The Way Home’s second season answers that more confidently than ever — using its familiar cast and Hallmark backdrop to give viewers padding for the thorny journey ahead (which, in Season 2, dives into an even darker, more distant past).
It’s also by bringing new perspectives into the fold. While most of the network’s rom-coms reliably center 30-something women, The Way Home’s Gen Z protagonist signals the show’s interest in expanding to a new demographic
“Seeing through Alice’s eyes gives an opportunity for different generations to watch the same show together and talk about things that reach all of us,” Laflamme-Snow tells Bustle from on set in Toronto.
Leigh agrees. She watched Season 1 with her husband, teenage daughters, and 20-year-old son — and their rapt attention surprised her. “Everybody was in the same place, so excited to see what was going on ... it’s pretty wild,” she says. “The response has been phenomenal.”
That’s not the only way the show and Hallmark are expanding its audience. The Way Home’s New York Comic Con panel in October 2023 proved the network is increasingly comfortable in genre storytelling. Last year’s holiday movies alone, for example, included a time-travel romance, a Family Man-inspired alternate reality, and a Hanukkah-themed spin on Groundhog Day, featuring a magic dreidel.
If you keep an eye on the credits, that might not be too surprising. The Hallmark oeuvre includes several films from writers who also pen horror — as Christmas at the Plaza scribe Ron Oliver once told Empire, “visuals are heightened” in both mediums, making the genre crossover a natural next step.
While it’s unlikely the channel will ever betray its conventions to the point of, say, Saturday Night Live’s “Hallmark Horror” spoof, The Way Home is still mixing things up in an exciting way.
“It gets pretty close to the bone,” Williams says. “Addressing grief, addressing different things that don’t have a lot of airplay on mainstream media. There’s room for it. I think we’re ready for it.”