They're trashy and tawdry as can be, but the Lifetime movie is also an American national institution. And Will Ferrell's A Deadly Adoption is by no means the most ridiculous

Last night, the US cable channel Lifetime aired A Deadly Adoption, starring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. Because it stars two of America’s best-known comedians, it was thought that the film would be a spoof, but the movie’s trailers seem to suggest that the pair is playing it pretty straight. Perhaps that’s because the Lifetime movie is beyond satire.

It’s also an American institution. In 1990, the channel produced its first film, Memories of Murder, the story of a happily married woman who becomes an amnesiac, while also fending off a female serial killer. According to the Los Angeles Times, the film was "amazingly pedestrian": and so began a great tradition.

For the next 25 years, Lifetime would buy up and churn out a wealth of wonderfully bad films, running the gamut from weepy melodramas to spurious biopics and trashy thrillers. Here’s what you need to know about them.

In a Lifetime movie, everything that could go wrong, does

The storylines of Lifetime movies tend to be hot-button issues, stories ripped from the pages of the tabloids. Attractive, nice-seeming men turn out to be drug addicts, thieves and murderers. Sexting teens end up losing the use of their legs, or dead. People who look at porn become addicted to it and end up destroying the lives of everyone they love.

You imagine the writers must be nervous wrecks, hunkered down in a bunker somewhere, worrying through endless worst case scenarios. In an interview with The Washington Post, Arturo Interian, a producer of original movies at the channel, explained how the process actually works.

“We would literally sit around a room and talk about all the horrible things that could happen to teens, or what teens could do,” he said. “Someone said ‘What if a teen’s addicted to Internet porn?’ And we said ‘Great!’”

Lifetime movies have their own roster of stars

If you want to know whatever happened to 90210’s Tori Spelling, or Saved by the Bell’s Tiffani Amber Thiessen, head on over to Lifetime. In that alternate universe, those ladies are bona fide stars.

Ivan Sergei and Tori Spelling in 'Mother, May I Sleep with Danger' Credit: Getty Images

Spelling had a particularly hot streak in the Nineties, starring in classic Lifetime fodder such as Co-Ed Call Girl, Death of a Cheerleader and Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? In more recent years, she’s become the main attraction in the channel’s reality show True Tori.

But they also set some famous actors on the road to stardom

Everyone has to start somewhere, and just as you might spot a James McAvoy or a Keira Knightley in an episode of The Bill or Casualty, so too might you spy a genuine Hollywood star in a Lifetime movie. A selection:

Christina Hendricks played a teenager whose controlling mother forced her into anorexia in Hunger Point (2003).

Christina Hendricks (centre) in 'Hunger Point' Credit: Hallmark Entertainment Distribution

In Dying to Belong (1997), Oscar-winner Hilary Swank is forced to eat broken glass in order to join a prestigious college sorority. Co-stars include Mark-Paul Gosselaar of Saved by the Bell, and Jenna von Oy of Blossom.

Hilary Swank in 'Dying to Belong'

Kirsten Dunst took the title role in the baldly titled Fifteen and Pregnant (1998).

Kirsten Dunst in 'Fifteen and Pregnant'

The High School Musical tween idol Zac Efron played one of a pair of autistic brothers in 2004’s Miracle Run.

Zac Efron in 'Miracle Run'

A 19-year-old Keri Russell is ensnared by a married man in The Babysitter’s Seduction (1996).

Keri Russell and Stephen Collins in 'The Babysitter's Seduction'

Lifetime biopics: rewriting history since 1990

They’re some of Lifetime’s most high-profile films: tawdry re-enactments of the brief lives of celebrities such as Brittany Murphy, Anna Nicole Smith and Aaliyah, generally starring actors who look precisely nothing like the people they're meant to portray.

The Aaliyah film, The Princess of R&B, plumbed especially awful depths by presenting the singer’s underage marriage to R Kelly as sweetly romantic.

Fun fact: Grace of Monaco, the Nicole Kidman-starring Grace Kelly biopic which failed to get a cinematic release after being trashed by critics at Cannes, had its television premiere on Lifetime. The whole sorry thing was live-tweeted by the film’s writer, Arash Amel.

Nicole Kidman in Olivier Dahan's 'Grace of Monaco' Credit: AP Photo/Cannes Film Festival

They employ more female directors than anyone else

According to statistics gathered in 2014, only seven per cent of Hollywood movies are directed by women, and only 11 per cent are written by them. For Lifetime movies, however, that figure rises to 20 per cent for directors, and 43 per cent for writers.

Among the directors are established names such as Mary Harron (American Psycho), as well as first-time helmers such as Angela Bassett, who directed a biopic of Whitney Houston earlier this year.