“When Calls the Heart’s” Brian Bird on adoption, mercy, and meaningful storytelling

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TV and film writer/producer Brian Bird doesn’t just incorporate the theme of adoption into his work because of his Christian faith, but for highly personal reasons as well. As such, the co-creator of the mega-popular Christopher Award-winning Hallmark Channel series “When Calls the Heart” is happy that its upcoming spinoff show, “When Hope Calls,” will further highlight the struggles of children without parents and the joys that the loving choice of adoption can bring.

In addition, Brian is also someone who lives out the virtues of love and mercy that are embodied in the characters on “When Calls the Heart.” Despite the unexpected challenges he’s faced in the last few years, including the departures of two of the show’s original stars (Daniel Lissing and Lori Loughlin) for different reasons, he remains a loyal colleague and friend to both.

During a recent interview on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below), Brian joined me to talk about the origins of “When Hope Calls,” which premieres on Hallmark’s streaming service Hallmark Movies Now on August 30th.

One of the jumping off points for “When Calls the Heart” six years ago was that many of the husbands and fathers in the town, now known as Hope Valley, were killed in a mining accident, leaving many children without their dads. “We wanted to expand on that theme in our Christmas movie last year,” said Brian, “and it just occurred to us that it was such a strong through line…The Hallmark Channel said, ‘This premise of an orphanage would make a really good central through line for another series.'”

And so, the “When Calls the Heart” universe is now expanding to the nearby Western Canadian town of Brookfield where two sisters, Lillian (Morgan Kohan) and Grace (Jocelyn Hudon), who were orphaned themselves as children, serve as surrogate moms to a group of kids who have lost their parents. Of course, there will also be the romance, humor, and sense of community that fans of the mothership adore in Hope Valley. And since the two towns are relatively close, there will be some crossover guest stars.

So why does the theme of adoption resonate with Brian? He explained, “My wife [Patty] grew up in tough circumstances, and she sort of lost her mother at an early age, and her father abandoned the family, and so it was an Oliver Twist lifestyle, or at least storyline, that she had to live in her childhood. So, she always had a heart for kids.”

Add to that Brian’s own experiences: “I had traveled the world as a journalist with World Vision Magazine prior to my career in film and television. That’s what I trained for as a journalist. And so I was exposed to the needs of kids around the world dozens of times during those years, and was in Ethiopia during the big famine. I was in Armero after the big volcano eruption in Columbia. I’ve seen children all over the world in deep need.”

Brian and Patty already had three sons, so they decided to put their faith into action by adopting a daughter, Meredith, from South Korea. Six years later, they adopted Mackenzie to make their family complete.

His wife and children, notes Brian, are “what motivates everything I do, and so for me, these themes are key…And I, personally, believe that adoption is in the DNA of the universe…It’s theological to me. As a Christian, we are told that God has adopted all of us into His family…So if adoption is that primal in the DNA of the universe, then it’s got to be an important theme for us here on this plane. So I’m excited that those kinds of stories are going to to be reverberating across the land soon.”

Telling those kinds of stories is what has made “When Calls the Heart” appointment television for millions of viewers – and the audience keeps growing. The show repeatedly became Sunday night’s most-watched or second-most-watched show on all of cable television for much of its season six run.

Fans even tell Brian they wish they could live in Hope Valley. He said, “It’s got all the challenges of life, but it’s a place that embodies the great virtues [of] hope, faith, and love in such a way that the audience has fallen in love with it, and they wish those values upon their own lives, and upon their own communities.”

Those virtues came in handy for Brian when he was faced with two difficult situations in recent years: 1) the departure of actor Daniel Lissing, who played Constable Jack Thornton, boyfriend and then husband of Erin Krakow’s Elizabeth Thatcher, who were the show’s original supercouple. 2) actress Lori Loughlin’s (Mayor Abigail Stanton) involvement in the much-publicized college admissions scandal, which led to Hallmark Channel cutting ties with her.

Despite the stress involved in dealing with these challenges, Brian looks at them from a wise perspective, noting that everyone’s life or family or business meets challenges: “You never know what’s around the corner, and I think you have to live your life in such a way as to open your arms up to whatever comes, trudge forward, and do your best…Step forward in faith. The best place, for me, in my life, working in a business that’s kind of crazy and competitive, but also full of yins and yangs and ups and downs…the best place for me has always been on my knees [in prayer], anyway.”

Brian continued, “Our attitude is: the world is full of people who have free will, and they do their best, and sometimes they make choices, or they make decisions that affect others. God bless them, we want to have grace for them, we want to do our best. I also feel like this is a show that has thrived on challenge. It’s a show about life challenges and how to get past them, and how to gather with your community together to make it through.”

Though the choices of the show’s former stars impacted their co-workers and the series, Brian makes it clear that he feels no ill will toward anybody. In fact, it becomes even more clear that Hope Valley’s virtues stem from the heart of a man committed to living them out in real life.

Brian said, “My friends, Dan Lissing and Lori Loughlin, I love dearly. Dan Lissing, he had aspirations that were beyond ‘When Calls the Heart,’ and so, if we were telling a story about that in Hope Valley, and someone had a dream, we would bless them. We would send them off to pursue their dreams with a, ‘God bless you,’ and, ‘We’ll always be here supporting you.’
In Lori’s case, we still don’t know where that’s all going to go. We don’t know what the justice system is going to … how that’s going to resolve itself, if it does. In her case, our take on that is that we love her, we support her, we always want for ‘When Calls the Heart’ to be a home that she can come back to if she’s able to resolve these things. But justice and mercy are flip sides of the same issue, in my mind, right? They can’t exist without each other. And so, while the justice system has to have its say…there is deep love and mercy for her as a human being, and we want nothing but the best for her, and whatever outcome comes.”

“I believe that adversity makes us better people,” Brian added. “I believe adversity on a television show makes it a better show. It can, at least. And we are going to be back for season seven, and we’re going to do our best to tell great stories, and to bless the socks off of the viewers as much as we can. And we will let them decide. They can be the judge and jury on whether the show should go on beyond that. I personally think it has many more seasons left in its bones, and so we will keep making the show as long as the fans and the Hearties, which we call the fans, they call themselves the Hearties, as long as they keep showing up, we’ll keep making the show.”

As Brian said, season seven is in the works. And, as is the case with the social media phenomenon of the Hearties, their wishes are taken into consideration when it comes to certain aspects of the show’s storytelling.

Brian explained, “The death of Mountie Jack only happened near the end of season five. So for season six, a lot of the fans were telling us, ‘Hey, don’t get Elizabeth matched up with somebody new so quickly. Let’s let her have time to grieve, and time to start raising her baby boy.’ And so, we heard them. That doesn’t mean there’s not some potential relationships. In fact, a couple of them, actually. We thought that would be a fun way to keep everybody incredibly invested in the show, and that’s going to resolve itself. That love triangle is going to resolve itself in season seven. I’m not going to tell you how, but I can tell you at least that much.”

The one constant on “When Calls the Heart” – that will carry over to “When Hope Calls” – is the presence of meaningful storytelling, grounded in Christian themes that are implicit, if not always explicit.

Brian noted that he and the show’s co-creator, Michael Landon Jr., had those kinds of stories in mind from the very beginning: “We’ve always felt like all good storytelling involves redemption…reconciliation and forgiveness, and sometimes even resurrection. Even if it’s not the literal resurrection, but it’s the resurrection of a dream, or of something that’s been lost to somebody…But we also knew that the media landscape had evolved in such a way as to move away from at least more explicit sort of faith-based or family-friendly programming.

“Look, I enjoy watching thrillers and shoot ’em ups sometimes, but if everything devolves to vampires and crystal meth dealers and dead body shows…then what we’re essentially doing is we’re leaving a giant audience underserved. So we also knew that those people would want a show like Michael’s father did – Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven – those kinds of shows that I certainly grew up with at a time when the networks actually catered to families. They had family-friendly programs on every night of the week, and that is no longer the case. And so, we’ve left this giant, underserved audience. Well, they need to be fed. Those people need soul food, and that’s what we hope ‘When Calls the Heart’ has become for them.”

(To listen to my full interview with Brian Bird, click on the podcast link):

Brian Bird interview (2019) – Christopher Closeup