Seldom has a death been such a celebration of life as in Sunday night’s live production of “The Execution of Raymond Graham” on ABC. And seldom has a significant story been so trivialized by intrusive, idiotic commercials.
Somehow a lilting commercial for Playtex Tampons seemed incongruous with a story set on death row.
The point of this brilliant, suspenseful, hammerlocking drama was delivered early on by Raymond Graham, the fictional convicted murderer played with aching and terrifying realism by Jeff Fahey.
“If it’s wrong for me to kill you,” he told a chaplain less than two hours before he was to be executed by lethal injection for gunning down a 17-year-old youth six years earlier, “it’s wrong for you to kill me. Legalized murder, that’s what it is.”
Polls show that a majority of Americans reject that position. Yet, personal philosophies aside, there was no disputing the eloquence of the argument against capital punishment in this masterful script by Mel Frohman.
Produced by David W. Rintels, superbly directed by Daniel Petrie and also featuring fine acting by Kate Reid, Laurie Metcalf, Karen Young, Graham Beckel and Josef Sommer, “The Execution of Raymond Graham” did not preach or spew false sentiment. Although a model prisoner, Graham was no saint, having killed his victim during a robbery merely because “he moved his hands and I told him not to.”
The story--ABC’s first live drama in 25 years--asked us to value Graham’s life not because he was a good human being, but because he was a human being. It celebrated life, no matter how foul or despicable, by depicting state-mandated death.
And it succeeded, when the commercials didn’t get in the way. Consider:
A tense scene ended with one of Graham’s attorneys sitting in her car, spent and discouraged after being unable to reach the governor to plead for an eleventh-hour pardon.
A pert, joyous woman in a red jacket was suddenly singing about Ace Hardware.
In another extraordinarily well-constructed and highly charged scene, the same attorney had finally located the governor, a caring man and capital-punishment advocate who rejected each of her arguments. Drained emotionally, she picked up the phone to notify her partner of her failure.
Lots of people were suddenly on the screen singing about “Reunite on ice!”
Sixteen minutes before his execution, Graham asked the chaplain if he really believed in life after death. The chaplain nodded.
A bunch of people were suddenly on the screen depicting life after a frosty Amstel beer.
Commercials frequently broke the tone of “The Execution of Raymond Graham” the way a sledgehammer delivers a love tap. It’s true that commercials are the economic and spiritual underpinnings of most TV, yet it would have been nice if this bunch had been clustered to make them less intrusive. Instead, they jolted.
There just aren’t enough pauses in TV, no breathing room, no time for reflection. There is too much stopwatch and too little stop action.
Not too long ago, I watched a man die on “The CBS Evening News.” He was an Afghan rebel who had been hit during a fire fight with Soviet troops, and his death was captured on tape by a CBS crew.
He lay on the ground moaning, and then he was still and silent. I wanted to think about that and reflect on this man from another culture whose death I had just witnessed. But Dan Rather quickly said good night and was replaced on the screen by a jovial man selling electric razors.
Raymond Graham and his victim were not real, like the Afghan on the news, but that did not lessen the impact of their fates. Nor did it detract from the last two hours of Graham’s life or the countdown to his execution, which was TV’s most painful and horrifying death dance since “The Execution of Private Slovik” in 1974.
Eighteen minutes before he died, Raymond Graham routinely brushed his teeth. Nine minutes before he died, he routinely urinated. He was placed on a table in the execution chamber and strapped down before being administered the lethal dose.
He died quietly, witnessed through a large glass window by reporters and his family and the father of his victim, all having somehow become partners in a bizarre and barbaric ritual known as justice.