Deliberating Virtues, Vices of Three Timely TV Movies
Plots featuring trials are old news, courtroom duels being among TV drama’s longest-running marathons, from Raymond Burr toying with hapless Hamilton Burger in antique “Perry Mason” to the current “Law & Order” on NBC and “Murder One” on ABC.
Yet it’s not courtroom actors but their target audience of 12 that most interests a moderately worthy new USA Network movie, “We the Jury.” Although fiction, it coincides with a 1990s reality: the media fixation on sensational cases that now widens the spotlight to jurors as well as attorneys and judges. And its timing is perfect, arriving during jury selection for Chapter 2 of O.J. Simpson’s odyssey through the courts.
Trial-oriented movies do continue to proliferate. HBO’s recent period docudrama “Trial of the Century” showed off the genre in top form, while its November movie, the mangled “Mistrial,” falls to the opposite extreme.
Meanwhile, Sunday’s ABC movie “Talk to Me” examines another striking media phenomenon of the age: destructive TV talk shows that produce as many victims as ratings points. It, too, is timely if garbled, a fictional companion, in tone, to an episode of “The Jenny Jones Show” that led to a Pontiac, Mich., murder trial now in process and being televised by Court TV.
“We the Jury” is a different matter. Rarely since “Twelve Angry Men,” Reginald Rose’s “Studio One” teleplay that was transformed into a splendid feature in 1957, has there been such emphasis on the chosen dozen in a dramatic work.
“We the Jury,” however, is no “Twelve Angry Men,” the earlier movie a virtuoso drama that found Henry Fonda trying to persuade his 11 fellow jurors to reconsider their votes to convict an accused murderer. Instead, Philip Rosenberg’s teleplay is a sort of “Twelve Angry Men” in reverse, with an abrasive juror (Conrad Dunn) the loner in holding out for a first-degree murder conviction in the case of a TV star (Lauren Hutton) who slew her philandering husband.
Jury selection by the lawyers dominates the initial portion of the movie, which is curiously devoid of emotional peaks. All the action is in the jury room after the trial, where personalities clash and the debate turns angry and bitter, with an ardent feminist (Nicky Guadagni) becoming the defendant’s most tenacious defender and an angelic woman (Kelly McGillis) the cool, logical voice of reason who bears the burden of ponderous moderation and wisdom.
“You’re a good and decent man,” she assures a juror uncertain of his thinking abilities. “That’s what being a juror is about.”
Although there’s enough intensity to keep you watching, the deliberations grow wearisome, and you may find yourself glancing at your watch during the haggling. And also thinking about the Simpson criminal and civil cases, for what’s most interesting about “We the Jury” is how it employs some of the cultural shrillness of the ‘90s that we’ve come to know primarily through television and trials.
There’s a jury consultant and strategy concerning the panel’s demographic makeup. A prosecution witness admits to selling her story to a tabloid for $10,000. A juror defies the judge’s instructions and takes notes, dreaming of a bestseller. And following the conclusion of the trial that TV has titled “the hottest show in town,” the courthouse steps are a stage where jurors deliver sound bites for the cameras, with a round of newscasts and talk shows undoubtedly in their futures.
The background for HBO’s muddled “Mistrial,” meanwhile, is a murder trial whose outcome sends a cop into an epic snit that is so preposterously executed that the entire affair becomes almost unwatchable. Yet this movie, too, wears familiar clothes, for something called the Justice Channel has its camera in the courtroom and is covering the trial with a host and the inevitable attorney as expert commentator. And the post-trial tumult is captured live.
As is the hostage crisis in “Murder: Live,” a movie you won’t see this month. That’s so even though its plot--about a father who takes drastic action following his daughter’s suicide due to an expose on a talk show--appears inspired by the Jenny Jones case, in which a guest fatally shot another man three days after the victim revealed a secret homosexual crush on the accused during a taping.
NBC delayed its movie after learning the airdate of ABC’s “Talk to Me,” whose idealistic young heroine, Diane Shepherd (Yasmine Bleeth of “Baywatch”), is swiftly disillusioned after getting hired as a producer for the “Howard Grant Show.” A hybrid of Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael and Jerry Springer, Grant (Peter Scolari) is manipulated by his ruthless witch of a producer, Sadie Burns (Veronica Hamel), who feeds him questions electronically and quickly dashes Diane’s hopes of creating meaningful TV: “We don’t do issues here. We do theater, confrontation, conflict, drama. That’s what the audiences are buying, that’s what we’re selling. You wanna do issues, you talk to Bill Moyers.”
Diane doesn’t, instead insinuating herself into the life of a young prostitute with noble intentions, only to see her benevolence end disastrously, thanks largely to Sadie.
Writer Dan Bronson says he conceived his teleplay before the Jones incident, but with such talk shows very much in mind. And “Talk to Me” does carry the trademarks, from angry, almost illiterate guests who are humiliated by the show to titillating topics. (“We’ve been talking with young women whose fathers flirt with their friends. But what happens when Dad’s flirtations turn serious?”)
Yet the story is predictable, the characters scrawnily developed (Grant is almost skeletal) and the theme of moral confusion muted by having everything associated with “The Howard Grant Show,” except Diane, cynical to the core.
Take the story’s most magnetic character, Sadie, for example, someone who would have been much more arresting if allowed to lower her mask (“I want tears or a fight in the first segment”) and be a somewhat different, more complex person away from the show.
It’s a missed opportunity. The great ambiguity of the people behind these shows is that they may be as decent as anyone on the home front but have absolutely no scruples about suspending their values on the work front and being hurtful and deceptive in the interest of ratings, money and power.
* “We the Jury” airs at 9 tonight on USA cable. “Talk to Me” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC (Channel 7). “Mistrial” airs Nov. 2 on HBO.
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