TNT’s new Mystery Movie Night is a high-wattage resurrection of a classic television genre — the two-hour TV murder mystery. Adapted from bestselling authors including Scott Turow, Mary Higgins Clark and April Smith and chock full of stars, the six films airing in the next two months are a surprisingly mixed bag, proving that as ubiquitous and long-lived as it may be, the murder mystery movie is a deceptively delicate creature, easily thrown off by imperfect pacing, predictable dialogue or facile adaptation.
None of which, you will be happy to know, is a problem in “Scott Turow’s Innocent,” which kicks off the series. A deliciously hard-to-read Bill Pullman plays Rusty Sabich, a state judge who may have killed his wife, Barbara (Marcia Gay Harden), to be with his young intern/mistress. But Barbara is far from an innocently duped wife, and this is not Rusty’s first time in the murder rodeo. “Innocent” is an adaptation of the sequel to Turow’s genre-rattling “Presumed Innocent,” in which Sabich (played in the feature film by Harrison Ford) was accused of murdering his other young mistress. Although he was acquitted, not everyone thinks he was innocent, including and especially prosecuting attorney Tommy Molto (Richard Schiff).
The details of the first murder and subsequent investigation are hinted at but never divulged, an understandable decision considering that it is difficult to imagine a twist to top the one revealed at the end of “Presumed Innocent.” Still, the marriage of Rusty and Barbara is a bit inexplicable, all things considered, a relationship composed mostly of roiling anger at various levels of compression, held together apparently for the sake of son Nat (Callard Harris), despite the fact that he is an adult now.
But if the vagueness may irritate fans of the first book/film, it works well for the second, making this story a bit more open-ended and universal. No one makes bitter look as fabulous as Harden, and Schiff is perfectly cast as the older but wiser Molto, a man who, having screwed up once, now just wants to do his job to the best of his ability and then go home at 5. Except, of course, he can’t, not when there’s a chance of finally nailing Sabich, a guy who, innocent or not, has more than a few character defects. And it’s Pullman’s performance that makes the story so compelling. Having put his still boyish charm to psychopathic use on the recent “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” he makes Rusty difficult to categorize, all half-closed eyes and deceptively passive shoulders, a man who could either truly be weighed down with sorrow and tragic coincidence or one who, smooth to the point of oiliness, is the ruthless controlling force of the events as they unfold.
For mystery fans, the series sounds like cake. But even with the A-list authors and their fans, TNT is taking a bit of a risk — with all the good police procedurals today, we are not suffering from a lack of interesting crime-solvers, and not all the movies live up to the promise of “Innocent.” Indeed, the second in the series, Sandra Brown’s “Ricochet,” is just awful, despite its fine literary pedigree and a cast that includes John Corbett, Gary Cole and Julie Benz (Benz’s irregular and unconvincing Southern accent has something to do with it, as does Corbett’s attempt to channel Raymond Chandler despite his teddy bearish good looks.) But most are solid enough, with twisty plots, unsettling crimes and all manner of intriguing detectives to solve them. And if nostalgia for the glory days of the TV movie casts a forgiving glow over the proceedings, softening the errors and emphasizing the shine, well what’s wrong with that?