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On the Tube:CBS sidesteps the sleaze by focusing on the unsolved mystery for the JonBenet Ramsey miniseries

Friday, February 25, 2000

By Rob Owen Post-Gazette TV Editor

Gut reaction: A TV movie about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey is just sleazy, tabloid junk.

Reality: "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town" is a fascinating true crime murder mystery.

Given the subject, it's understandable viewers might have preconceived notions about CBS's "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town" (9 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday). We've all seen the overblown TV news coverage, and most people are probably sick of the case. But "Perfect Murder," based on the book by Lawrence Schiller (who also directed the miniseries), goes beyond the headlines to examine the role of the examiners, the people investigating the still-unsolved murder.

"Perfect Murder, Perfect Town"

airs 9 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday on CBS.


The first hour of "Perfect Murder" depicts what you'd expect: Patsy Ramsey (Marg Helgenberger) shrieks hysterically and John Ramsey (a well-cast Ronny Cox) pounds the floor in grief when he discovers his daughter's body in the basement. (Note to CBS: Normally I'm all for realism, but was it really necessary to show JonBenet's rigor mortis-stiffened body as John carries her up the stairs?)

After the first hour, the Ramseys become secondary characters as the focus shifts to battles between the Boulder, Colo., police department and the district attorney's office.

To anyone who's followed the case closely, this behind-the-scenes approach may not reveal anything new (some news reports also covered the politics of the investigation). But viewers with a rudimentary knowledge of the case will find an absorbing drama in "Perfect Murder."

Unlike Fox's recent one-hour "mini-movie" -- a cheesy pastiche that offered multiple theories on who killed JonBenet, but seemed to point a finger at her parents -- "Perfect Murder" sides with Lou Smit (Kris Kristofferson), a detective who believes an intruder committed the crime.

Ultimately, there's not enough evidence to prove either the intruder- or the Ramseys-did-it scenario, but watching investigators doggedly pursue what they believe to be the truth is decent drama.

However, "Perfect Murder" is not perfect TV. In Sunday's first part it's especially difficult to figure out who's who among the investigators, a critical failure given the rift that's shown between the police and the district attorney.

In addition to the detectives, "Perfect Murder" makes a major character out of dweeby tabloid reporter Jeff Shapiro (Sean Whalen), who chats up the district attorney and plays double agent with the cops. Since so much time is spent with this character, why didn't Schiller explore the theory -- put forth by at least one supermarket rag -- that JonBenet's brother, Burke, killed her? "Perfect Murder" touches on this possibility, but never rules it in or out.

It can be argued that "Perfect Murder" further exploits an already exploited tragedy, but at least this production treads lightly when it comes to JonBenet, instead concentrating on those working to avenge her death.

Some say a TV critic's job boils down to this: We watch TV so you don't have to.

That mantra was on my mind as I prepared to view NBC's 10-hour miniseries, "The 10th Kingdom" (airing at 9 p.m. Sunday and March 5 and at 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and March 6).

'The 10th Kingdom'

(9 p.m. Sunday, NBC)


Though I can't recommend anyone waste 10 hours of his or her time watching this monstrosity, "The 10th Kingdom" could be a lot worse. It certainly offers a better story than November's "Magical Legend of Leprechauns."

New York janitor Tony (John Larroquette) and his daughter, Virginia (Kimberly Williams), stumble through a magic mirror and into the Land of the Nine Kingdoms. Their encounters with trolls, an evil queen (Dianne Wiest), Snow White (Camryn Manheim), a friendly half-wolf, half-human (Scott Cohen) and a prince who's been transformed into a dog make up the bulk of this bulky miniseries.

Unfortunately, "The 10th Kingdom" puts its worst foot forward Sunday. The first two hours are boring and humorless, mostly due to the trolls who constantly mutter, "Suck an elf" (it's some sort of profanity in fairy-tale land). Later installments have a better mix of adventure, comedy and, eventually, some psychological drama involving Virginia's feelings about her absentee mother.

There's certainly promise in the concept of an alternate dimension where fairy tales are alive. But who has time to commit 10 hours to a story told over five nights in a two-week period?

The actors do their best to bring believability to this fantasy, and it's largely their efforts that make "The 10th Kingdom" bearable. Larroquette's wily look fits his character, and Cohen's over-the-top Wolf is fun to watch.

In one of the stranger ironies of sweeps month, two actors from "The 10th Kingdom" also show up in CBS's "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town." Cohen plays "Murder's" Det. Steve Thomas, and Ann-Margret appears in the last installment of "10th Kingdom" as a 200-year-old Cinderella. She plays Patsy Ramsey's mother in "Perfect Murder."

Maybe children will take to "The 10th Kingdom" more than adult viewers, but parts of it are scary and violent, just like many fairy tales.

And even kids are likely to grow bored. For the attention deficit disorder generation, "The 10th Kingdom" spans six kingdoms too many.

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