Olin's Stuart Makes Docudrama Worth Watching


September 25, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The docudrama "Good Night, Sweet Wife: A Murder in Boston" is bad "docu" but good drama.

CBS' dramatized version of the murder of Carol Stuart -- who was shot dead while on her way home with her husband from a childbirth class last October -- is filled with questionable facts and intimate events the filmmakers could only speculate about.

The film itself carries this disclaimer: "The following story is based upon actual events as reconstructed from news reports and interviews with participants. Certain characters are composites or fictionalized." The emphasis is added to show all the leeway the producers give themselves with this statement, which flashes on the screen for only an instant.

But the psychological drama of how a young middle-class man, Charles Stuart, came to apparently murder his wife and the child she was carrying in cold blood is impossible to turn away from. It is a compelling and unsettling trip -- like ratings-hits "Fatal Vision" and "Blind Faith" -- into the heart of darkness lurking under the surface of suburban calm and middle-class propriety.

CBS' drama -- at 9 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) -- makes no bones about it: Charles Stuart killed his wife. According to CBS, he shot her point-blank in the head, shot himself in the groin, then dialed 911 to make the phone call played and replayed around the country. He told police a black man jumped into their car at a stoplight and then shot them both after robbing them.

But Stuart was never convicted of the crime. About four months after his wife's murder, he committed suicide -- when his story about the black assailant started to come apart and police started investigating him. He was never charged or convicted of the murder.

So who is Arnold Shapiro, the producer of this film, to decide guilt or innocence, especially in an issue that is still as racially charged as this one is in Boston? Shapiro's major qualification seems to be that a camera crew from another of his shows, "Rescue 911," happened to be filming in Boston the night of the real-life murder and responded along with police to the 911 call. Talk about blurring of fact and fiction and possible confusion for viewers: A re-enactment of that phone call takes up the first half-hour of tonight's drama.

Should you watch it? Yes. Ken Olin, from "thirtysomething," plays Stuart with a fascinating edge. It is not a great performance, but it is certainly an interesting one. It is good enough to make us see ourselves in Stuart and wonder if we, too, are capable of the depravity this film convicts him of.

A footnote on further confusion for viewers. While Olin is starring as the evil husband, Charles Stuart, on CBS from 9 to 11 tonight, he will also be starring as the loving husband, Michael Steadman, on the season premiere of ABC's "thirtysomething" on WJZ-TV (Channel 13) from 10 to 11 p.m.

Call it The Two Faces of Ken. Also call it the kind of kamikaze counterprogramming on the part of CBS that has helped spell the demise of the Big Three broadcast networks.

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