"Mother Love," the four-hour three-parter that opens the 11th season of PBS' "Mystery" series, is not really a mystery. It's a psychological thriller.
You know who the bad apple is right from the start. What's at question is whether everyone else will realize exactly how bad she is before it's too late.
At its heart, "Mother Love" is an affirmation that honesty is the best policy. The lies that form its plot create an extremely tangled wed, but those who wove it thought it was enclosing their prey when actually they were just constructing a stage on which this black widow could go about her evil ways.
But, most of all, "Mother Love" is an opportunity for Diana Rigg -- who is also the host of "Mystery" -- to give one of those wonderful overwrought, edge-of-hysteria performances. Her reading of Helena Vesey is right up there with Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" or Faye Dunaway in "Mommie Dearest."
As with those two characters, Helena is a woman who everybody knows is a bit off, but the accepted conclusion is that her psyche is too fragile for her own good. The result is that she is protected and coddled, allowing her demented view of life to grow stronger as it goes unchallenged.
"Mother Love," which begins with a two-hour episode tonight at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, starts off with a brief love affair between a handsome young lawyer, Kit Vesey, played by James Wilby, and an attractive art gallery employee, Angela, played by Fiona Gillies.
Angela knows by Kit's behavior that there is something strange about his mother -- though Helena is perfectly charming to her -- and eventually she is brought in on the family secret.
Kit was the product of a brief, unfortunate marriage between Helena and Alex Vesey, now a renowned musician, played by David McCallum, who still has the perfect head of hair for an orchestra conductor.
Alex has since married a famous photographer, but Helena has lived with nothing but the jealousy and rage she feels toward Alex, focusing all her attention on her son with only one other occasional companion, cousin George, played as a Peter Ustinov-type buffoon by James Grout.
Though Kit has a deep and important relationship with his father and step-family, it has been kept secret from Helena. This is for her own protection -- the one time she learned of a visit, she tried to kill herself -- but viewers know from a flashback to her childhood that it's not herself that Helena will harm as she believes disloyalty is a crime punishable by death.
By the end of tonight's two hours, she has found out a bit of the deception and has struck with an intelligently conceived and deftly carried out plan that almost kills two birds with one stone.
One of the strengths of "Mother Love" is that, unlike so many stories which run under this series, you really feel the tragedy of ,, the crime. Its victims are not just plot devices to get the hero in action, but characters you come to know and care about.
During the next two hours -- which run on consecutive Thursdays though MPT repeats the series Sundays at 10 p.m. -- a variety of events including births and illnesses cause the deceptions to grow increasingly more complex, and the potential consequences all the more tragic should the facade of fibs crumble.
At times the foreshadowing in "Mother Love" is painted a bit too deeply in strokes a bit too broad. And the ultimate conclusion, while certainly adequate, needs a more extensive denouement to be totally satisfying.
But the element of suspense is well sustained as this plot avoids the obvious in most of its twists and turns. And Rigg provides a compelling, beautifully crafted portrayal of evil wrapped in a package of social graces that alone makes "Mother Love" exceptional television.
*** The son of an insanely jealous, long-divorced woman keeps secret his relationship with his father, a deception that might result in deadly tragedy in this three-part "Mystery" presentation.
CAST: Diana Rigg, James Wilby, David McCallum
TIME: Thursdays at 9 o'clock
CHANNEL: PBS channels 22 and 67