'And the Sea Will Tell' doesn't tell enough

Televison

February 21, 1991|By Michael Hill

The problem with "And the Sea Will Tell" is that it can't decide what it wants to be. Just when you think you've tuned into a good, solid murder mystery, this four-hour CBS production turns into a courtroom drama.

And even then, it's not a drama about a crusading prosecutor using scanty shards of precious evidence to prove to the jury that this decidedly creepy villain did the misdeed, but one about a well-paid defense attorney trying to persuade a jury that the creepy villain's girlfriend didn't do it.

Of course, even if she didn't, Jennifer Jenkins is in the innocent-but-still-real-stupid category, making it hard for the audience to work up a great deal of passionate sympathy for this potential victim of injustice.

"And the Sea Will Tell," which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) Sunday and Tuesday at 9 o'clock, is the story of a fascinating case. It's just not clear that there's any way to present this case in a coherent and satisfying dramatic fashion. It might be one of those miniseries you shouldn't watch so as not to spoil the book where the particulars might be better dissected.

The story centers on events that took place in 1974 on a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific called Palmyra, about as remote a spot of land as you're going to find. However, as fate would have it, in that year it was the destination of two couples, each from a different side of the schism that had rent the country during the times just ending, referred to as the Sixties.

Mac and Muff Grant were well-heeled members of the so-called establishment, with only Mac's penchant for setting off on long-term deep-sea cruises setting them apart. This summer, he had aimed the Sea Wind, his beautiful, state-of-the-art yacht, for Palmyra.

That was also the destination of a more rickety craft recently renamed the Iola. It carried Jennifer, a certifiable flower child seeking a simple life of contentment and love. Unfortunately, her love, one Buck Walker, had a more concrete argument with the establishment, as he was seeking to escape once again from the law.

As the weeks on the island went by, it became increasingly evident that Jennifer and Buck were not at all prepared for such a life, growing low on provisions and patience. The well-stocked and perfectly maintained Sea Wind stood in envious contrast to their sad state.

The next thing anyone knew, Jennifer and Buck were sailing the Sea Wind into Hawaii, getting her re-painted and re-registered. They were caught, told a story about Mac and Muff disappearing in an apparent accident and, with no evidence to the contrary, were convicted only of stealing the boat.

Then, seven years later, another wandering sailor found a skull in the sands of Palmyra. The bones of Muff Grant were in a box nearby. Now Jennifer and Buck were charged with murder. Buck was quickly convicted but Jennifer contracted with top political lawyer Len Weinglass and criminal attorney Vincent Bugliosi -- who prosecuted Charles Manson and wrote "Helter Skelter" -- for her defense. How an ex-hippie could afford their fees is one of many questions that goes unanswered in this. In any event, Bugliosi got another book out of the case, and it's his story that "And the Sea Will Tell" tells.

The miniseries is nicely cast. James Brolin is perfect as Mac, giving him an appropriate hard, driven edge, while Diedre Hall plays Muff as devoted and ignored. Hart Bochner is a great villain as his Buck has a fearsome, dangerous charisma. Richard Crenna brings the skills of a savvy veteran to his portrayal of a savvy veteran attorney Bugliosi.

As for Jennifer, well, Rachel Ward is never going to be a Helen Hayes, but as her character wears the appropriate costumes for a hippie living on a South Sea island, suffice it to say that she adds as much to the scenery as the Tahiti location filming.

The problem is in the structure. There's definitely a villain in this -- Buck Walker -- but there's no real hero, certainly not Jennifer, nor Bugliosi, who's just a lawyer defending a somewhat tainted client.

Nor is there any real payoff. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, which in this case would be learning what actually happened on the island, but it never does. The central element of murder mystery remains mysterious, with the miniseries providing only a brief, gruesome dream sequence as even a potential explanation.

The climax is supposed to be when the jury comes in with its verdict in Jennifer's trial, but, considering that Bugliosi wrote a book about this, it's not really much of a surprise. Besides, the interesting action in "And the Sea Will Tell" took place on Palmyra, not in a San Francisco courtroom. And since neither the sea, nor Buck Walker, will tell what happened there, these four hours are less than satisfying.

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