THERE IS A reason that the repulsive crazed-killer murder stories, the type that is flooding the November airwaves, make such attractive television, and "In a Child's Name" reminds us of what that is.
When properly made, these are compelling, dramatic tales that, in shining their raking light across the psyche of an individual and a community, can reveal the strengths and flaws of the human condition.
But most of the movies that have trod this well-worn path this month have not done that. They have instead been nothing more than exploitative, voyeuristic excursions into the weirdness.
"In a Child's Name" is reminiscent of the original of the genre, "Fatal Vision," based on Joe McGinness' book about Jeffrey MacDonald, the all-American-boy doctor who one day slaughtered his pregnant wife and two daughters and blamed the crime, as he does to this day, on marauding hippies. The CBS four-hour two-parter will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) Sunday and Tuesday nights at 9 o'clock.
This is the story of Ken Taylor, a dentist on Staten Island who, like MacDonald, appeared to be a fine, upstanding citizen, a great catch for his new wife, Teresa. Taylor was welcomed into her effusive Italian family with hugs and pasta.
His Midwestern Baptist parents didn't seem too comfortable when they showed up for the wedding. It didn't seem that important when they mentioned two previous marriages when Ken had only owned up to one. But then Teresa came back from her Acapulco honeymoon brutally beaten, sticking with Ken's story that robbers who broke into their hotel room were responsible.
She stands by her man and is delighted when she gets pregnant and gives birth to a son, Andrew. But Taylor just gets weirder. He is kicked out of his dental practice. He runs up phone bills to 976 sex lines. He uses cocaine.
Teresa's sister, Angela, tries to find out if anything is seriously wrong, but her sister keeps quiet. Then Teresa disappears. Her body is found by a road, wrapped in a rug. She had been beaten to death.
Sunday's Part 1 ends as the police move in on Ken as their prime suspect. The final scene is one of the more memorable moments of this television year. In Part 2, as Ken's fate is being decided in the legal system, another struggle ensues for control of his baby.
Both Angela and Ken's parents want the child and, after he is virtually kidnapped in Indiana, Teresa's family begins a ferocious legal struggle to get the toddler back, battling an Indiana town that sees this as a fight to keep a child in God's Protestant country, out of the Sodom and Gomorrah of Catholic New York. Eventually Peter Maas, who wrote the book on which this is based, becomes a character in the drama as it turns into a battle of public relations.
Though Taylor's background was filled with many more evident flaws than was MacDonald's, Taylor is also a smooth-talking shyster, able to convince many of his naive innocence as he paves the road for his sinister plans. Indeed, he is behind his parents' actions to get Andrew, handing out orders from his jail cell to a Mom and Dad who remain in their son's spell even after he was convicted of murder.
Michael Ontkean, whose career was given a jump-start by "Twin Peaks," is superb as the smarmy Ken, but the star of this show is Valerie Bertinelli. She seems born to play the part of Angela, a bouncy, bubbly girl-next-door who finds reservoirs of resolve as she struggles to get her sister's child back home.
These two are surrounded by some fine supporting performances, particularly those of David Huddleston and Louis Fletcher (Oscar winner for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") as his parents and John Karlen and Joanna Merlin as hers. Karla Tamburelli as Teresa and Christopher Meloni as Angela's husband, Jerry, also turn in sensitive characterizations.
"In a Child's Name" is also well-produced and nicely directed. hTC But what sets it apart is that the story it tells is more than that of an odd, bone-chilling murder. Certainly it derives its visceral appeal from the strangeness and brutality of its crime and search for appropriate justice, but it also resonates on many levels.
It speaks to the importance of images -- of well-off dentists and houses in the suburbs, of happy marriages and thriving families -- and of how the strength of such images can sometimes dangerously blur our vision of reality.
And ultimately, unlike most of these movies, "In a Child's Name" is a story of redemption, not merely a portrait of human depravity, but also of the strength of the spirit and, eventually, the legal system.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that the hero of this story is a strong woman who would not be swayed. For most of this month, the women in these movies have been either victims or killers, people to be pitied or hated. "In a Child's Name" gives us a woman to be admired.
ABC's Sunday night movie is a serviceable thriller that gives Susan Lucci another chance to pretend she's a sex symbol about 15 years younger than her actual age.
"The Woman who Sinned," which will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) Sunday at 9 p.m., is a fictional murder story. Lucci plays half of a happily married yuppie couple -- she's an art dealer, he's a lawyer (played by Tim Matheson) -- who has a week-long dalliance with a young hunk. On the night she uses her best friend, who's having an affair of her own, as cover for a rendezvous, that friend is murdered and Lucci is charged.
This is a semi-open mystery. That means you know who did it -- you see the murder -- but you don't know why. As our couple tracks down the killer, they also track down the reason. Though the simplicity of the payoff is not as good as the complexity of the setup, "The Woman who Sinned" is a decent two hours of entertainment.