'Heartland' tale gets wasteland treatment Sweep month sensations

May 03, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

He's young, he's bad, he's worse than Amy Fisher.

One of recent history's first infamous serial killers was 19-year-old Charles Starkweather. In this year of true-crime TV, Starkweather is exactly the kind of character the networks are looking for to give the full historical and gory treatment.

Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, went on a killing spree in Nebraska in 1958. In most of the murders, Starkweather didn't know the victims and didn't have a reason for killing them, except that he was a little ticked off. One of the victims was a infant in a crib, Fugate's half-sister.

ABC has captured the teen-age garbage man's killing of strangers, his taking of hostages, his moodiness, fondness for target practice, fruitcake and cigarettes in a four-hour miniseries that airs tonight and tomorrow night at 9 on WJZ (Channel 13).

The problem is that everything about this series is, well, so mini.

In this era of network cost-cutting, we'll see a lot more of this kind of production.

Relative unknowns play the leads -- Tim Roth ("Reservoir Dogs") asStarkweather and Fairuza Balk ("Valmont") as Fugate.

It's an inexpensive production, with most of the action taking place tonight on the road in Starkweather's car or in the Fugate family's dilapidated house.

Tomorrow night, it's all courtroom. Fugate may have a total of four costume changes in the four hours, ranging from school dress to prison garb.

To emphasize Nebraska's bleakness, we are shown endles shots of landscape with few trees and lots of wind and gloom. Lonely, uninviting, cold and hard -- it makes Siberia seem festive.

This is not an attractive miniseries to watch. Its two leads, who turn in solid performances, portray immature, uneducated, unthinking -- and, in Starkweather's case, psychotic -- people.

In short, "Murder in the Heartland" takes place nowhere you want to be and involves people you never want to meet or know about. ABC has decided to show them to us up close and personal for four hours.

Brian Dennehy, perhaps the biggest name in the cast, doesn't appear until tomorrow night as Fugate's court-appointed attorney.

His is the only character we have a clue about. He has some humanity and understanding of what's going on. He has an inner dynamic, which give the scenes that he's in some vitality.

What "Murder in the Heartland" lacks most -- beyond stars, impressive production qualities or a script with some sparkle -- is any attempt at insight.

There's the sociology of Starkweather and his slaughter. It came at a time of leather jackets, the rise of rock and roll, Elvis Presley and "Rebel Without a Cause." It was a time when mainstream America became frightened of its own teen-agers, and Starkweather was its worst nightmare.

In that sense, the miniseries could have had great relevance to today, when mind-numbing crimes by teens regularly make front-page news.

But "Murder in the Heartland" doesn't have time for sociology or explorations of Starkweather's inner life.

Neither Starkweather nor his prosecutors, attorney and victims may have had a clue as to what made Starkweather kill back in 1958. But in 35 years, we should have learned something.

If we did, you won't find it here. All ABC does for two nights is replay the crimes. That makes "Murder in the Heartland" mindless TV of the worst sort -- nothing more than a celebration of violence.

The story of Starkweather and Fugate has been done before in the critically acclaimed feature film, "Badlands," with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. If you want to see the story of that killing spree told with resonance, pace and, most of all, eloquent silences, rent "Badlands" and watch it tonight instead.

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