Docudrama becomes a rush to on-air judgment Preview: NBC's hurriedly produced 'Love's Deadly Triangle' is undone by a tedious storyline and one-dimensional acting. But there's lots of teen sex, blood and small-print disclaimers.

February 10, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

As hard as it is to believe, someone has made a ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama that is more irresponsible than any of the Amy Fisher films or, even, Fox Television's dramatization of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

The made-for-television movie, "Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder," is based on a highly publicized 1996 case involving U.S. Naval Academy and Air Force Academy students Diane Zamora and David Graham, both now 19. It shows two Texas teen-agers killing another teen -- even though the couple has yet to be tried for the crime.

That's the line in the docudrama slime that gets crossed tonight during another glorious example of February sweeps programming from NBC, the most popular network in America. Other networks have done docudramas before the persons accused in such cases went to trial, but they never showed those persons actually committing the crime.

Even Fox, generally considered the least responsible of the networks when it comes to docudramas, wisely resisted the temptation to depict O.J. Simpson as the killer of his ex-wife and Goldman and, furthermore, held off showing its film until a jury could be sequestered in Simpson's criminal trial.

The possible impact of "Love's Deadly Triangle" on jury selection is also an issue. Zamora's lawyers have gone to district court in Texas to try to keep the film from airing there. But the court ruled last week that KXAS -- the NBC affiliate in the Dallas and Fort Worth area -- has a First Amendment right to broadcast the film.

Once that right was affirmed, however, the station announced Thursday that it had decided not to air the film. That is where the matter stood as of the weekend. All of the other 200 or so NBC affiliates, including WBAL in Baltimore (Channel 11), plan to air the film tonight at 9.

NBC's position, as stated by Lindy DeKoven, executive vice president for mini-series and movies, is that, "The compelling nature of this story has captivated both the media's and public's interest. There is a visceral connection that Americans make with elements of this story -- two of the best and brightest of America's youth who are accused of violating the principles of society and the honor of the military academies. ... The story sent shock waves across the country. We believe people want to know more about what went wrong."

The emptiness of DeKoven's statement is betrayed by the film itself more than anything I can say. As with so many of these superficial, sensationalistic, true-crime efforts, one of the greatest sins of "Love's Deadly Triangle" is that it tells us almost nothing about "what went wrong." The murder is depicted as a crime of passion, but neither the crime nor the passion is explained.

What we get instead: dreadful acting, a flimsy film noir tone, graphic scenes strung together without a narrative engine, quite a bit of teen sex and lots of blood.

The storyline is the one that has been told throughout the media, which is not surprising since the film is based on an article in Texas Monthly magazine and Graham's confession:

Graham and Zamora were high school sweethearts in Texas. During their senior year, he had a sexual encounter with a sophomore, Adrianne Jones. When he confessed to Zamora, she decided Jones had to be killed if the two were going to re-establish any kind of relationship.

Graham lured Jones to his car one night in December 1995 with Zamora hiding in the back seat. The plan was for Graham to reach for Jones as if to embrace her and then "break her neck," according to the film. But Jones, a member of the track team, put up too much of a fight.

The fight went out of her, though, when Zamora popped up from the back seat and hit Jones in the head with a barbell. Graham then shot her twice as she tried to crawl away from the car -- her head gushing blood.

Zamora and Graham initially avoided detection, because they were such model students -- she was accepted to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, he to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. But, one night during her plebe summer, Zamora told her roommates at the Naval Academy about what she had done. They told authorities, and it wasn't long before Zamora and Graham were behind bars in Texas and charged with Jones' murder.

The story itself is a powerful one, but, despite all the teen flesh and hot blood, executive producer Steve White manages to make it tedious. A big part of the problem is the acting. As Graham, David Lipper spends two hours with one expression on his face: looking like he's going to cry.

lTC Holly Marie Combs' take on Zamora is similarly one-dimensional: Zamora is played as the dark, dominating, devious Other. As a Mexican-American, Zamora is the only person of color in this film, and you have to wonder if the producers aren't trafficking in ethnic stereotypes with their contrasting depiction of the blond Jones as the sunny, friendly, open, all-American girl.

There is nothing to recommend watching a docudrama like this. Vile, sleazy, reprehensible -- pick your favorite adjective and apply liberally.

NBC should be ashamed of itself. There is no reason it could not have waited until after the trial. The rush to air is obvious in the record number of disclaimers and qualifiers flashed on the screen in unusually small type before the final credits.

"David Graham and Diane Zamora have been charged with murder," the first graphic says.

"Lawyers for both Graham and Zamora maintain their clients are innocent," a second adds.

"Neither of them have been tried nor found guilty," says a third.

"Graham's lawyer plans to challenge the admissibility of Graham's confession," says a fourth.

There are more. I include these for the sake of those viewers who will miss them because they have changed channels, left the room, or not taken a course in speed-reading.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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