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Cruel Doubt

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A couple of book publishers and two networks have inadvertently conspired to turn a small, true, sordid tale of family murder into a legend, the grim details of which every pop-cultured American will soon know as well as he or she knows the words to the Brady Bunch theme song. This week, we get the best of these retellings: Cruel Doubt is a four- hour miniseries about a North Carolina teenager who plotted with friends to kill his stepfather and mother in 1988. But Doubt has been preceded by its source, the best-selling 1991 Joe McGinniss book of the same name; by Honor Thy Mother, the ratings-winning CBS TV movie last month about the same case; and by Honor‘s source, Blood Games, the 1991 Jerry Bledsoe book on the exact same subject.

What is it about this story that has inspired such media attention? Simple — at a time when raising a teenager is intimidating if not downright scary, the details surrounding the murder of Leith Von Stein make for a real-life horror story that’s nonetheless a comfort to parents: Things may be bad in our house, a viewer can say, but, hey, they’re not that bad.

As Cruel Doubt tells it, Von Stein (Basic Instinct‘s Denis Arndt), a well-to-do Washington, N.C., businessman, was murdered — bludgeoned and stabbed — in his bed; his wife, Bonnie (Blythe Danner), was also attacked, but survived. A police investigation led to Von Stein’s 19-year-old stepson, Chris Pritchard (Pump Up the Volume‘s Matt McGrath), a disaffected college student who spent much of his time with pals, drinking beer, taking LSD, and getting hooked on the role-playing fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons.

It turned out that Von Stein had recently come into a $2 million inheritance-an excellent motive, police thought, for Chris to want to kill his stepfather and mother: All that dough would go to Chris and his sister, Angela (Hook‘s Gwyneth Paltrow).

Once the police grilled Chris’ friends James Upchurch (Travis Fine) and Neal Henderson (Neal McDonough), it became obvious that all three young men were in on the violent deed. While a jury decided from the evidence that Upchurch was the one who had actually committed the murder, it found the trio had conspired in the crime and convicted all of them. But even after Chris admitted his involvement, Bonnie Von Stein refused to believe that her son could have done such a thing, and much of Cruel Doubt is about Bonnie’s desperate attempt to make sense of Chris’ crime.

As TV entertainment, Cruel Doubt is immensely satisfying on any number of levels. Here is the spectacle of a sullen, bratty college student brought low. Who among us hasn’t known a few kids like Chris, Neal, and James — party-hearty teens whom we’d love to see kicked in the pants, if not sentenced to lengthy prison terms? On the other hand, students of nearly all ages (pack your preteens off to bed before watching this one) can identify intensely with the travails of Chris and company — here is an ultimate example of what can happen to tragically mixed-up, unhappy adolescents.

It also helps, of course, that the acting by Cruel Doubt‘s large cast is first-rate. McGrath, who is currently appearing in the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, does a wonderful job of inhabiting Chris’ drug-addled mind. Chris shows no remorse for his crimes, and the only time his eyes show any glint of life is when he’s babbling about how much mind-blowing fun it is to play Dungeons and Dragons. McGrath’s performance helps to confirm a comment made by one of the defense lawyers: ”There’s something weird about that kid; he doesn’t have normal reactions.”

In the far smaller role of Chris’ sister, Paltrow is a minor revelation. The actress, who happens to be the daughter of Danner and TV producer Bruce Paltrow (St. Elsewhere), summons up her own brand of sour-faced teen alienation, and does it so convincingly that when Angela briefly becomes a suspect, we feel it would be perfectly possible for this glowering girl to off her parents.

Cruel Doubt is also full of colorful supporting performances, the best of which come from Miguel Ferrer (Twin Peaks) as a shrewd, hard-boiled state investigator; Ed Asner as Chris’ ornery but honorable lawyer; and, most enjoyably, Dennis Farina (Crime Story), who gleefully sinks his malevolent choppers into the role of a relentless private investigator who gets Chris to confess.

McGinniss’ book has been adapted by John Gay, who also brought the author’s Fatal Vision and Blind Faith to TV; the miniseries was directed by Yves Simoneau (Till Death Us Do Part). Gay and Simoneau give their material the shape and speed of a thriller, and manage to sustain the pace over two nights.

Cruel Doubt is much more absorbing than Honor Thy Mother was, and one big reason is that Danner’s interpretation of Bonnie is more detailed than Sharon Gless’ in the same role: Where Gless played Bonnie as a drab, confused victim, Danner goes deeper, unearthing her character’s class consciousness. The wealthy, confident Bonnie in Cruel Doubt is terribly condescending toward the police, whom she sees as fumbling, working-class meddlers. At the same time, her agony over her son seems genuine and moving. Cruel Doubt may lure us in with luridness, but it is Danner’s nuanced portrayal of Bonnie’s conflicted character that gives the story its moral and emotional complexity. A