Mad women on TV ? Victims or villains, there is strong female presence on television this spring

Somewhere in America at this very moment a wanton act of criminal violence is being committed. And somewhere in Hollywood, an agent is trying to lock up the movie rights, a producer is pitching the story to a network, and an actress is praying that the tale involves a lethal weapon, a desperate woman, an Emmy- nominatable breakdown on the witness stand, and a grab-you-by-the-guts headline. Like this one: Southern siren seduces teenager into killing her husband! Or this: Real estate saleswoman is shot — by her client! Or maybe: Rape victim’s mom takes law into her own hands!

In the next month, all three tabloid tales will turn up in TV movies that share hot titles, lurid premises, and showy roles for actresses on the dark side of 40: Barbara Hershey plays the Southern vamp in ABC’s Stay the Night; realtor Elizabeth Montgomery battles an assailant in CBS’ With Murder in Mind; and Lee Grant and Donna Mills go outside the law to protect themselves from a rapist in CBS’ In My Daughter’s Name. A battalion of their TV-movie sisters — Blythe Danner, Sharon Gless, Beverly D’Angelo, Veronica Hamel, Nancy McKeon, and Lindsay Frost — will star in crime dramas this month as well.

The May massacre represents the apogee of a TV trend that the industry has nicknamed the ”jep” film. That’s short for ”jeopardy,” which is short for ”women in jeopardy,” which shortchanges the genre by implying that these roles merely confine actresses to tepid lady-in-peril roles. In fact, this season’s movie queens are as likely to play villains as victims. Not that there’s much difference. Given a great courtroom scene, a sharp (or blunt) , instrument, and an emotionally extreme character, these are all portrayals of women on the verge, whether they’re wielding the ax or running from it. The godmother of this trend, Farrah Fawcett’s 1984 film The Burning Bed, offered the perfect synthesis: a heroine who was both victim (of an abusive husband) and killer (of same). Similarly, in this season’s Bed of Lies and Wild Texas Wind, a woman’s crime has simply served as payback time.

It’s tempting to read sexism and degradation into these plots, in which women are either agents of brutality or targets of violence. But what’s going on here is less a media conspiracy than a product of two ineluctable forces: hungry audiences and hungry actresses. As for the viewers, numbers talk. The Valerie Bertinelli miniseries In a Child’s Name (the true story of a dentist who murdered his wife) and the Meredith Baxter melodrama A Woman Scorned (the true story of a housewife who murdered her ex-husband and his new wife) were this season’s two highest-rated TV movies.

And actresses, especially those approaching middle age, have shrewdly seized on the formula as a means (probably the most successful since disease- of-the-week films flourished a decade ago) to showcase them in the kind of fever-pitched roles that movies rarely offer. For Donna Mills, who experienced all manner of abuse in last fall’s False Arrest, and for Veronica Hamel, who plays a craven kidnapper in CBS’ Baby Snatchers, the genre also permits self-engineered career moves — both women produced their TV movies.

All this isn’t to say that the TV bloodbath represents a giant stride forward for feminism; in fact, the format is rapidly heading toward…well, overkill. If the terrorized moms played by Sharon Gless in CBS’ Honor Thy Mother and Blythe Danner in NBC’s Cruel Doubt seem similar, it’s because both movies are culled from the same real-life case. And when NBC announced in March that A Woman on Trial, a miniseries about convicted murderer Lawrencia ”Bambi” Bembenek, would air next season, ABC raced into production with its own version of the story; the result, lubriciously christened Calendar Girl, Cop, Killer?. Perhaps it’s time for the networks to lay down a couple of rules: One crime to a customer, and ladies, please, no treachery, theft, or backstabbing — except, of course, on camera.

Naughty & Nice
On Bewitched, Elizabeth Montgomery was both good witch Samantha and naughty Serena. Since then she has brought the same schizophrenic style to 18 TV movies. As a victim, she has been raped (1974’s A Case of Rape), mugged (1979’s Act of Violence), stalked (1972’s The Victim), and shot (in CBS’ new With Murder in Mind). And her villains include the ax-happy spinster in 1975’s The Legend of Lizzie Borden, Daisy the devil nurse in 1985’s Amos, and a monster mom in 1991’s Sins of the Mother. If only Basic Instinct had been made for TV.