I cannot tell you how much I was hoping CBS wouldn’t send me the review cassettes of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town in time for my deadline. On the one hand, this four-hour, two-night TV movie is, I’d wager, destined to be the winner in the Feb. 27 three-network sweeps-period duke-out with NBC’s 10-hour fairy-tale miniseries The 10th Kingdom and ABC’s two-parter The Beach Boys: An American Family. I suspect that CBS’ dominance of Sunday night, with its weekly TV movie leading out of the hugely popular 60 Minutes and Touched by an Angel, will help Perfect Murder reach the biggest audience of these three productions, which in turn makes it the most logical choice for coverage here. But on the other hand, I can’t think of a real-life incident I have less of a stomach for covering than the Christmas 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, the details of which I’d done my best to ignore. It’s one of those awful events that have become the stuff of popular culture, a crime whose luridness (child beauty contestant strangled in her home) takes on an urgency that far exceeds its newsworthiness, yet leads to endless coverage disguised as news — ”investigations” into kiddie pageants, into the psychology of parents who murder their children, into any damn thing that will serve as an excuse to put JonBenet’s glowing face on our TV screens.
So let’s work backward with Perfect Murder, which is based on the best-selling book by Lawrence Schiller. The TV movie ends with a Boulder, Colo., grand jury finding no grounds for prosecuting Patsy and John Ramsey (played here by Marg Helgenberger and Ronny Cox) for murder. The bulk of the miniseries is about how the Boulder police and district attorney’s office botched much of the investigation and feuded with each other even as the case was tried in the court of public opinion by local and worldwide news media as well as tabloid papers. (The Globe takes a very specific pounding for publishing grisly crime-scene photos, for which offense the rag’s reporter is depicted as a slimy smirker.)
The telefilm, directed by Schiller, is the second Ramsey TV movie (Fox’s one-hour effort aired Feb. 16), and this one is mostly a tedious slog through the legal details interrupted periodically by noxious images. The sight, for example, of Cox hauling a stiff little corpse out of his basement provokes a mixture of feelings: appalled disgust (there’s no reason on earth for this to be dramatized on TV) and more appalled disgust (the ”body” is so obviously some sort of doll that you wonder just how stupid Schiller thinks his audience is). Cox and Helgenberger are called upon to do so much weeping and wailing during the first half hour that you wonder if they’ll make it through the full four. Cox’s John remains a cipher, but Helgenberger manages to convey much of the melodramatic emotionalism that Patsy has frequently displayed without giving a melodramatic performance herself — that’s an achievement, even in a big piece of schlock like Perfect Murder.
Scott Cohen, who plays police detective Steve Thomas, is competing against himself — he’s also a star of The 10th Kingdom, where, in the three hours I watched, he chews a lot of scenery and meat as a wolf-turned-human. Here he’s more low-key, but the role is, in Tom Topor’s script, repetitive — he’s the earnest guy who keeps saying Patsy did it. There are bigger-name stars in Perfect Murder, but they’re in tiny roles. Ann-Margret — hey, she’s in 10th Kingdom too! — has a few drawly lines as JonBenet’s Southern grandmother, while Kris Kristofferson (he’s furry enough to be in 10th Kingdom, but isn’t) doesn’t even bother to clear his throat for his brief appearance as a detective hired as an independent investigator — the sole figure who believes in both Ramsey parents’ innocence.
The wisest viewers aren’t going to be watching Perfect Murder, The 10th Kingdom, or The Beach Boys — they’ll be glued to The Sopranos on HBO or Fox’s The X-Files. But unlike the grand jury, I’ll render a judgment: Taking into account acting performances, script, and direction, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town averages out to a C; combine it with the F-grade moral scruples it took to embark on this exploitive abomination in the first place, however, and you get an all-too-generous D.