Amy Fisher and O.J. Simpson should be jealous. While “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town” isn’t the most intellectual project on CBS’ docket, it’s certainly not the car wreck a lot of people are expecting. Patient and extremely detailed, this look at the Boulder, Colo., tabloid magnet gets high marks for steering clear of sweeps sensationalism. JonBenet Ramsey, her creepy parents and a botched investigation could have added up to a whole lotta trash, but the waste bin has been sidestepped.
That loaded compliment is aimed at director Lawrence Schiller, who also told Gary Gilmore’s story in 1982. “The Executioner’s Song” remains one of network TV’s most affecting made-fors, and the vet helmer (on whose book this mini is based) again manages hot-button themes with a thorough approach.
And though the gruesome death of one child can’t compare with the social significance ignited by Gilmore’s sins, there is enough judicial posturing and copspeak to grab hardcore criminologists and mainstream JonBenet-philes. You don’t need to be a Geraldo junkie to comprehend the Eye web’s effort here.
A quick recap: On Dec. 26, 1996, JonBenet’s (Dyanne Iandoli) cold corpse was found in her basement. In the following months, several detectives tainted the crime scene with bad procedure, and as pillars of the community, John and Patsy Ramsey (Ronny Cox, Marg Helgenberger) received special treatment.
First part establishes most of the players and also generates various theories. The biggest honchos are detective division chief John Eller (Murphy Guyer) and officer Larry Mason (John Heard), two authorities who are obviously buried underneath the publicity. Their mishandling of an overwhelmed workforce, potential suspects and much of the minutiae begets some bad press: the city may be pretty, but a murder is too much too handle.
As the media descend, others are hired to lend expertise. Narcotics agent Steve Thomas (Scott Cohen) believes strongly in mom Patsy’s responsibility. D.A. Alex Hunter (Ken Howard) insists there isn’t much substance, and that rift leads to some bravado that encumbers the inquiry. Each side begins to withhold evidence, and, in the process, time passes without a resolution.
Hunter’s solution is Lou Smit (Kris Kristofferson), a legendary homicide pro who is employed to rustle up the truth.
Second night starts off with the famous broadcast interview orchestrated by the Ramseys. Inconsistencies are uncovered, but, without forensics and witnesses, no one is willing to make an arrest. Police chief Tom Koby (Dennis Boutsikaris) eventually fires Eller, a new boss steps in and the whole team is hounded by Jeff Shapiro (Sean Whalen), a tabloid reporter in dire need of sensitivity training.
John and Patsy, now presumed guilty by much of the country, launch a campaign to find the perp. A Grand Jury is assembled, but, after Smit’s persuasive argument in support of mom and dad, Hunter announces that no charges will be filed, and that’s the way it currently stands.
“Perfect Murder’s” biggest appeal is that there still isn’t a conclusion. Since the strangulation of the 6-year-old beauty pageant champ, there have been plenty of theories and even more conjecture, but four years’ worth of work never produced a finale. That definitely makes things a lot juicier, and Schiller knows that. His even-handed method to a very politicized and wide-open crime is a testament to his big-picture abilities and to the tone set by the script from Tom Topor. Their dedication to the facts — and not just ratings — is much appreciated.
There are some weak links, especially when it comes to Patsy’s behavior. Helgenberger is a good sport, doing her best to get inside the mind of a flighty woman, but her portrayal often comes off as cartoonish and far-fetched. More on the mark is Cox, who creates an aloof millionaire who can’t cope with a sudden loss of control.
But it’s the fringe thesps who deserve much of the credit. All of the pros come off as either appropriately macho or nervous, and everyone is unquestionably passionate. Nobody seems embarrassed to be associated with this, and that pride helps this mini.
For all its circumspection, few characters come out a winner in “Perfect Murder.” The cops are careless, the attorneys are confused and the town is shaken. Credit Schiller, however, for somehow making everybody credible and for crafting a search that leaves no stone unturned.
Archival footage of real-life talkshows and local news footage is a nifty addition to an overall solid production.