CBS and NBC's rather juvenile game of tit-for-tat Martha Stewart movies continues to be a good thing for Cybill Shepherd, who by now probably plays the lifestyle-diva-turned-convict as well or better than Stewart does herself. NBC aired its own Shepherd-as-Stewart biopic two years ago, and now the Eye net retaliates the very week "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" makes its debut.

CBS and NBC’s rather juvenile game of tit-for-tat Martha Stewart movies continues to be a good thing for Cybill Shepherd, who by now probably plays the lifestyle-diva-turned-convict as well or better than Stewart does herself. NBC aired its own Shepherd-as-Stewart biopic two years ago — back when CBS stations carried Stewart’s syndicated show — and now the Eye net retaliates the very week “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” makes its debut. All told, the movie’s a respectable and mostly watchable recounting of this notorious chapter in Stewart’s storied career, despite being so stiff and formal that it never really comes alive.

In fairly painstaking fashion, this latest vidpic narrowly devotes its first half to the stock trade that got Stewart into trouble, then lives up to its salacious title in the second.

As presented here there’s a touch of “Bonfire of the Vanities” regarding Stewart, a “Mistress of the Universe” vibe suggesting she doesn’t recognize that dumping her ImClone shares — after receiving an insider tip during a trip in Cabo — could have possibly broken the law. That hubris explains why she misled investigators and rebuffed opportunities to resolve the matter before going to trial, leading to her much-lampooned incarceration in the Alderson federal prison camp.

Not surprisingly, Stewart’s celebrity makes her something of an oddity to the other inmates, who alternately seek to exploit her, intimidate her and observe her like a lab rat. Pic does a nice job of capturing the demeaning nature of even a low-security facility, while the one truly memorable moment comes when prisoners watch intently as Stewart prepares to eat her meal using plastic cutlery as if she was a surgeon about to operate.

Due to the docudrama format and equal split between Stewart inside and outside custody, no one else really registers beyond Shepherd’s stately, icy and occasionally irate portrayal, which peels back the curtain just a bit on Stewart’s outward perfection to reveal the kind of demanding boss prone to throw a fit when she doesn’t have the proper knife laid out for her. Ultimately, though, the movie’s structure confines Shepherd at least as rigorously as Alderson did her real-life alter ego.

There’s a certain irony here, too, in a ball-busting depiction of Stewart that might slightly besmirch her mystique on the new syndicated show but actually reinforces her image as Donald Trump’s protegee in publicly selecting employees.

So could CBS’ attempt to cash in upon Stewart, embarrass her a little and simultaneously pump up its Sunday movie with a marketable topic actually benefit NBC and her various enterprises? Now that would be a kind of poetic justice.

Martha Behind Bars

CBS, Sun. Sept. 25, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Toronto by Paramount Pictures Television. Executive producer, Tom Patricia; producer, Frank Siracusa; co-producer, Charlie Bohl; director, Eric Bross; writer, Bohl.

Crew

Camera, Horacio Marquinez; editor, Gib Jaffe; music, Douglas J. Cuomo; production designer, Doug McCullough; casting, Jason L. Wood, Stephanie Gorin. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast

Martha Stewart - Cybill Shepherd Peter Bacanovic - Gale Harold Lexi Stewart - Sabine Singh John Cuti - Jonathan Higgins Robert Morvillo - Alan C. Peterson Mariana Pasternak - Julie Khaner
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