There’s little that TV moviemakers love better than a wealthy dysfunctional Texas family steeped in incest and murder. The latest instance is the serpentine “Death in Small Doses,” a viper’s trail of lies and family secrets, well told but bloody cold all the same.
On storytelling, casting and tech levels, the execution is smooth (director Sondra Locke) and the plot absorbing (script by Scott Swanton). But on an emotional level, the principal characters lack heart, warmth and sympathy. You don’t warm up to any of them, and it’s a deficiency that mars an otherwise suspenseful yarn, based on court records and published accounts of the arsenic poisoning death of successful architect Nancy Lyon two years ago this month in Dallas.
Production’s anchor is Richard Thomas as the estranged husband and one-time Harvard b.f. of the doomed Lyon character (the credibly edgy Glynnis O’Connor). Thomas’ two-timing husband and his tightly coiled demeanor as a family outsider represent an against-the-grain, utterly convincing departure for the actor, whose only sunny disposition evident here is devotion to his two little daughters.
Giving texture to the domestic jungle are the young wife’s rich, heartless Texas parents. Instead of easy targets, mom and dad are refreshingly dramatized as fairly normal on the surface (the well-cast C.K. Bibby and Collin Wilcox Paxton). They just have this nagging problem of parenting twisted, incestuous kids, including a hyper son (Gary Frank) who hurls accusations at his sister’s husband.
While the script may not have a heart to wear on its sleeve, it does spin a deceptive did-he-or-didn’t-he suspense tale. Lending momentum is disclosure of detailed chemical evidence in strong courtroom scenes featuring canny female D.A. (Tess Harper) who’s convinced early on that the husband killed his wife.
Nicely embroidering the tale are the lensing (William A. Fraker), editing (John W. Wheeler) and multiple lesser roles (Shawn Elliot’s detective, Ann Hearn’s nanny and Matthew Posey’s defense lawyer).