Many have tried, but no telepic since 1984’s “The Burning Bed” has been able to detail the horrors of domestic violence with brutal honesty. CBS’ “Black and Blue” puts an end to that drought, boldly fusing a theme of empowerment with the very unfortunate realities of abuse. While there is certainly nothing fresh about the somber narrative, stirring turns from Mary Stuart Masterson and Anthony LaPaglia elevate this above the regular network victimfests. Viewers are in for something special … and heartbreaking.
“Blue” is based on the bestseller (and Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection) by Pulitzer Prize-winner Anna Quindlen, whose “One True Thing” detailed a feisty woman’s battle with cancer. This time around, another femme faces death, but the danger comes in the form of a disturbed husband.
Masterson is Fran Benedetto, a Brooklyn nurse who married the wrong man. Aggressive but charming, Bobby (Anthony LaPaglia) is loud, macho and full of “guy” pride. He’s also a cop, which apparently affords him the freedom to batter Fran without a single regret.
But she’s had enough. After treating a patient who dies from a severe beating, Fran finds the nerve to call a social worker who can arrange a clandestine relocation. She informs Fran that there is a way out, but it requires a clean slate.
Fran packs up their son Robert (Will Rothhaar) and bolts to Florida, where she starts over with a false identity — she’s now Beth Crenshaw — and no connection to her previous life. She can’t even contact her sister, Grace (Sabrina Grdevich).
As expected, however, her past catches up with her, and Fran, who has fallen for Robert’s teacher Mike (Sam Robards), begins to look over her shoulder. And she should — with some simple detective work and lucky twists, Bobby eventually tracks her down, reclaims Robert and leaves his savage mark on Fran for the last time.
The TV landscape seems cluttered with evil spouses, sadsack casualties and kids who ask, “Why are you crying, mommy?” but the projects that get this stuff right focus squarely on inner conflicts instead of the obvious should-she-stay-or-go issue. Director Paul Shapiro has done exactly that here, penetrating the mind and soul of a person who has to give up everything in order to save herself.
And Masterson’s performance is a delicate achievement. The intense fear and hatred that consume her are evenly blended into the provider she wants to be. Restrained and anxious, her portrayal is a tranquil tribute to anyone who can relate to such an exhausting panic.
LaPaglia is just as effective, lighting up his scenes with a burning desire to destroy his wife’s innocence. Stocky, strong and void of any sympathy, his character offers up nothing to love and nowhere to run. Her sweet sensitivity and his macho maneuvering create an explosive combination, and the result is as emotional as it is frightening.
There’s also a sense of urgency throughout “Blue” that is magnified with every tear and anxious night. April Smith’s teleplay is sometimes standard fare, but Shapiro has brought to it an assured pacing and tense tone. Whenever the plot veers off into typical made-for mode (rushed sentiments, pat resolutions), the helmer reels it back in, concentrating on the consequences of drastic actions.
He’s helped by some sound technical work, especially by Gib Jaffe, whose taut editing adds much appropriate uneasiness.