Some day, the true crime miniseries will re-take the world of network television with its seedy but gripping appeal, but CBS’ “Guilty Hearts” won’t help the cause. Treat Williams and Marcia Gay Harden (who filmed this before she took home the Oscar for “Pollock” last year) can’t make up for the lack of an effective hook or twist, so pic quickly descends into an ultra-traditional sudser that’s fuzzy where it should be sharp.
Miniseries is most effective in its first hour, when it depicts the unraveling of a marriage. Harden plays Jenny Moran, a church organist and lower-middle class wife and mom who feels she and hubby Matt (Gary Basaraba) have grown apart, their interests diverging to such a degree that she barely remembers the last time they did anything together.
Best friend Nora (Rebecca Jenkins) assures Jenny that this is normal, but nobody is quite aware of the depth to which Jenny feels alone, so absorbed in her own self-pity that she doesn’t even notice Matt’s efforts at appreciation.
When Jenny’s father becomes ill, she approaches a prominent member of the church, Dr. Stephen Carrow (Williams), for his help. As her father deteriorates, the wealthy, worldly and pious doc offers Jenny a sympathetic shoulder, and when she decides to leave Matt, he’s quickly on her doorstep, insisting that his marriage has long been a sham as well.
The two plunge into an affair, and despite Jenny’s desire to be open about their relationship, Carrow insists on keeping it private, suggesting that this would be best for Jenny’s divorce. He even convinces her to accuse Matt of spousal abuse to give her an upper hand in the proceedings. By this time, viewers may be wondering, “Where’s the crime in this true crime story?” They finally get it at the end of the first evening, when Carrow’s wife is murdered while sleeping in her bed.
Second night begins by holding out the possibility that Matt may get accused of the crime, but “Guilty Hearts” offers little in the way of mystery. The cops crack the case in a hurry, and Carrow confesses to his dastardly deed, insisting he had snapped.
Only Jenny’s claim to a motive — that he killed his wife to be with his lover — can undo this baddie’s insanity. The big-wigs at the church stand by their man, and Jenny finds herself without a job, friends or family, with even her mom (Olympia Dukakis) refusing to speak with her.
Without any mystery or real psychological depth, teleplay by J.B. White and Steven Siegel relies on some good old TV stand-by themes: courage and forgiveness. Jenny must find a backbone and testify against Carrow, while Matt begins allowing — and even encouraging — her to re-enter his life, despite how badly he was wronged.
Harden is strong, but Jenny comes off as a bit dim as the story evolves. Williams makes an effective monster, getting calmer and calmer as he gets ever-more devious in plotting legal strategy. But there’s something very muddy about the way this whole thing plays out; Carrow’s calculations leading up to the murder, and his real feelings toward Jenny, never come to the surface, and there are some significant clues that Carrow tried to frame Matt that go thoroughly undeveloped.
While some threads remain unresolved, there also too many gratuitous scenes in “Guilty Hearts” with little apparent purpose but filling out the 4 hours. It’s a genuinely unsuspenseful work, and all the good acting in the world can’t make it any less perfunctory.