Summer’s the right time for a potboiler that involves pretty people, murder, and the English aristocracy, but the London-set “Guilt” never quite knits an array of reasonably promising elements into a watchable warm-weather melodrama.
The biggest shame is that it doesn’t make better use of a couple of key cast members — Anthony Stewart Head (best known for playing Giles on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), and the ubiquitous Billy Zane. Head, who has been absent too long from American TV screens, here plays the rich father of Grace (Daisy Head, the actor’s daughter), an American student suspected of the murder of her hard-partying flatmate, Molly. Head is usually able to enliven even flatly written roles, but his entitled character in “Guilt” is tediously one-dimensional and nowhere near the charming rake the show clearly intends him to be.
The person having the most fun on screen, despite the plodding pace, is Zane, who plays a deliciously shady lawyer hired to defend Grace, who quickly becomes a target of the U.K. tabloids. (And speaking of tabloids, the fictional storyline here recalls certain elements of the case of Amanda Knox, an American in Italy who became tangled up in a lengthy and convoluted Italian murder case.) Unfortunately, Zane can’t rescue the entire production, which follows many of the dictums of the ABC/Freeform soap-opera formula — multicultural cast, choppy editing, and pop music on the soundtrack — but ends up recalling the rote superficiality of lesser ripped-from-the-headlines “Law and Order” episodes.
Not that “Guilt” needs to aspire to follow in the footsteps of “The Good Wife,” let alone the cerebral “Rectify.” It’s clearly going for a slicker, soapier vibe, and there’s a lot to like about that kind of flashy, lawyer-adjacent drama. “Scandal,” the best current exemplar of this genre, has been able to wring a great deal of entertaining melodrama from an array of educated, good-looking characters who’ve committed a number of murders on the road to power.
“Guilt” isn’t about power players per se, but it fails to deliver on a number of important fronts. Its characters are predictably written, the dialogue is average at best, and Grace in particular does so many dumb things that it’s hard to care about what happens to her. Grace’s lawyer sister, Natalie (Emily Tremaine), jets over from Boston to help defend her, but while both actresses are competent in their respective roles, neither character makes much of an impression.
Given that so much of the show is half-baked, the introduction of a high-end brothel with an “Eyes Wide Shut” vibe just comes across as silly, not sexy. “Guilt” methodically presents viewers with a group of characters who may have murdered Grace’s unlucky flatmate — and one of the suspects, it is hinted, is a member of Britain’s royal family. But in its first two episodes, it fails to give them or their predicaments the kind of frothy, propulsive energy a good murder-driven soap needs.
If anything, “Guilt” makes one yearn for the day that the television industry will come up with a smartly written, light-on-its-feet legal thriller starring the lively and watchable Zane. The fact that it hasn’t done so yet is a much more compelling mystery than anything that occurs here.