'She's Innocent' is guilty of cliche

THE PARADE OF this season's undistinguished, formulaic, made-for-TV movies continues tonight with NBC's "She Says She's Innocent" on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 o'clock.

As with most works in this paint-by-number gallery, this one comes with a gimmick -- Can Peg Bundy really act? -- and a hook to lure women viewers -- what's a mother to do when her teen-age daughter is accused of murder?


Katey Sagal, best know for her droll crudites on "Married . . . with Children," makes what NBC is ballyhooing as her "dramatic television debut" playing the mother in this.

The answer to the gimmicky question is . . . who knows if Peg Bundy can act, but Sagal is clearly a professional in this business and does just fine, thank you.


But it is hard to make your dramatic debut a memorable one with material as lifeless as this, particularly when it was directed without one bit of style or grace.

The story, nicely modified to include Sagal's real-life pregnancy (unfortunately, she recently lost the baby), has her playing the about-to-be-divorced mother of a teen-age girl going through the raging hormone period. Communication across the generation gap is limited to occasional launchings of verbal Scud missiles. The film's best scenes capture the fragility and depth of that relationship.

The daughter, played by Charlotte Ross in a wardrobe about as tight as that worn by the Bundys' teen-age daughter Kelly, is having the normal spate of boyfriend and best friend problems, depicted in some of the most lifeless, cliched scenes about teen-age life committed to film since 1962.

One day, a nice policeman (Jameson Parker) comes to the library where Mom works to give the kids their anti-drug puppet show. Turns out he's an old flame from Mom's high school who has moved back to town and is now a homicide detective. So what's a homicide detective doing putting on a puppet show? If you ask questions like that, clearly you should not be watching this movie.

But just as they begin to renew their acquaintance, the daughter and a couple of her friends have a squabble that ends up with a fight in the woods. One of the friends is found dead. She has a mysterious diary that reveals something about her love life with R. Sounds like Laura Palmer. Though there turns out to be a certain thematic rip-off involved, not for a minute will you think you're watching "Twin Peaks."

The girls involved decide to stonewall the investigators, but the tangled web they weave eventually ensnares our heroine's daughter. She's charged with murder. At this point, Mom's continuing relationship with the policeman seems ridiculous, the entire investigation of the crime seems ridiculous, the reaction of schoolmates seems ridiculous, and, most of all, dressing up "L.A. Law"s Alan Rachins as a one-note meanie ex-husband in a toupee and beard seems ridiculous. He looks like a participant in a James Brolin look-alike contest

But wait! There's more! Mom is determined to get to the bottom of this mess so she decides to solve the crime single-handedly, breaking rules of evidence and common sense with an abandon that would do Peg Bundy proud. All culminates in the inevitable female-in-jeopardy, good-guy-to-the-rescue climax.

A gimmicky conceit holds the suspense of "She Says She's Innocent" together for most of its two hours; that is, through some tricky editing, you don't know what actually happened up there in those woods.


When Mom gets on the case and the movie becomes a whodunit for a few minutes, you realize that if its structure had been altered, this could have been a decent mystery. You should have known from the beginning what happened with the girls in the woods, then the suspense would have come from wondering who actually did do it, and if the solution would be discovered in time to save the innocent from prosecution.

But NBC probably wouldn't go for that. Mysteries tend to attract male audiences. Dramas about mothers trying to get their daughters out of jail are what the demographic doctor ordered for running opposite Monday Night Football.