ABC's entry in the Sunday night battle of the sickos is Judith Light as one strange lady in "Wife, Mother, Murderer," which will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) at 9 o'clock.
This is another based-on-fact model, the story of Marie Hilley, just a simple social-climbing Alabama housewife who decides to poison her husband and daughter, then run off, and, using a fake identity, marry another guy, pretend to die, come back as her twin sister, seduce her "dead" sister's husband, and then say it was all just a big, silly mistake.
It's an opportunity for Light to show who's the boss because if you don't do what Marie says, you might find yourself munching on an arsenic sandwich.
Light, Southern accent and all, is actually pretty good in this role, getting down all those social graces that mask her character's true intentions. Other familiar faces in the cast are David Dukes, now on "Sisters," as the district attorney who prosecutes the case, and David Ogden Stiers of "M*A*S*H" fame as the guy who fell in love with this lady, not once, but twice. Despite the big-name competition, Kellie Overbey as Hilley's daughter turns in the best performance.
The script for this gives Hilley the same problem that plagues a bunch of the antagonists in these true-story, sicko-family TV movies -- social climbing. So many of these killers -- dating back to Jeffrey MacDonald in "Fatal Vision," the miniseries most responsible for spawning this trend -- have made it their life's goal to rise in social standing.
At some point, frustration sets in. Maybe they make it up the ladder but find that their problems are not all solved. Or maybe they live in fear of being discovered as a fraud. Whatever, they snap out and one of the Joes -- McGinniss or Wambaugh -- gets a call to write the book.
In Hilley's case, the frustration was because she just couldn't make it up the ladder. She is depicted as coming from the lower classes of Anniston, Ala., but the prettiest girl in her high school class. She cruises the town's ritzy neighborhoods, scoping out the houses she thinks she should be living in.
At first, it is her husband holding her back. You meet him in the first scene, already on death's door. Then, caring for her cancer-ridden mother is getting to be trouble.
Then, when the bills keep piling up and the checks are bouncing and the lies aren't covering them, she eyes the life insurance she's taken out on her daughter. Luckily, a doctor happens to spot evidence of arsenic before it's too late. That's when Hilley goes on the lam and starts her second life.
"Wife, Mother, Murderer" is nothing more, or less, than a wallow in weirdness. There's no redeeming social importance. If you want to spend two hours of your Sunday night watching a crazy woman who kills her husband, maybe her mother, and tries to do the same to her daughter, then dive right in.