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Smoke and Mirrors

CBS's JonBenet mini-series rehashes every known scenario.

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Mommie dearest: From left, Dyanne Iandoli, as JonBenet, and Marg Helgenberger in Perfect Murder.  

What's most bemusing about Perfect Murder, Perfect Town (Sunday, February 27, and Wednesday, March 1; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) is that almost every actor in the mini-series version of the botched JonBenet Ramsey case behaves as if his or her character were secretly guilty of something -- even the Boulder, Colorado, cops and especially the district attorney, whose lolling around naked in a hot tub with a glass of red wine to wet his white mustache suggests some sort of Moby Duck mythic grudge. No wonder they're all overwrought. They may not have strangled the 6-year-old beauty queen with a Filipino fisherman's garrote, but they are culpable, at the very least, of politics and bungling. Because, however, they're just actors, they don't know for sure that they're to blame or, if they are, for what. No indictment was ever brought against anyone for anything. And Lawrence Schiller, who produced and directed this adaptation of his own best-selling book, keeps his lip zipped.

I've thought a lot about JonBenet and Boulder. (No, I haven't, not really. And those who have should consider therapy. And if you're waiting for me to say something about the February 16 one-hour Fox TV movie about the same stuff, Getting Away With Murder: The JonBenet Ramsey Story, you wait in vain. Fox didn't send out preview cassettes.) I have decided that if Burke Ramsey didn't waste his little sister, causing a parental coverup, then probably O.J. did it.

This is a minority opinion. The cops (played by Scott Cohen, John Heard, Deirdre Lovejoy, Murphy Guyer, and Dennis Boutsikaris), the FBI, and a tabloid Globe reporter (Sean Whalen) all believe that Patsy Ramsey killed her daughter. The "legendary" homicide detective hired to second-guess the cops (Kris Kristofferson) is convinced an intruder did it, maybe the Santa Claus sex offender whose wife had written a play about a little girl tortured in a basement. The D.A.'s office (Ken Howard, J. C. MacKenzie, and Peter Friedman) is either uneasy about the absence of motive, semen, and evidence of prior bad behavior, or agnostic about reality itself. And all these people leak on one another when they aren't blabbing to Geraldo or CNN -- which is where we go these days with our imponderable intimacies, as to a swap meet.

But you can't tell me that Patsy did it -- not when she's played by Marg Helgenberger, to whom I have been partial since her hair was red in China Beach. Whereas my feeling about John Ramsey (Ronny Cox) is that anybody with a private plane has something to hide. Police detective Steve Thomas, who is said to be writing a Patsy-did-it book, is so ferociously impersonated by Scott Cohen that it's amazing Cohen had anything left over for Wolf, the hairy part he plays in NBC's competing mini-series The 10th Kingdom. In fact, although nobody has a better time than Ken Howard in his hot tub, the entire cast of Perfect exerts itself as if its subscription were about to be canceled, from John Rubenstein as the Ramsey family minister who is actually called upon to forgive a Globe reporter to Ann-Margret's scene-stealing walk-on as JonBenet's southern-belle grandmother to two minutes of Jane Powell as the little girl's dancing teacher.

On the one hand, we have a spiderweb, a stun gun, vaginal bruising, duct-tape fibers in the wine cellar, ghostly voices on the tape recording of the 911 telephone call, pineapple residue in the small intestine, and the fact that a 6-year-old still wet her bed. On the other hand -- as suggested by The X-Files in its recent two-part riff on the identical material -- maybe aliens did it. Or Leopold and Loeb.


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