It used to be that true-life scandals were largely the purview of TV movies and Dick Wolf’s Law & Order empire. No longer: While television series have long made hay out of loosely adapting actual historical events, the success of American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson suggests we’ll soon be seeing a glut of “tabloid trial” series, as other channels try to capture some of the magic of Ryan Murphy’s latest production. But the compelling nature of that drama wasn’t just in the magnitude of the star power; it was the supple and complex handling of race, media, and the vagaries of the American legal system. The show had smarts and drama in spades. Guilt, by contrast, has Billy Zane.
That’s not a full indictment, by the way. Zane is one of the most entertaining parts of Freeform’s latest sudsy murder-mystery thriller, the channel’s attempt to turn the Amanda Knox story into delectably trashy entertainment. For those who have been living under a rock on the moon with their fingers in their ears from 2007 on, Knox was the 20-year-old American charged with the murder of her roommate while living in Italy as a student. The case made international headlines, with its juicy angle of an American woman and the tabloid-ready facts surrounding both herself and the subsequent trial, for which she served nearly four years in prison being being acquitted by a higher court. Presumably, Guilt won’t be sending one of its stars to fictional jail for that long, although after seeing the first few episodes, it seems clear someone involved with the series should do a little hard time for again confusing clumsy with soapy.
Guilt is a show that doesn’t trust its audience. It assumes we won’t be interested in anyone who appears onscreen unless they have some sort of mysterious secret to be teased out. By the time the pilot is over, there’s a web of conspiracies and cover-ups so tangled and spread out it makes Days Of Our Lives look like Little House On The Prairie. And while that kind of description screams “guilty pleasure“ (it’s right there in the name), the narratives are too much of a mishmash, and the scripts too sophomoric, to lend it the kind of storytelling verve such a boatload of plot would require. It’s the type of series where someone says, “Maybe you don’t trust the system… but you can trust me,” and the other person doesn’t roll their eyes.
Which is too bad, because there’s a lot of fun to be had with the over-the-top nature of the setup. The center of the story’s maelstrom in Grace Atwood (Daisy Head, doing her best with what she’s been given), an American student here relocated to London, who wakes up one morning after a particularly debauched party thrown at her flat to discover her roommate Molly was killed during the night. Suspicion immediately lands on Grace and her Italian boyfriend Luc, who were supposedly passed out sleeping on the roof during the murder. Local police begin investigating, with each person we meet having a different theory about who or what may have caused Molly’s death. Grace’s estranged sister Natalie (Emily Tremaine), an assistant D.A. in Boston, flies over to take on her sibling’s defense, along with the high-flying and ethically flexible lawyer (Zane) hired by the girls’ shady stepfather (Anthony Stewart Head, Daisy’s real-life father). There’s Molly’s angry Irish brother, looking for revenge; a media circus, ready to engage in character assassination; and a series of clues that make almost everyone a suspect, no matter how far-fetched. And if that’s not enough, the show also throws in a philandering college professor, an Eyes Wide Shut-style sex club, and a member of the British royal family. All in the first episode.
The unfortunate tendency to pile on the daytime-worthy dramatics means the show’s strongest element—the thorny and fraught nature of a murder case in the era of social media—gets underserved all too often. The second episode opens tantalizingly enough, with a fellow student blackmailing Grace with cell-phone footage of her hitting her deceased friend, but the whole thing is dispensed with in a single scene shortly thereafter. A later sequence, in which a reporter captures images of Grace both crying and laughing during her friend’s memorial service, shows how quickly a media narrative can create the impression of guilt or innocence based on nothing more than manipulation of images. It would be a richer experience if Guilt dove deeper into these elements.
Sadly, the series is too eager to return to its most ridiculous inventions, without the attendant appreciation of handling cheesier elements with a degree of smarts. It’s all thrown against the screen too quickly for any of it to stick. Natalie helps lend the series some pathos with a few fleeting suggestions of the sisters’ troubled past, but is given such cursory treatment that she feels like a supporting player, not one of the key roles. A third roommate is given the briefest of explanations and then turned loose in the strange underground sex club storyline, because the show is more interested in adding new layers than doing a thorough examination of what’s already there. It doesn’t do enough work unpacking the initial state of affairs to allow the audience to get invested in these people and places. It wants to get right to the salacious stuff, and ends up weakening the appeal of all that sleaze.
But there’s promise here, should the series ever decide to take the time to dig into the delicious potential of its initial scandal. Zane and Anthony Head know exactly what kind of show they’re on, and the two actors bite into the scenery with campy zest, albeit the latter more effectively than the former. Daisy Head manages to pull off the balancing act of anchoring a show in which the audience doesn’t know if she’s guilty or not, while still possessing enough charisma to feel like a familiar protagonist. And the more grounded elements, like the lascivious professor who may have been romancing both Molly and Grace, end up being pulpier fun than the more fantastical plots, simply because the show doesn’t need to do such heavy lifting to introduce them.
Despite being quite literally pulled from one of the more salacious international crime stories of the past decade, Guilt can’t stop adding jokers to its house of cards, continually knocking the whole structure down in a tizzy of frenetic gamesmanship. Beneath all the red herrings and pregnant pauses is a strong central conceit, on par with The Killing’s “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” or Pretty Little Liars’ “Who is A?” And if the series would start giving over some of the time it devotes to scantily clad sex montages to actually fleshing out this world and the thinly drawn people who inhabit it, Guilt may yet develop the capability of delivering on its guilty-pleasure promise.