The 2014 Lifetime Original Movie Lizzie Borden Took An Ax was just good enough to suggest how it could’ve been a whole lot better. The film retells the story of one of the most infamous murders of the 19th century: the brutal hatcheting of a respected Massachusetts couple, allegedly perpetrated by their middle-aged spinster daughter (played by Christina Ricci). Lizzie Borden Took An Ax’s big gimmick—or almost-gimmick—is that it comes tantalizingly close to parodying the kind of “ripped from the headline” TV movies that Lifetime usually pumps out. The actors sport 1890s costumes, and speak with the exaggerated formality that reads as “Victorian” in mainstream entertainment, but the soundtrack is filled with modern electric blues and neo-folk songs, and Ricci’s lead performance is wonderfully, ludicrously wicked. Director Nick Gomez and screenwriter Stephen Kay don’t follow through enough, but at its pulpiest moments, Lizzie Borden Took An Ax is a knowing riff on the Lifetime tradition of anti-heroines who not-so-secretly revel in negative attention.
Ricci returns for Lifetime’s new eight-part miniseries The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, and co-produces as well, with Judith Verno. Also back: Stephen Kay, who directs the first two episodes (but didn’t write them), and Clea DuVall as Lizzie’s worrywart sister Emma. The series picks up a few months after Lizzie was acquitted of murdering her folks, and finds the sisters preparing to move out of their middle-class Falls River neighborhood—where the locals are still convinced that Lizzie’s a killer—to a nicer home, financed by their sizable inheritance. But first they have to reckon with a few people who show up on their doorstep with their hands out, including their half-brother William (Andrew Howard) and their father’s old business partner Mr. Almy (John Heard). Meanwhile, a roughhewn but scarily capable Pinkerton detective named Charlie Siringo (Cole Hauser) is nosing around in the background, determined to bring the Bordens to justice.
Judging by the two episodes that Lifetime has made available, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is going to function both as one long story and as a twisted kind of murder-of-the-week show. The second hour adds more characters—including a crime boss played by Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks—and more storylines, as the Borden sisters meet their new neighbors and Lizzie gets involved with the theater. (A money-grubbing impresario insists that a hundred years from now, people will hear the name Lizzie Borden and think “patron of the arts.”) But the main action in each of the first two installments involves Siringo’s investigation, and Lizzie getting pushed into a corner before falling back on old habits to force her way out.
As with Lizzie Borden Took An Ax, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles stops just short of being as radical or funky as it could be. Just as the movie leans on square crime-drama conventionality—rather than becoming a full-on parody of same—the miniseries misses the chance to be, essentially, a 19th century Law & Order with the same killer every week. (Or, alternately, like a distaff Dexter.)
As accomplished as much of the cast is, they have trouble consistently finding the difference between intentionally stilted and just flat. The campy high points in The Lizzie Borden Chronicles are scattered sparsely: a scene of Siringo carrying around one of his bounties’ heads in a satchel; the discovery of a baby’s bones in the Borden basement; a bit where Emma sighs, “This family seems to lurch from one tragedy to the next!” after another of their acquaintances turns up dead; a fleeting moment where Almy almost accuses Lizzie of killing her dad and she shoots him down with a withering look; and so on. The show’s creators clearly understand that they’re in the business of dispensing cheap thrills and comic irony, but seem hesitant to make The Lizzie Borden Chronicles completely balls-out crazy.
The series’ savior—again, same as the movie—is Ricci. She’s clearly having fun playing Lizzie Borden as a feminist badass, perpetually underestimated. (“You’re so… delicate!” people say when they meet the notorious axe-murderer for the first time.) Lizzie manipulates and murders men and women alike because she figures that’s the best way to get what she wants in a repressive, sexist culture. Whenever she sees a woman in over her head, she heaves a small sigh and says, “Gather yourself… this is not a problem,” and then she gets down to business.
Ricci’s Borden is a fun little riddle, who bristles when the kids in the street chant the famous rhyme about her, but also smiles when an actress gushes that Lizzie was “in the papers more than President Cleveland.” And when that bastard William tries to grab a share of the family fortune, Lizzie’s mostly annoyed because he didn’t earn it, like she did. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles doesn’t quite know what to do with its own self-awareness, but the same can’t be said of its producer-star, who has a winningly evil twinkle in her eye whenever she encounters another problem she can kill her way through.