Ken Tucker
May 03, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Television trends blossom and wilt, but the schlock TV movie is a stubborn perennial. You may have feared that the recent high ratings for NBC’s faithful adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels would result in a raft of classics newly illustrated. (If Ted Danson can play Gulliver, can Shelley Long’s Madame Bovary be far behind?) But rest assured: No matter how often network execs promise to take the high road, they still find it in their burnt-cinder hearts to indulge the slavering rubes they take us to be. Thus, the juicy, all-star adaptation of the best-seller A Season in Purgatory.

If Unfinished Affair is two hours of solemn hogwash, A Season in Purgatory is two nights of hasty pudding. Its most immediate virtue is that it puts writer Dominick Dunne back in proper perspective. For the millions who watched a lot of O.J. Simpson trial coverage, Dunne became a familiar figure, scribbling notes for his Vanity Fair reports. With his silver hair and fancy-dan suits, he was deemed one of the classier O.J. commentators, so it’s nice to have this TV movie to remind us that he is, in fact, a skilled hack leeching off pop-culture scandal. In Purgatory (adapted for TV by Robert W. Lenski), Dunne offers yet another mauling of the Camelot myth.

The thinly disguised Kennedy family becomes the big-boned, athletic Bradley clan, and patriarch Joe takes the form of Gerald Bradley, played with just the right mixture of menace and vulgarity by Brian Dennehy. ”When you get caught with your pants down you pull ’em up and start lyin’ about it!” he roars to his son, JFK stand-in Constant (Craig Sheffer), after the little dickens is expelled from boarding school. Constant rapes and kills a girl soon after, and best friend Harrison Burns (Patrick Dempsey) is the appalled onlooker who helps him dispose of the body. Guilt, glorious guilt, hangs heavy over everyone, including Sherilyn Fenn, as a hard-drinking sister, and Blair Brown, who, in the movie’s cruelest role, plays the wizened, fanatically Catholic matriarch.

Both Unfinished Affair and Purgatory are profoundly mean-spirited toward women, who are either nasty shrews or sad victims. Only Bonnie Bedelia, who shows up in Purgatory as a pushy defense lawyer, displays any strength and charm. In a better TV-movie world, Bedelia would be the hero of the piece, while Garth’s unfinished business would be to find a good man, not to go crazy over a cheating creep. C

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