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Television Review

'Unicorn Killer' Is Left in Hunt for Consistent Drama

May 08, 1999|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bright but insecure young woman lives with a boyfriend who charms the world yet, alone with her, is becoming increasingly abusive. One day, as she flips open her private journal, she finds that he has been scrawling comments in the margins, including: "Do not drive me to cruelty . . . you are too precious to me!"

Witnessing this in "The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer," a person wants to scream, "Get out now! Run!" Knowing that such mistreatment goes on behind many other closed doors only makes the horror more profound. Unfortunately, though, such grab-you-by-the-collar moments are rare in this slick but unsatisfying four-hour miniseries, which airs Sunday and Monday on NBC.

The source material is an incredible true-life story: the stunning paradox of a man of peace--'70s environmental and antiwar guru Ira Einhorn--who ended up being convicted in absentia of the vicious bludgeoning murder of girlfriend Helen "Holly" Maddux. Bruce Graham bases his teleplay on Steven Levy's investigative book, and director William A. Graham works with a top-notch cast that includes Tom Skerritt, who turns in a quietly understated performance as Maddux's distraught father; and Naomi Watts, who causes hearts to flutter and then sink as the radiant yet unfathomably unsure young woman.

The problem is: Einhorn's dark side shows before the first commercial, giving us too little time to be seduced by him before we begin hating him. It's difficult, then, to understand what Maddux saw in him, or why some of Philadelphia's power elite stood by him. As Einhorn, Kevin Anderson, who was nominated for a Tony Award this week for his supporting role in "Death of a Salesman," does his best to exude charisma. But the role is written so much against him that he merely comes across as oily and self-satisfied.

Part 1, which traces the Einhorn-Maddux relationship, is marginally better than Part 2, which too rarely recaptures the Maddux family's heartache during its ongoing 22-year quest for justice.

* "The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer" airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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