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TELEVISION REVIEW

The misdeeds of mother

Kirstie Alley stars tonight in 'Family Sins,' a grotesquely unfolding tale inspired by a real-life scandal.

March 14, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

It seems those Pier 1 commercials have paid off for Kirstie Alley. In the CBS Sunday night movie, "Family Sins," she once again plays a regressive, self-centered, antisocial and merchandise-mad weirdo just like the one in the ads, only this time, she's not as well-groomed.

"Family Sins" is based on the story of Frances Burt, a Rhode Island mother of 11 who was convicted in 1994 on 24 counts of arson, sexual assault, kidnapping, extortion, racketeering and welfare and disability fraud. Why Graeme Clifford, who also directed Alley in the 2003 made-for-TV movie "Profoundly Normal," has chosen to tell the story now is unclear; "Family Sins" hasn't been ripped from the headlines so much as it has been carefully exhumed.

The real-life scandal that inspired it is pure 1980s: dark, lurid, pouffy and oversized, and seemingly scripted by V.C. Andrews. Nothing says Reagan-era suburban gothic like a bad mommy with a plate of cookies in one hand, a live electric wire in another and a crucifix glinting on her neck. And needless to say, Brenda Geck -- PTA mom, friend of the mayor and the local clergy, aggressive cookie-pusher and sadistic crime boss -- is a role Alley was born to play.

Brenda's misdeeds are rolled out slowly -- the story grotesquely unfolds like a rotting tulip -- and in ever-increasing degrees of improbability. (Incidentally, CBS touts the movie's true-story bona fides -- otherwise, it would be, you know, completely implausible -- but coyly declines to name names.) We watch as Brenda instructs her children and foster children in shoplifting and fraud, but it's not until after her arrest that we learn that, when not burglarizing her tenants' apartments and setting them on fire, Brenda enjoys torturing her sons-in-law, threatening her maintenance lady and keeping a former deadbeat tenant locked up in her basement for 18 years with little to eat. The basement-dweller is Nadine (Kathleen Wilhoite), who signs over her daughter Marie (Deanna Milligan) to Brenda in exchange for dessert. Brenda's husband Ken (Kevin McNulty), natch, molests them both. Son Joey (David Richmond-Peck) sticks to Marie.

Eventually, Marie manages to run away with her small son and lay the suburban gothic horror story on the local authorities; but neither the police, nor child services, nor the Justice Department believe her. (Her hair is just too stringy.) When she manages to spark the interest of a local newsman, however, all that changes. The brilliant D.A. Phillip Rothman (Will Patton) springs into action, and Marie finally succeeds in dragging her addled mother out of the basement and the Gecks into court.

"Family Sins," in other words, is a story of faith and redemption and believing in yourself and weirdos and the incalculable value of some well-timed publicity. But what really counts is that it's the most sensationalistic schlock-athon starring Kirstie Alley you're likely to catch tonight, and is best enjoyed with something cheesy.

*

'Family Sins'

Where: CBS

When: Tonight, 9 to 11

Kirstie Alley...Brenda Geck

Will Patton...Phillip Rothman

Deanna Milligan...Marie Devereaux

Kathleen Wilhoite...Nadine Devereaux

Kevin McNulty...Kenneth Geck

Executive producers, Susan Levitan, Bettina Viviano and Ricka Fisher. Director, Graeme Clifford. Writer, Donald Martin.

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