Drama details legal turmoil

Three cable stations have launched new ventures this week. Last Sunday, ESPN aired its first movie, "A Season on the Brink." Last night, FX premiered its first weekly drama, "The Shield," and tonight, Court TV unveils its first film feature, "Guilt By Association" (8 p.m.), starring Mercedes Ruehl.

Like many TV dramas, "Guilt" is a "message movie," where the story serves to spotlight a particular problem. Just as the "disease of the week" movies used melodramatic plots to inform viewers about AIDS, incest and child abuse during the 1970s and '80s, this new genre focuses on good-intentioned laws run amok, or laws that don't protect us enough. In the Lifetime movie "Snap Decision," we got to see Mare Winningham play a woman dragged off to prison after prudes in the police force deemed her innocent photos child pornography. In the more recent "Video Voyeur," Angie Harmon's character discovered that there were no laws to protect her from her creepy neighbor's prying camcorder.

All of these movies depend on strong, identifiable, and almost always female characters caught in a justice system that has lost all semblance of common sense. "Guilt by Association" follows this formula a little too closely. Ruehl plays Susan, a feisty, widowed mother of two who thinks she has found the ideal new boyfriend in Russell (Alex Carter). He's kind to the children, helps Susan buy a new car and even plans on buying a dream house where they can all live together. Susan's bubble bursts when she discovers that he is a pot smoker and most probably a drug dealer, as well. For the sake of her children, she calls off their romance.

When Russell and his fellow dealers get busted in a drug raid, some of his confederates learn that the only way they can lessen their sentence is to rat out another dealer. To Susan's surprise and horror, they implicate her in a drug conspiracy. We're shown that such innocent gestures as taking a phone message for her boyfriend, or delivering Russell's gym bag to his job site tie her into his drug ring. Susan visits a starchy lawyer who recites all of the inequities of the so-called War on Drugs minimum-sentencing laws. The fact that Susan knows nothing of Russell's dope business actually puts her at a disadvantage. To make matters worse, she can't afford the starchy lawyer because the War on Drugs laws allow authorities to seize her house, car and bank accounts. Since she has nothing to offer over-zealous prosecutors, she gets the maximum sentence.

While Ruehl turns in a familiar performance as a feisty woman wronged by a Kafkaesque justice system, "Guilt" makes its legal point too early and too often to rise to the level of solid entertainment.

�� Why reach for the stars when you can grovel in debasement? Fox continues its search for the lowest common denominator with "Celebrity Boxing" (8 p.m., Fox). The title cards feature scandal queens and has-beens, including Paula Jones vs. Tonya Harding; Danny Bonaduce vs. Barry Williams; and Vanilla Ice vs. Todd Bridges. Each spectacle will go three rounds. This all makes me pine for the relative innocence of last month's "Glutton Bowl."

Tonight's other highlights

��Scheduled on "Dateline" (7 p.m., NBC): an interview with Liza Minnelli and her fianc�, David Gest.

�� The president faces an override of his "death tax" veto on a repeat of "The West Wing" (8 p.m., NBC).

�� McNeil's duplicity goes into overdrive when both his wife and mistress show up at Pip's backyard barbecue on a very funny episode of "The Job" (8:30 p.m., ABC).

�� Cathy Moriarty ("Raging Bull") guest stars as a widow accused of contracting to murder her con-man husband on a repeat of "Law & Order" (9 p.m., NBC).

�� Scheduled on "60 Minutes II" (9 p.m., CBS): how forensic experts solve crimes; "The Lord of the Rings."


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