'Guilt': TV Review

Leo Pinter/Freeform
A 'Guilt'-y pleasure at best.
6/13/2016

Billy Zane is the standout in Freeform's fictionalized take on Amanda Knox, which should be cause for concern.

Normally, I hate the phrase "guilty pleasure," a loaded term that implies that there are some levels of appreciation that should make the appreciator feel shame or self-doubt. Love what you love, says I, even if my opinion may vary. However! When you find a way to make a regular ongoing series on the back of a tabloid-friendly international scandal and the result is a hodgepodge of bizarre accents, silly red herrings, mismatched performances, comically sanitized tawdriness and Instagram-filtered postcard locations, and the title of your show happens to be Guilt ... let's just say that Freeform's new drama series, premiering Monday, offers a lot of amusement, but only some of it is intentional and the end result is probably, at best, a Guilt-y pleasure.

Created by Kathryn Price and Nichole Millard, Guilt may not literally be based on the notorious Amanda Knox case, but it certainly hovers in its general vicinity of inspiration. Daisy Head plays Grace, a wealthy young American living in London who becomes the focal point in a murder investigation when her roommate Molly is found dead in their flat. The British press delights in dubbing Grace "American Psycho," but it's soon clear that there are myriad other suspects, including the tweedy professor who may have had an affair with Molly, her hot-headed Northern Irish brother, DJ and prostitute-procurer Roz (Simona Brown) and a handsome prince (Sam Cassidy) with an interest in bondage. And then there's the stalker who may or may not have stolen Molly's stuffed monkey, a particularly ominous criminal detail that caused me to laugh out loud every time it was mentioned.

While Grace is certainly suspicious, she has a team of people looking to protect her, including her Boston-based attorney sister Natalie (Emily Tremaine) and Stan Gutterie (Billy Zane), an ethically ruthless lawyer working in London after disgrace back in the States. Stan seems to be working for Grace, but he also has ties to Grace's often distant American businessman father (Daisy Head's real-life dad Anthony Head), who is just slimy enough that you immediately know he's going to be a suspect as well.

Prone to jarring flashbacks and questionably motivated lighting and dutch angles courtesy of pilot director Gary Fleder, Guilt often feels like a never-ending crime reenactment from one of your more exploitative Investigation Discovery woman-in-peril specials, but airing on the network that used to be ABC Family, there's a tentativeness in embracing what ought to be unqualified trashiness. When it comes to straight-up sex, The CW gets away with far more, and when Guilt tries to tip-toe into the realm of kink, it's another thing likely to generate giggles rather than titillation. You can't have a British royal you want to imply is a sexual deviant illustrated only by proximity to a woman in lingerie tied very loosely to a bed, and if you're the network that used to be ABC Family, while it's cute that you're trying to depict an Eyes Wide Shut masked orgy, maybe you have to ask yourself who would find a masked orgy this lame worthy of even an iota of secrecy. This isn't to say that once the ABC Family name was dispatched, Freeform should be welcoming nipples, thrusting and gimp suits, but Guilt isn't aspiring to class or quality. It's aspiring to soapiness and a level of YA filth that it doesn't come close to delivering.

The fun of Guilt comes largely from the goofiness of watching it struggle to achieve that low aspiration and from guessing at the directions that must have been given to most of the show's foreign cast. The murder is being investigated New Scotland Yard and, perhaps afraid of making American viewers parse accents, the British cops played by Cristian Solimeno and Naomi Ryan speak with a deliberation that must've been directed as "slower and more British." [Inside Baseball Note: The second of two episodes sent to critics was a rougher cut and included notations that many line readings, perfectly understandable but perhaps more regionally accented, were going to be redubbed for "clarity."] Similarly, Grace's scruffy Continental boyfriend Luc is enunciating with a "slower and more French" vibe that could only be enhanced if he were wearing a beret in every scene, while Irish actor Kevin Ryan's character no sooner arrives before he starts making reference to The Troubles, though he has yet to demand the whereabouts of anybody's Lucky Charms. Then you have Daisy Head and Anthony Head playing American with a predictable awkwardness that gets more and more noticeable as emotions are heightened and since Grace is ever on the verge (or past the verge) of tears, which Daisy Head does very well, that's frequent. Even the London settings are overacting, with Big Ben or The Eye making cameos that I assume are authentic, but frankly could just as easily be CG, in the background of as many shows as possible.

Guilt is such a mess of feigned and failed authenticity and feigned and failed vulgarity that it's most uncomplicated pleasure comes from watching Zane basically play a hybrid of James Spader's characters from The Practice and The Blacklist. There's no shame to being a basic-cable Spader, and Zane owns the off-beat line readings, the slithery character morality and the jaunty fedora with equal aplomb. Even in his hamminess, Zane may be the series' only actor who feels completely natural here and the show loses steam when he's absent.

Unfortunately, Guilt is not really "The Billy Zane Show," though it would be an interesting redefinition for the Freeform brand to just be building vehicles around 50-year-old character actors. Instead, it's left for the questionably directed young cast and the sanitized sensationalism — it's not even up to a Pretty Little Liars level — to carry the show to more snorts and chortles than shock and arousal.

Cast: Billy Zane, Daisy Head, Emily Tremaine, Cristian Solimento, Naomi Ryan
Creators: Kathryn Price and Nichole Millard
Airs: Mondays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Freeform)

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