'The Bad Seed': TV Review

The kid's not all right.
9/9/2018

This remake of the killer-kid classic boasts Rob Lowe as co-star and director and a fine Mckenna Grace performance, but it's familiar Lifetime fare.

Lifetime's new version of The Bad Seed lists a Russian nesting doll of writing credits. Barbara Marshall wrote the new teleplay, with nods to the original 1954 novel by William March, the subsequent play by Maxwell Anderson and the feature screenplay by John Lee Mahin.

It's a long way to go in order to attach a recognizable brand name to what would otherwise be a pretty standard Lifetime movie in one of the network's tried-and-true genres. The documentary series Killer Kids has played on Lifetime, and the network's rich vein of homicidal twins and evil adoptees stretches back decades. Call this latest Lifetime flick How Can I Get Back Into the Dating Pool When My Daughter Keeps Killing People? and you generate enthusiastic eye-rolling and drinking games. Call it The Bad Seed and you tap into a surface-glaze legitimacy that's probably unwarranted, because the movie, notable as co-star Rob Lowe's directing debut, achieves only a baseline amount of trashy fun, nothing more or less.

Even if you don't know Mervyn LeRoy's 1956 film, you know the basic plot — which is really, really basic. Lowe plays David, caring single dad to Emma (Mckenna Grace). Emma loves hot chocolate, Shirley Temple movies and exchanging adorable pleasantries — "What would you give me for a basket of kisses?" "A basket of hugs!" — with her pop. There's nothing in the world that Emma wants more than the citizenship medal from her posh elementary school. She doesn't get it, and, in no time, the mediocre boy who won the medal is dead.

It takes way too much time before David begins to suspect that Emma may be something of a, um, bad seed and faces the burning question "What do you do if your perfect little angel is a remorseless killing machine?"

So what have we gained by updating The Bad Seed for 2018? Very little. This definitely is not an opportunity to polish up the psychological realism of the narrative. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Some kids are just born bad, and the lack of over-explanation is part of what's potent here. Still, there are missed opportunities for character-driven fun. The medal that so obsesses the central character was originally for perfect penmanship, and heaven knows nobody cares about that anymore, but was "citizenship" really the only way to go? Portraying Emma as an exceptionalist in an everybody-gets-a-trophy world wouldn't have demystified the character. It just might have added some welcome satire and contemporary specificity.

When David begins to wonder about his daughter's welfare, he now has the ability to go to something called DiagnosticDoc.com — as of this writing, Lifetime hadn't bothered to park a site at the domain, which is just plain lazy — and read helpful articles like "Unusual Behavior in Children," a slightly more subtle approach than a close-up of David typing "Is my daughter a serial killer?" into Google. When he proposes a trip to a psychiatrist, Emma quickly understands what he's getting at and replies, "I watch Intervention." See? Totally modern!

Perhaps the biggest update is assigning Emma's parenting to a widower, though that change in the story isn't used to explore how a father might struggle to raise a little girl, but rather to touch on how it might impact a father's social life when his daughter is constantly throwing out homicidal roadblocks. Even though Emma is the title character, the movie really wants us to empathize with how this whole thing inconveniences David, who is, as Emma's tough-talking, sexy nanny, Chloe (Sarah Dugdale), puts it, "a DILF." So modern!

As a director, Lowe makes sure to underline that categorization with at least one shot of David getting out of the shower and staring at himself topless in the mirror. The narcissistic male gaze at work or simple fan service for a Lifetime audience trained to ogle Rob Lowe like Home Shopping Network viewers ogle a sparkly cubic zirconia? Why can't it be both?

Despite his many years starring on TV shows that were amenable to actors working behind the camera, this is Lowe's first time directing since a 1997 short. Some of his inexperience is evident. There's an overreliance on overhead drone shots that serve no purpose and often badly confuse the spatial geography of scenes. I would go so far as to call the movie's first death a disaster of visual continuity. There's a half-developed motif of exaggerated insert close-ups that I think was an homage to LeRoy's work on the original film, without sufficient commitment. Lowe also doesn't quite know how to stage or edit conversations. Still, he generates a few moments of eerie suspense, and one or two silly-scary scenes produce the right combination of gasps and laughter. He also gets a sturdy, believably perplexed performance from his leading man.

Even better is Grace, proven to be convincingly precocious in Gifted and as the young version of the title character in I, Tonya. Much of the success or failure of The Bad Seed rests on the 12-year-old actress' ability to be unnerving, sweet and occasionally funny, and she nails every beat, especially in her scenes with Dugdale as the nanny with her own bad-seed streak. It's not exactly a subtle performance, with Lowe's camera constantly catching Emma practicing her "normal" aspect or lurking in corners or doorways. But Patty McCormack's work in the original wasn't subtle either, making it all the more enjoyable. McCormack cameos as the aforementioned psychiatrist — and in case you don't recognize her, she tells both father and daughter how much Emma reminds her of herself at the same age.

Lifetime publicity material refers to the original Bad Seed as a "cult" classic, which is ridiculous. It was one of the top-grossing movies of its respective year and was nominated for four Oscars. Don't expect a comparable level of popularity or acclaim for this new version, but if they had called it How Can I Get Back Into the Dating Pool When My Daughter Keeps Killing People?, I probably wouldn't have bothered to review it.

Cast: Rob Lowe, Mckenna Grace, Patty McCormack, Sarah Dugdale
Writer: Barbara Marshall
Director: Rob Lowe
Premieres Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Lifetime)