The Lizzie Borden Chronicles Overstays Its Welcome
by Kristin Battestella
Following the 2014 Lizzie Borden Took an Ax Lifetime television movie, Christina Ricci and Clea DuVall reprise their roles as the acquitted murderess and her homely sister for eight episodes of the 2015 The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. Four months after her infamous trial, Lizzie and Emma find returning to the quiet life in Fall River difficult now that Pinkerton Charlie Siringo (Cole Hauser) is investigating the suspicious violence always following in Lizzie’s wake…
The rhyme is made ye old for the “Acts of Borden” premiere of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles while prim ladies giving Lizzie dirty looks, kids spying through the window, slow motion jump rope, and surreal ax blows remind us of the previous forty whacks– as if we have forgotten so soon. The sisters are still wrangling with their late father’s debtors, but herky jerky camerawork and seizure-inducing montages immediately try for audience cool with intrusive contemporary music to match. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles goes for grit via fast action, on the move dialogue, and flashes of crimes past and present with every blink. This is also a reset, with The Lizzie Borden Chronicles placed before the end scenes of Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, adding an initial confusion amid unnecessary music transitions and blaring rifts. I love westerns – cowboys really need to make a comeback – however The Lizzie Borden Chronicles inexplicably attempts to be Deadwood instead of Penny Dreadful. There is no build upon the innate character creepy and precious few still moments between the sisters, but a Borden brother drops by and there’s Victorian pornography. Our Pinkerton doesn’t feel the open and shut cases in “Patron of the Arts” are resolved when every murder always benefits “thee” Lizzie Borden, who’s visiting the New York theatre as more music montages combine the high society parties, dead bodies, and alleyway rescues before another investigation montage. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles plays at girl power or lesbian teases as our titular spitfire smiles over her teacup, charms women, and kills big bad men. Putting the acquitted and her new Pinkerton adversary face to face should be a wonderful battle of wills, but the sloppy angles and distracting camera interferes, rushing any good conversation in favor of the next kill of the week music video. Characters may endeavor to move on, but the attempted scandalous drama always returns to repetitive kills, pointless boudoir photos, and jarring rock music.
While the first two episodes set the series off on the wrong foot, director Russell Mulchay (Highlander) adds the potential for cinematic suspense in “Flowers.” The camera should never call attention to itself or a cause lack of immersion – especially in a period piece. Here, however, the camera stays still for a conversation, letting the shrewd fully build alongside creepy coffins and pimps. Viewers are able to follow the story, spend time with characters, and revel in consequences from the past and more twists to come. We know certain players are on borrowed time, so stewing in Lizzie’s wrath is more fun than a fast whack or two. There are still noticeable zooms, but the movement matches the tense one on one scenes. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is divided into four blocks with directors doing two episodes each amid five show writers. Such a limited series with so few players should have been more tightly focused with one director and one writer. Instead, this short attention span design is too on the nose with an in your face hip trying to avoid some dreaded period piece yawn. The sociopathic camp is creepy enough in “Welcome to Maplecroft.” Who wants to wake up with Lizzie at the foot of your bed offering you a breakfast scone? Nope! The abundance of neat crimes in Fall River are the perfect way to assure nothing is suspected – but Lizzie is too neat, buying up all the neighboring properties via a generous sale or other, accidental means. The audience has to enjoy the systematic way everyone around the Bordens drops like flies, because having the townsfolk unable to follow the trail back to her is insulting otherwise. Blackmailing thugs are right to fear any “ax of Borden” retributions, and high and low conflicts make the supporting players more interesting – The Lizzie Borden Chronicles might have been neat from the Fall River perspective. Fortunately, the twisted drama unfolds naturally, with firm threats unfettered by intruding rock this episode. Background saloon music, tender strings accenting a romance – The Lizzie Borden Chronicles needed music that would invoke the setting, emotions, and vengeance. Chases about the ominous dark house, gunshots, and clock chimes build suspense, and scenes with interplay rather than camera flair do best.
Convenient falling down the stairs mishaps in “Cold Storage” lead to arrests, inquests, self defense claims, and speculative testimony. Naturally, audiences can’t complain about the accuracy of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles as it obviously diverges from history and never professed to be anything but sensational. So-called rough interrogations, however, are weak – character back stories and blackmailing the good catholic over his not so devout proclivities are much more delicious. Unfortunately, the drama is revealingly thin without the busy camera, music montages, and choppy editing. The meaty scenes with the main cast are best, but such moments are too brief to sustain the entire forty minutes. Viewers expecting macabre instead of melodramatic affairs will be disappointed – even the killer twists become routine, and with such transparency, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles might have done better as half hour webisodes. After all, it isn’t a persecution complex when Lizzie really has orchestrated this death tally in “Fugitive Kind.” Swift trials leave little time for prosecution tension – the courtroom consequences are over before the title card – but seeing pathological liar Lizzie swearing to tell the truth on the witness stand is a winking irony. Sadly, important scenes seem left on the cutting room floor, and critical information is dropped in quick throwaways, leaving the viewer to question what just happen or presume the details – a very slip shod way to tell a story. Despite ditching the wham bam music video format, the pace drags with who’s on who’s side or which guy is beating up the other guy this week filler. Jealously, murderous plotting gone awry, and the reaction on Lizzie’s face are better than such back and forth, but the writing on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles really doesn’t give the cast a chance to bring it. Brief confrontations can’t be fully appreciated because Lizzie makes anyone who sees her for what she really is disappear in an episode or less. Besides, it’s no fun when she pays thugs to off her intended in dark, chaotic scenes rather than her own DIY.
Kids daring to ring the doorbell and covered furniture add a spooky whiff to “The Sisters Grimke,” but it is awfully late in the game for The Lizzie Borden Chronicles to switch from Massachusetts to Maine and Nevada with boys will be boys rock outs, unassuming school teacher disguises, and resetting cowboy vendettas. We’re just getting into psychosis reasonings now? Reporters in the middle of nowhere want headlines but where were the yellow journalism muckrakers when the heads were rolling in Fall River? Chopped up bodies, catatonics, institutions – we know murders about campus and electroshock therapy are coming and the disturbing hospital horrors are good. Unfortunately, leap frogging the times and places compromises the development of the series regulars, and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles tacks on Tom Horn and Bat Masterson in some kind of Lizzie Goes West potluck. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles suffers from the same structural problems as its precursor film with little rhyme or reason to its presentation. Again, why not space out the Fall River aftermath, New York actress mayhem, alias move and institution, and Pinkerton investigations in four more telemovies? This series gets off to a very rocky start, provides some suspense potential in its middle, but devolves with another move to Boston in the “Capsize” finale. Recovering from shock therapy and turn of the century traveling move fast amid madhouses run amok, slo-mo shootouts, Irish mob families, Russian roulette, gunslingers, and gangsters. Say what?
Lizzie Borden – who prefers “former Sunday School Teacher” to “ax killer” – knows how to solve problems and enjoys intimating children claiming they are not afraid of her. While Lizzie says she’s glad to be a grown woman on her own with no intention of having a husband, she’ll flirt and seduce for her murderous gains. Lizzie won’t sleep with a guy and further tarnish her reputation, but she’ll bludgeon him hot diggity! From buying a new mansion after eliminating her creditors to playing dress up with a rescued hooker she treats like a pet, Lizzie loves pleasing herself on the party scene. Girl kisses happen fast on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles as well, with Lizzie ready to pounce on her latest BFF in the dressing room so long as it suits her agenda. Although I wish The Lizzie Borden Chronicles had maintained the nude or scantily clad killing theories and going to bathe or naughty whatnot after the thrill, Lizzie commits a lot of bloody acts in some pretty expensive, fashionable clothes. Despite her finery, she’s apathetic and casual, unfettered by the violence she causes. After telling her lies so many times, Lizzie genuinely believes she is not a monster. Ironically, we like Lizzie – Ricci looks the cute but crazy look and viewers know to take all she says with a heap of salt. This could have been a truly fun performance, but Ricci doesn’t seem onscreen very much save for the same act three death strokes each week. Modern dialogue makes Lizzie’s threats feel invalid, and blurry focusing with rock music punctuation is unnecessary. After all, what’s the point of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles if we can’t see all her killer camp?
Unable to revel in their infamy, Clea DuVall’s Emma Borden reads aloud for fun and calls what happened to her younger sister “The Unpleasantness.” She tries to do her church going Christian best to see the good in everyone but distrusts their wayward brother and can’t understand why Lizzie enjoys being the star of her own little circus. Emma is aware their family seems marked by tragedy, but rather than having room to become the audience’s moral center, it’s again odd that The Lizzie Borden Chronicles takes places before the coda of the film – confusing the sisters’ timeline and erasing Emma’s subsequent knowledge about Lizzie’s killings. This backtrack dumbs Emma down, going from a woman who leaves her sister alone to one dreaming of having her own husband and happy to have any romantic prospect. Unfortunately, she can’t escape all the skeletons in her closet – wink – and such macabre scandals are forgotten, left unexplained, or throwaway used in as needed contrivances instead of steering any actual character development. Emma’s frumpy, meek style is also more to visually contrast with flashy Lizzie than show personality, and quiet conversations about Emma raising Lizzie are more interesting. She can’t exactly be proud of the woman her sister has become or move on with her life and leave Lizzie alone. Emma tries to vindicate Lizzie and get to the bottom of the violence in their lives, but those answers won’t be coming any time soon. Ultimately, she can’t be bothered to hide her feelings – it’s tough to be an upstanding woman when Lizzie Borden is your sister! However, I’m unsure how The Lizzie Borden Chronicles would have continued with Emma if there had been a second season. Nor I think did they after backing either an unwanted character into a corner or rightfully loving Clea and trying to give her more if silly storylines.
There’s no doubt we need more Pinkerton dramas. However, the inclusion of Cole Hauser (Rogue) as the unwelcome real life bounty hunter Charlie Siringo with his free rein badge shooting people and asking questions later sends mixed signals on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. He’s hired to review the Borden case, but locals are reluctant to go back to the infamous past. Siringo sees through Lizzie’s current crimes, but politically minded officials give him an uphill legal battle. While tension between Siringo and recurring ladies and twists on why he is in Fall River add depth, he seems too invested in persecuting Lizzie – to the point that we know almost nothing else about this wild historical figure. Siringo’s rough past is told rather than seen with no careful battle of wills or accumulation of evidence, and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles resorts to extreme outlaws, shootouts, and half cocked attacks to bring down the character. Numerous guests should have stuck around longer on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles as well, including rival businessman James Heard (Home Alone) and Andrew Howard (Bates Motel) as disowned brother William Borden. Unfortunately even the supporting cast appearing in six or more episodes serve as little more than their stereotypes, such as hustler Bradley Stryker (iZombie), nasty doctor Ronan Vibert (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), abusive hotel owner John Ralston (Flash Gordon), and former friend to Lizzie Olivia Llewellyn (Penny Dreadful). Not that the Bordens bode well for friendly officer Dylan Taylor (Copper), Nance O’Neil based actress Jessy Schram (Nashville), and mobster matron Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) either.
Fortunately, the gloves and muffs add a refined, little lady would never kill vein alongside hats, parasols, feathers, lace, and puffy sleeves invoking fine ladies silhouettes. Lanterns and candlelight create a golden patina, however the camera never stays still long enough to steep in the atmospheric attention to detail, making The Lizzie Borden Chronicles feel nondescript despite being a period show. Brief focuses on cursive writing will be tough for millennials, and the editing moves blink and you miss it fast over the shock reveals, skeleton accents, and dead babies. Zooms and hectic handicam photography almost feel like a deliberate covering up the cut production corners technique. Pull back so viewers can see the autumn leaves, snow on the ground, Victorian carriages, and architectural facades. Thanks to either cheapness or television ratings, there’s only mild splatter and brief gruesomes, and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles name drops Bleak House and Sherlock Holmes instead, hitting home the currently renowned then-entertainment as if the audience can’t be trusted to like the turn of the last century. Again, especially now having seen the series, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax should have been the household up to the forty whacks with The Lizzie Borden Chronicles recounting the courtroom aftermath and any manor of Victorian horror, mysticism, or Massachusetts witches with homicidal Lizzie at the center of it all.
While bemusing for a drinking game, weekend marathon, or fans of the cast, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles never lives up to its potential and fails to provide a coherent, binge worthy plot. The first episode of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is faulty, and the series grows a little too preposterous with fast conveniences and weekly guests becoming just another notch on Lizzie’s ax handle. Despite a fun predecessor and the charming Christina Ricci, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles retains the haphazard flaws from Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, snowballing into an all over the place one trick pony used eight times too many.