An Unreliable Narrative

USA’s Laci Peterson drama attempts to tell a tale that’s still unfolding.

When fiction precedes fact

How do you tell a story that has no ending? This was the conundrum facing the producers of The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story (USA, tonight, 8 ET) a made-for-TV movie about the celebrated murder case that began on Christmas Eve, 2002 and is only now, with the trial of Scott Peterson, beginning its slow march toward closure. The Perfect Husband at first limits itself to the facts in the public domain. (For a summary of the case so far, click here or here.) But as the movie progresses, it charts increasingly murky ethical and narrative waters.

The writers can’t come out and call Peterson guilty, and they don’t begin to guess at his motives. Dean Cain (Lois and Clark: The New Adventures ofSuperman) thus gives a muted and cautious performance, conveying Peterson’s supposed guilt not through what he does, but through what he doesn’t do. Early on, Peterson joins a search party, and tellingly, he doesn’t call out Laci’s name. And isn’t it strange how impassive he is at the New Year’s Eve candlelit vigil? It seems that the real Scott Peterson isn’t just being tried in the court of public opinion, but by the USA Network as well.

The Perfect Husband faces another hurdle: how to create suspense around a story familiar to everyone with a television and a passing interest in the news? (The lead, as we all know, ends up in an orange jumpsuit.) The film’s producers attempt to solve this problem by creating two fictional characters, Tommy and Kate Vignatti, whose purpose seems to be to infuse the story with what at this point in the real case is a precious commodity: reasonable doubt. Longtime friends of the Petersons, the Vignattis stand by Scott, even as the rest of the world forsakes him. “They teach ‘innocent until proven guilty’ at journalism school?” asks Tommy Vignatti, when he overhears a reporter say the cops should charge Peterson “for being a callous prick.” “He cheated on his wife!” protests Vignatti. “He didn’t kill her!” In the next scene, we see Tommy rushing to Scott Peterson’s house, presumably in search of reassurance, but Peterson, who is sitting alone in a darkened house, refuses to come to the door. (That doesn’t look good, Scott!) Tommy leaves, his faith in his friend shaken, while the viewer is left to marvel at the frustrations of the last man in America who believes that Scott Peterson is innocent.

People who have been closely following the Laci Peterson case will find no doubt find The Perfect Husband a curiosity. In fact, even someone who isn’t intimate with the details will find themselves wondering why they’re watching yet another scene where Tommy and Kate get into a fight because the investigation is tearing them apart. But after a while you realize that the Vignattis are a stand-in for the Petersons themselves—Kate is even in the late stages of pregnancy—making this movie one long bait-and-switch.

As any producer will tell you, the target audience for made-for-TV-movies is  typically women, and I expected Kate Vignatti to be Scott Peterson’s last defender. But it’s Tommy who can’t accept the idea that his golfing buddy might be a killer. In a sense, it’s Tommy who is the perfect husband of the title, a loving man who helped Scott build a crib for his unborn baby and marveled at how good Scott was with his own son. “You cannot defend him!” says Kate. “I’m trying to understand it!” says Tommy. “Will you just let me?!” According to The Perfect Husband, it’s not Peterson’s guilt or innocence that’s at stake, but the fate of this fictional marriage.