Guilty Party

2 out of 5

Created by: Rebecca Addelman

covers season 1

In our constant attempts to better gender balance our media, perhaps it’s especially progressive to revert back to stereotypes, and center your show around a shallow, flighty, bubble-headed female. Sure, it’s a zig – when Guilty Party starts with journalist Beth (Kate Beckinsale) losing her job over accusations of falsified sources, we’d expect the way she latches on to lost cause accused-of-murder Toni’s (Jules Latimer) case as a way for her to prove her bona fides, and instead she proves to be pretty shit at her job – but it’s also a weird pivot, seeming to mine humor out of a fairly dated feeling personification, and one that doesn’t do much to engender the character to us.

That “humor” bit is the make or break element to Guilty Party’s approach, which confuses dark humor for pettiness, and is tonally confused as to whether we’re laughing at Beth or with her, flip-flopping between both in a cake-and-eat-it-too manner that doesn’t allow Beckinsale to really solidify the character’s personality. Guilty Party’s writers / directors further try to cover these issues by escalating everything else: every other character is made as equally shallow, and unrelatable, which then just draws into question why we’d want to spend time with any of them, or the show. The prestige-y style titles, and the way some emotive music plays up when we hit particular beats, suggests creator Rebecca Addelman was aiming for some Fargo-esque quirk, but it turns out that might require a bit more nuance than just gathering a cast of oddball characters and plotting-by-coincidence.

…To an extent, we can hang on to the central mystery, of Beth going back and forth with Toni in choosing to believe whether or not the latter murdered her husband, and at points there are some worthwhile concepts touched on with white privilege, and Beth trying to shake her inherent Karen / Becky-ness (I’m not versed enough to know what most applies here) and figure out if she’s really interested in Toni’s plight, or just trying to be a white savior for this Black inmate. At other points this isn’t so much “touched on” as it is hit on the nose with obnoxious self-aware chatter, and then cue the dramatic Fargo music, but such is the show’s unevenness.

Towards the end of the season, we do start to get some context that helps to humanize Beth and others, but I did feel like that would’ve been more effective with a smoother ramp up. It’s instead played off like a “twist,” and this is on the back of some other cheap maneuvers regarding the murder mystery, which likely could’ve been resolved by some actual baseline investigating by Beth instead of just acting indignant most of the time.

Very occasionally, Guilty Party does come together: it’s a group of horrible, manipulative people being horrible and manipulative to one another, to no one’s benefit, and from a top-down perspective, that can be kind of funny. Mapping it to a murder mystery is moderately inspired. But by centering the show around Beth, it makes it into a character study, and that doesn’t work with horrible, manipulative people, and frustrates when the mystery bit keeps getting pushed aside for character-study subplots that also feature horrible types.