Two chilling crime dramas and a fresh take on Cinderella story

By , Television critic of The Christian Science Monitor

A truly grown-up thriller can be absolutely absorbing; it's like a minivacation from daily life.

The Whistle-Blower (BBC America, March 9, 8 p.m.-midnight, check local listings) is a timely and gripping adult drama. It's all about corporate coverups, political intrigue, and the flaws in the British (and American) witness-protection system.

After working at an important London bank for 15 years, Laura Tracey (Amanda Burton) discovers a major drug money-laundering operation going on in her own company. But when she blows the whistle, her own life is turned inside out - along with her husband's and children's lives.

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Endangered by nasty drug lords and upper-crust bankers, her home life roils, and then the real trouble surfaces.

When the authorities discover a number of transgressions in her past (the bank execs supply details), they become suspicious. The only question none of the cops ever asks is, if she is lying, how come the hitmen are still trying to wipe out her family and do her in, too?

But then, their suspicions turn down another twist of the labyrinth. You just don't know what to think of Laura until the last few minutes of the film.

Issues of justice and courage run through this intelligent story, along with issues of responsibility and accountability balanced against what is best for the family. And even though writer Patrick Harbinson ("ER," "Dark Angel") exposes the nightmare of living in a witness-protection program, his deeper insight underscores individual responsibility for the state of the world - even when doing the right thing involves great sacrifice.

Another significant made-for-television film for grownups is Court TV's first original movie, Guilt by Association (March 13, 9-11 p.m.). It's an unabashedly moral film that seeks to expose instances of grotesque injustices in mandatory minimum-sentencing.

Though meant to combat drug lords and take dealers off the street, these laws have been so badly written, say critics, as to punish most severely the innocent family members and friends of the guilty. Most of these victims are women - girlfriends, sisters, mothers - of the bad boys who deal. The story demonstrates how witch hunts are still with us, taking different guises as times change.

Mercedes Ruehl plays Susan, a widow with two children who falls in love with a man who appears to be perfect. When she discovers that he is a marijuana dealer, she kicks him out. She doesn't want drugs around her children. Too late.

She has taken phone messages for him and hosted a couple of parties where the women just talked and the men talked "business." Because she has no idea of the extent of his business, she has no information to trade for a reduced sentence. She gets 20 years, while the real culprits do one to five.

Why would anyone target a woman like this, someone who has never even experimented with drugs? It's all about the numbers, one character says - how many can the feds lock up. Meanwhile, the worst culprits accuse her of things she didn't do to plea-bargain themselves into reduced sentences.

It's an interesting direction for Court TV to take, making films that address injustices in the very legal system that they report on every day. The press material included legal facts to back up this well-made fiction. Court TV will be making three new films a year, and if this one is any indication, with its fine writing and stunning performance by Ruehl, the new films will be a welcome addition to prime time.

Of course, prime time needs good family programming even more desperately than it does fine adult stories. That's where Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (ABC, March 10, 7-9 p.m.) comes in this week. Based on the charming novel by Gregory Maguire, this Wonderful World of Disney presentation turns the Cinderella story on its ear.

Cinderella is one of those stories that turn up in almost every culture of the world. An abused young girl is visited by an unearthly person who dresses her in finery and sends her to meet the prince. Her good nature is rewarded as much as her good looks.

But what if beauty were a real burden, and Cinderella weren't the optimistic, loving young woman she is supposed to be? What if her plain stepsister is the one with the great heart?

Well, you'd still need a wicked stepmother to make the story work. Though, in the film version, Stockard Channing makes her less wicked than she ought to be and kinder to her own daughter than novelist Maguire figured her. And adorable Azura Skye is way too beautiful to be "ugly" in anyone's eyes. Still, Maguire's fine storytelling is not lost altogether. And it's the spirit of his work that prevails. Maguire grew up on fairy tales and the parables of the Bible.

"They continue to have their effect," he said in a recent interview. "It's the meaning of the stories - the moral as well as the magical dimension of fairy tales that still appeals....

"Beyond the value of physical beauty, there's something more important. So what is there? I hope to have some carrot of character and of moral fiber that will make [a character] beautiful in the eyes of the Everlasting."

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