Vigilantism is good, at least on TV, according to ABC.
If America's justice system fails you, then just take the law into your own hands. As long as you don't kill anybody, great!That's the premise of ABC's "Vengeance Unlimited," which previews Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Ch. 4 before moving to its regular time slot Thursday at 7 p.m.
Tuesday's premiere opens with a disturbing scene in which a man violently strangles his secretary when she stumbles on evidence of his illegal dealings. Despite what appears to be an airtight case, the killer's lawyer manages get him off.
If your idea of entertainment is watching a young girl wake up from her nightmares screaming because the man who murdered her mommy is a free man, then this is the show for you.
Enter Mr. Chapel (Michael Madsen), a mysterious man who has made a career out of destroying the lives of guilty people who have beaten the system. There are two ways to pay Chapel for his services - either $1 million or the promise of a favor somewhere down the line.
ABC, the producers and the show's star make much of the fact that Chapel doesn't hunt people down and kill them.
"I'm not running around shooting people," Madsen said. "And I think there's a big difference there."
But the distinction hardly seems all that important. In Tuesday's pilot, Chapel illegally accesses police records; assaults and kidnaps a guy, holds him hostage and psychologically tortures him; commits burglary and vandalism; commits bank fraud; assaults another guy; desecrates a body; gets an innocent woman kidnapped and assaulted; and creates a situation in which another man is shot to death.
Does he wreak most of this havoc on guilty people? Yes. But his tactics hardly make him much better than they are - and provide a horrifically bad example to impressionable young viewers.
(And, remember, this show will normally air at 7 p.m. on Thursdays.)
"There's a very fine line between good and evil and right and wrong," Madsen said. (That's an interesting point of view.)
And Simkins disingenuously tried to assert that although "Vengeance Unlimited" portrays a vigilante as a hero, it doesn't promote such behavior.
"This is not about promoting that kind of justice or somebody going out and taking the law into their own hands. . . . What we're promoting is an hour of fantasy," he said.
OK . . . right.
In the second episode of the show, which airs on Thursday, Chapel continues to commit illegal acts in the pursuit of justice. And the hour includes a serial killer, a murder, beatings and both psychological and physical torture.
"Vengeance Unlimited" is clearly the product of events like the O.J. Simpson trial. And, oddly enough, the original inspiration for co-creators and executive producers John McNamara and David Simkins was "The Count of Monte Cristo."
"I think after Louise Woodward and certainly that football player guy, there's a sense out there that something's just not right," Simkins said.
And, while the details are never spelled out, Chapel himself has somehow been affected by a miscarriage of justice in his own life, setting him on his current course.
It's easy to understand the frustration that events like that build in the public, let alone in Chapel. But holding up the pursuit of vengeance as the answer to that frustration is bizarre and disturbing.
All ethical questions aside, "Vengeance Unlimited" simply is not a very good show. There are few surprises - the plot twists are telegraphed well before they happen.
And Madsen has the charisma of warm Jell-O. He mumbles his way through the show with barely a change in expression.
If there were vigilante justice for TV shows, mobs would quickly rise up and drive "Vengeance Unlimited" off the air.