Published January 19. 2013 4:00AM
On a Saturday night one year ago, Lifetime drew an astounding 5.8 million viewers for "Drew Peterson: Untouchable." The fact-based film starred Rob Lowe as the notorious Illinois black widower who is currently awaiting sentencing for the murder of his third wife.
Now Lifetime repeats the formula, hoping to make ratings lightning strike twice.
"Prosecuting Casey Anthony" is a re-creation of the 2011 tabloid trial of the young Florida single mother accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter.
This time Lowe is on the right side of the law, portraying Jeff Ashton, the assistant state attorney who conducted the case against Anthony. (The film is based on Ashton's book, "Imperfect Justice," written with Lisa Pulitzer.)
The bland role of the veteran prosecutor doesn't give Lowe much to work with. In the end, the film is stolen by "The Office's" Oscar Nuñez as Anthony's relatively inexperienced but cagey attorney Jose Baez. (During the trial, Geraldo Rivera dubbed Baez "Juanie Cochran.")
There isn't much suspense in the script, nor are there surprising revelations about what happened. The cause of the child's death is never dramatized or even fully established.
The true appeal of "Prosecuting Casey Anthony" lies in our strong residual interest in finding out just how our criminal system could manage to be blinder than Mr. Magoo.
From the time Anthony's daughter, Caylee, was reported missing in 2008, the case sparked rabid national attention. In the court of public opinion, the young mother became a deeply reviled figure, perceived as a party girl who seemed utterly uninterested in her daughter's welfare and who lied repeatedly to the police.
That's why the verdict came as such a profound shock. After less than 11 hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted her of all the serious charges and found her guilty of only four misdemeanors. Facing the death penalty, Anthony instead was set free days after the trial concluded.
The film begins with Ashton (Lowe) promoting his book in a TV interview. The reporter asks him what went wrong with the case. "You mean other than the verdict?" he responds. "Not a thing."
Elizabeth Mitchell ("Revolution") plays Ashton's second chair. Virginia Welch has the thankless (and nearly wordless) task of playing Casey. And Caylee is represented by a young actress named, somewhat eerily, Kaylee Lussier.
Ashton is convinced his case is "rock solid," and indeed, the script does a thorough job of inventorying all the behaviors and omissions that made Anthony seem so abundantly guilty, beginning with the fact that she never reported her daughter missing, even after 31 days.
Mixing news footage and dramatizations, the film does a capable job of re-creating the media frenzy that surrounded the investigation and subsequent trial. There's as much face time for strident cable avengers Jane Velez-Mitchell and Nancy Grace as for any of the principal cast members.
The narrative becomes lopsided as the script continues to loyally adhere to Ashton's point of view - that this was an open-and-shut case. You're surprised when about 90 minutes into the movie, one of the TV commentators asks if the state can possibly recover from all the prosecution blunders.
Because up to that point you're unaware that any have occurred. Ashton appears to be winning in a rout. Even Baez's attempt to cast Anthony's father (Kevin Dunn - Mr. Witwicky in the "Transformer" films) as the real villain seems like a flimsy attempt to shift blame.
The focus of "Prosecuting Casey Anthony" should have been on the vast disparity between how this case played on TV and how it played in the jury box.
So why didn't Anthony's trial result in a conviction? One theory is that it fell victim to the "CSI" effect. Jurors are so used to prime time's high-tech procedurals, they expect to be presented with irrefutable forensic evidence.
Some analysts argue that the jury didn't sufficiently grasp the principle of reasonable doubt.
You may develop your own ideas watching this film. For instance, laziness. Ashton spends far more time ordering lunch and watching TV here than he does working on his arguments.
Or maybe he was pursuing the wrong strategy from the start. When he takes the case, Ashton vows, "When I get done with her, she's going to be the most hated woman in America."
He may have succeeded on that front. But unfortunately for Ashton's case, that's not a punishable offense. And the prosecutor was never able to tie the mother to Caylee's death. All he could offer were theories.
In the end, this is a satisfying true-crime drama because it rekindles all the powerful emotions of the original trial. The indications of guilt are so overwhelming and so obvious that for many the verdict will still seem unthinkable. Outrage can be surprisingly cathartic, even the second time around.
"Prosecuting Casey Anthony" airs at 8 p.m. Saturday on Lifetime.