As weird as it may have sounded when originally announced, a television series centered around Lizzie Borden is actually a sound idea. Borden, the woman tried and acquitted for brutally murdering her parents with an axe, remains a notorious figure today (the first timeI heard of her was, like many others, through the popular schoolyard rhyme). It’s also a good time for serial killers on television: Dexter ended a while ago but it’s been replaced with Hannibal, Bates Motel, The Following, and others. These shows all focus on male serial killers; Lifetime premiering a cat-and-mouse detective series about a female serial killer is, surprisingly for the network, a near-genius idea.
The campy 2014 Lifetime Original Movie Lizzie Borden Took An Ax wasn’t exactly a masterpiece but it performed solidly in the ratings — 4.4 million viewers, more than Lifetime’s Saved by the Bell, Aaliyah, and Brittany Murphy original movies — and resulted in the network spinning it off to a limited series, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. The series takes place a few months after Lizzie’s acquittal and focuses on Lizzie (Christina Ricci) and her sister Emma (Clea DuVall; both actresses are reprising their roles from the movie) attempting to move on. Billed as “historical fiction,” Lifetime takes many great liberties with the story, essentially only keeping Lizzie Borden’s name and murderous habits.
Free to detour from the historical script, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles then becomes a serial killer period piece. People close to Lizzie, including her half-brother, keep getting mysteriously and brutally murdered and detective Charlie Siringo (Cole Hauser), based on a real lawman, becomes obsessed with Lizzie’s case and serves as her adversary. It’s so tempting to write this off as another cheesy program on Lifetime (and it certainly isn’t the next best television drama) but the series is surprisingly fun, shedding imagined light on what Lizzie’s post-acquittal life could have been like.
Lizzie’s something of a celebrity in her town now, unable to walk down the street without whispers following her. “You’re her, aren’t you? You’re Lizzie Borden. I can’t believe it. You’re in the papers more than President Cleveland,” one woman breathlessly exclaims before inviting Lizzie and Emma to a fancy party in New York City. Early in the pilot episode, Lizzie overhears children jumping rope while singing that eerie, familiar nursery rhyme. She grabs a nearby axe and the children all scatter except for one girl who proclaims, “I’m not afraid of you.”
“Then you haven’t been paying attention,” Lizzie replies coldly, and Ricci’s delivery is indicative of the direction the series is going to take: a vaguely serious approach to a serial killer narrative but without losing Lifetime’s trademark cheesiness and groan-worthy lines.
But Lifetime is, oddly, a good home for The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. There is a dearth of women serial killers on television because it’s a medium where women characters are too often defaulted to the beautiful dead girl. Within the crime drama genre, women generally have very few options: the bruised SVU sexual assault victim, the corpse with perfectly done make-up laying on a slab in the morgue, the murder victim with stringy blonde hair peeking out through the corner of a body bag, or, if lucky, the cold detective still reeling from her past relationship who spends more time fending off the advances of her partner than she does solving crimes.
But with all the male serial killers running around the bigger networks, shouldn’t women get to have a little axe-wielding fun, too? Lifetime’s original movies, especially a decade or so ago, focused heavily on women getting revenge on their abusive lovers; The Lizzie Borden Chronicles skips characterizing Lizzie as the put-upon partner and goes straight to the blood splatter. It’s almost a show created for the misandrist Internet: there is the queering of Lizzie in one episode; her faux-seduction and murder of a man in another.
There are weird tonal shifts in The Lizzie Borden Chronicles and hilariously anachronistic music choices — it’s as if Lifetime really just wanted to place Lizzie Borden in a modern society (a show I would gladly watch every week) but had all those gothic costumes left over from the movie — and the writing and directing both leave a lot to be desired (though the setting does work, especially considering Lifetime’s budget). It feels weird to actually recommend something airing on Lifetime (and I do so hesitantly) but The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is, well, not bad. It’s the best offering Lifetime has right now and a mostly enjoyable if not mindless drama to DVR and watch on a day when television is light. If nothing else, it makes the case for how male serial killers have become repetitive and now it’s time for more wicked, murderous, anti-heroines on television. Maybe now other networks will jump on the trend.