(L to R) Christina Ricci (“Lizzie Borden”) and Clea DuVall (“Emma Borden”) star in the all-new Lifetime Original Limited Series, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. Photo Credit: Chris Reardon. Copyright 2015.

Christina Ricci and Clea DuVall  in Lifetime’s The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. Photo Credit: Chris Reardon. Copyright 2015.

Christina Ricci has made a career out of playing disgruntled girls with an implied darkness and a wit about two years too old. All that culminated rather flawlessly in 2014’s Lizzie Borden Took An Ax, Lifetime’s messy but enjoyable biopic about one of the most infamous crimes of the century — well, not this century, or even the last one, but the one before. In that, Ricci played Lizzie Borden, the notorious American woman who was tried and acquitted for the murder of her father and stepmother by ax. This time, Lifetime has produced an eight-hour miniseries that takes on Lizzie’s life directly after she was found innocent. Of course, she’s anything but, and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles takes great enjoyment out of milking her tenuous ties with truth-telling for all they’re worth. The series delves into the event in flashes of violence — surreal cuts to the murder with drastic changes in score and editing technique, staying somewhere between memory and fantasy. The scenes are gruesome, yet something about it feels as if Ricci is never fully giving into the character’s darkness and instead is dancing around it.

The show works largely because Ricci is enjoying much of the same things that we are. The story is one you’ve heard before, most likely in the children’s rhyme that opens the series: “Lizzie Borden took an ax/And gave her father forty whacks/And when she saw what she had done/She gave her mother forty-one.” Chronicles picks up four months after Lizzie is found innocent, though while the Lifetime film that inspired the series ends with her whispering the truth in her sister Emma’s ear (Clea DuVall), the stakes seem to have dipped a bit here. DuVall appears to be here to stay, playing both Lizzie’s confidant and emotional victim.

In the first episode, a lot of the groundwork is laid down: Lizzie’s father was deep in debt with his business partner, William (John Heard). Even if Lizzie and Emma were to pay William the entire sum of money they were left after their father’s untimely death, they would still be in debt, likely paying him in bits forever. The lump sum owed is about more than just money, though. Scenes of Lizzie and Emma fantasizing about the wealth factor in prominently; late in the second act, Lizzie purchases a new house, convincing her sister that their home has too many memories.

This emphasis on second starts makes Chronicles feel like a strange companion piece to A&E’s Bates Motel, another cable series interested in interrogating the deep psyche of strange young people, and the women who try against their better judgment to keep them safe. In Bates Motel, homes and safe spaces factor in prominently; strange family co-dependencies serve to remind you that everything feels like a Greek tragedy if you squint hard enough — Chronicles deep dives into much of the same themes.

Where DuVall finds a way to live in the character, Ricci seems more interested in living in the show. You get the sense that she knows exactly what kind of series she’s in. Yet their mutual bond proves to be the show’s eventual payoff. Whereas everyone seems convinced of Lizzie’s guilt, from churchgoers to the children already reciting that infamous nursery rhyme, Emma is her defiant supporter. As her champion, she seems to be both Lizzie’s only hero and possibly her most emotionally distressed victim. Their relationship is largely the show’s most interesting element, and where it’s going is the source of its most genuine tension.

While Lizzie begins to conjure up ways to stop William from taking the entire Borden estate (we may not have seen the last of that ax just yet), a local police officer begins to further investigate Borden’s history. The townsfolk remain far from convinced of Lizzie’s innocence; a Borden Sister outing features hushed tones and averted stares, reminding you that the court of public opinion has found Lizzie very much guilty. Soon after the trial, Lizzie’s brother, William (Andrew Howard) — not to be confused with the father’s business partner — comes to town, desperately searching for the Borden family treasure and uncovering something much more dastardly in the process.

A period piece this is not. When the series opens with a generic electric guitar score, using frenetic cutting that feels more at home in a bad music video than in a 19th century true crime story, you’re thrown headfirst into exactly the kind of show Chronicles is interested in being. Be sure, Chronicles is partial to employing tropes through decoration. The 19th century garb is purely aesthetics; the minute you hear somebody utter “gonna” for the first time, you’re thrust back to the present, and reminded of what the show’s priorities truly are: to titillate with tongue firmly planted in cheek. And camp truly is the lifeblood of the series already, and when it strays, the show falls flat. The subplot featuring Lizzie’s brother is far less interesting than the show thinks it is, though it does tap into some of Lifetime’s favorite story beats: bloodlines, family secrets and tender allegiances.

When the camera focuses elsewhere, and loses sight of Ricci, Chronicles largely falters. Ricci is serving ham and eating up the roll. The series isn’t quite self-aware as much as it’s self-contextualized. Considering Lifetime’s historic interest in telling female stories of varying degrees, Lizzie becomes more than just a historical anecdote — she is reframed as the first tabloid fixture of the modern century, famous for being famous. Lifetime has found its roots in reforming the legends of well-known women, with more emphasis placed on enjoyment than accuracy. In that way, it’s interesting to watch a historical true crime drama framed within the larger Lifetime universe. It would be even more interesting if the series really delved into the idea of Lizzie’s strange celebrity — a pre-Kardashian equivalent of scandal as the most crucial currency.

Yet that isn’t the show’s lean, and it doesn’t seem to be going in that direction, but Ricci is the show’s thumping heart. Her dark features and wide eyes remind you of what made her such a captivating screen presence in the early 1990s — Winona Ryder lite. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles isn’t brilliant, but it knows where the source of the show’s macabre joy lays, and it’s somewhere in Ricci’s dead stare. She’s found a way to heighten the performance enough so that it elevates the show’s failures and somehow brings it in line with Lifetime’s other women-in-danger narratives. The only difference is that here, women aren’t in danger; they are danger

Rating: B-

Video courtesy of Lifetime.

Video courtesy of Lifetime.

You can catch “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” Sundays at 10/9c on the Lifetime channel. Missed the first episode? You can currently watch it online by clicking here.