It is Mother's Day all week from the look of the television fare, and a chilling look it is. The main event, the three-part "Mystery!" series "Mother Love", beginning on PBS Thursday (8-10 p.m. EDT), is a richly sustained tour de force starring Diana Rigg in the role of mother and ex-wife supremely gifted in the art of retribution. That art is precisely what the slightly worn looking but still beautiful Helena Vesey has always depended on in her dealings with those who trespass against her. The ruling principle of her life has been to exact retribution, which makes her a woman not altogether easy to dislike. The trouble is that the retribution she requires tends to be of the most final sort, a pattern which revealed itself quite early -- around the age of 10, in fact -- when she managed to poison a schoolmate who had made the mistake of making friends with another girl.
Even at this age little Helena had concluded that personal betrayal warranted the ultimate punishment. It was a belief that was of course to complicate her life, to say nothing of the lives of others, one or two of which she shortened.
Helena's raffishly handsome barrister son Kit (James Wilby) has spent most of his life indulging most of her jealous obssessions, of which the deepest is her insistence that Kit never see his father, who divorced Helena long ago. A nice lad, Kit has nevertheless kept close secret ties with his father, a much honored symphony conductor, and has also recently acquired a wife. The saga of hatred that follows as Helena uncovers these and other betrayals is likely to resonate in many an ex-wifely, motherly (or for that matter fatherly) heart.
Diana Rigg brings the ferocity of classic tragedy to the role, which is also not without its component of low comedy. In one of the series' best moments, Helena sits watching a television interview with the woman married to her ex-husband, a talented photographer in her own right. Scornfully, Helena listens to her uttering the sort of inanities to which artists are given when talking about their work, i.e., "I look for the aloneness that separates us," and "I can't say what I mean with words, guess that's why I take photographs." To which the seething Helena replies, as she talks to the set, "Stupid, stupid! Pretentious nonsense." There are, to repeat, times when it is hard to dislike Helena.
The script is loaded with nice ambiguities like this, subtly but indisputably there as in this scene in which the altogether sympathetic, attractive, kind, talented second Mrs. Vesey, a woman beloved by all and loaded to the ears with fine sensibilities, is nevertheless made to seem distinctly fatuous. The interviewer and interviewee burble solemnly on about Mrs. Vesey's vision, her work habits, the sacred status of the artistic enterprise, while wicked Helena gets to deliver the appropriate editorial comment in this scene, which is nothing short of wonderful. The dimensions of character here, in short, are admirable, which isn't to say the script itself always is.
Take the point at which a Hollywood actress is introduced into the plot, a moment that becomes the occasion for undergraduate satire of the smuggest kind. Thereafter this actress, a slightly vulgar type drawn with a particularly British tin ear for the way this sort of American actually talks, marries the widowed Alex Vesey. This American airhead is soon revealed as a woman transformed, and leading a life of dignified contentment, mainly it would appear because she has settled down to life among these talented and cultivated English people. One has a terrible suspicion that all this is in earnest.
Still, this sort of thing hardly matters with Helena around to direct tireless scorn at everyone in sight, not least her ex-husband and his brood. This is an all-star family: They play, they dance, they sing songs around the piano, in a life as sunny as Helena's is dark. Matters do not improve, for Helena, when her ex-husband is granted a knighthood, making him Sir Alex Vesey. In this role of the maestro, David McCallum -- and in particular David McCallum's hair, which could hardly be more perfect for tossing around a podium -- is exactly right. James Grout in the supporting role of poor cousin George, one of Helena's few friends, is, however, the true standout among the supporting players.
There is nothing of the whodunit about this "Mystery!" Who does what is clear. The central drama here is not murder, but the tides of unbearable feeling that are bound to seem familiar to any number of people, though Helena is of course quite mad. What power Ms. Rigg exacts from this most unbearable of emotions -- jealousy. She quivers, she rolls her eyes, she chokes on jealousy. Roles like this, as she herself notes in the prologue, don't come along often in an actress's life. With this series, "Mystery!" starts its 11th season. It is an auspicious beginning.