Kate Beckinsale and Andre Hyland in "Guilty Party".

Beckinsale Elevates an Unsteady but Ambitious “Guilty Party”

“Guilty Party” stars Kate Beckinsale as a tenacious journalist trying to prove a Black woman innocent of murdering her husband. A year off winning Colorado’s most prestigious investigative journalist award, Beckinsale’s Beth Burgess is now discredited. She once worked for a major newspaper. Now she toils away in a clickbait factory.

The ideas that create tension in “Guilty Party” are good ones. When she was successful and admired, Beth could count on her husband as supportive. Now that the power dynamic has shifted in their relationship, he’s pressuring her to have children she doesn’t want. He also wants to move to Wyoming, which would essentially end her career – and that’s the point. If she had no career left, she’d have to do something else. Say…raise a family.

At the same time, Beth starts out doing a shoddy job at her one opportunity for redemption. When she meets with the imprisoned Toni, convicted years prior for the shooting murder of her husband, Beth hasn’t bothered to do her research. She leans instead on her privilege, something Toni immediately recognizes and calls out.

Most series do one or the other when it comes to privilege. They don’t try to take on the complexity of someone who has privilege in one way and lacks it in another. This is the appeal of “Guilty Party”. Beth is someone who gives the right answers when questioned about her intentions: she wants to help a Black woman prove her innocence in a justice system that’s railroaded her. Yet she primarily treats the opportunity as a path to return to the limelight. It’s not Toni’s redemption story; it’s her own. It’s not someone proving that Toni is innocent. Beth doesn’t even seem to care if she is. It’s about Beth specifically owning the story and proving that she’s still relevant.

It’s a shockingly good set-up to show how a person who lacks privilege in one area will feed on their privilege in another just to stay afloat. As a premise, it immediately demonstrates how patriarchal systems make those without power re-enact oppression against others. Nobody’s fighting for space against systems of white and male privilege when they’re fighting each other for what little space they’ve retained.

Does such a good idea make “Guilty Party” a good series?

The problem is that “Guilty Party” has to land this, and it’s difficult to tell if its focused enough to do so. The first two episodes are all over the map. Beth’s relationship to Toni is manipulative, and our trust in Beth as an audience is very conditional. We don’t have a consistent tone to rely on, and we have an intentionally inconsistent lead. New episodes drop weekly, so we just don’t know yet how the series intends to engage this conversation more fully.

Let’s approach that tone issue. “Guilty Party” is a black comedy first and foremost. Before COVID, Isla Fisher was cast to star in the series. You can see how well it’s designed for an actor like her, complete with zany departures and some physical comedy. Fisher withdrew due to the pandemic, and Kate Beckinsale replaced her. Does this work? Yes and no.

Beckinsale is clearly playing against type, but she’s always been a strong actress in her action and horror career. She tends to elevate material and make it more compelling than it would be otherwise. She’s also kept up in smaller, dramatic films.

Beckinsale brings a pathos and desperation to Beth that may’ve been played a little too much for comedy in Fisher’s hands. Beckinsale adds a heft to “Guilty Party” that it badly needs. She also inhabits the role in a way that sells the physical comedy better than you might expect.

The writing has its bright spots, including some incredibly quotable lines. The dialogue is clever, with a host of effective, observational one-liners.

That said, there are absolutely places where you can see a gap, and this is primarily the writing’s fault. In one scene, Beth confronts a gun-runner who’s stalking her and goes off on a justifiably angry monologue. Because it’s written to be a comedic moment, it’s where Fisher would have shined. She’d have jumped through the monologue with a lightness and rhythm that could’ve fused the angry to the comic.

Beckinsale powers through it, without letting that pathos up. There’s an extra gear of idiosyncrasy that she can’t shift into, the exact space that tends to be Fisher’s bread and butter. Beckinsale can elevate the central themes and stakes of the show in a way Fisher might not have, but she also bumps into situational premises that were expressly designed for an actor who specializes in comedy.

Ultimately, “Guilty Party” is a show that needs elevation from its lead on both fronts. It’s watchable, and more so if you like Beckinsale. With Fisher, it might’ve been funnier. With Beckinsale, it has added edge. I tend to think the latter is the better route for “Guilty Party” because of the themes it wants to engage. It’s funny enough either way, but Beth needs to be someone we both like and dislike, trust and distrust, in order to evoke how her privilege and lack of privilege intersect. Whether the show can do this successfully is still up in the air. Beckinsale gives it a withering perspective that provides initial space for us to trust the show and see where it goes.

My first reaction was that I wish they’d have been able to land an actor who could’ve tackled both. I can’t help think of Zoey Deutch’s performance in “Buffaloed”, but she’d also have to be 20 years older for this role. She also had the benefit of a great script, Tanya Wexler’s direction, and supporting actors like Judy Greer in that film.

That makes me realize my first reaction is absolutely wrong. Isla Fisher, Kate Beckinsale…either one is wildly successful casting for a series. That the show shifted its lead from one to the other provides an opportunity to highlight the series’ design and what works and doesn’t. That’s where the comparison should stop. Beckinsale isn’t failing here; she’s squarely lifting the show up.

While Beckinsale’s approach to the dialogue might mean a zany bit here or there doesn’t work as well as it could, her shaded irreverence deepens the themes and questions at the core of the show. There’s both an idealism and vindictiveness to Beth that stretch beyond comedy and into the drama that “Guilty Party” needs to fuse its disparate parts together.

That Beckinsale does this nine times out of 10 instead of all 10 is hardly a criticism of her. That she needs to do this so often to lift the show around her is the fault of the show around her. She’s being asked to make up too much ground. That she almost does is incredibly impressive.

The truth is that “Guilty Party” needs to be more focused and edited. There are more than a few scenes that are bad ideas. For instance, at one point Beth shows up to the women’s prison on a day when visitors aren’t allowed. There’s no time pressure involved, but she antagonizes the guards trying to see Toni, stages a short-lived protest where she refuses to leave, and then tries to bribe the gate guard.

I can buy her showing up on the wrong day. It’s something reporters know to check, but Beth is a year out-of-practice and it’s hardly the first mistake she makes out of desperation. Yet a reporter who’s supposed to be as exceptional and experienced as she is wouldn’t take those next actions without a directly achievable goal. She’d simply know they wouldn’t work, that they’d risk jeopardizing her ability to return at any point in the future, and she’d come back a day later. (I’ve worked as a reporter; this is pretty straightforward).

The scene exists because it’s an opportunity for a zany comedy sequence, but it doesn’t work in the more consequential world “Guilty Party” wants to inhabit. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it’s that it directly undercuts everything else we’ve been told about who Beth is. Trust her or not, in a space of privilege or not, the one thing we know about her is that she’s skilled and experienced. Here, she’s completely incompetent for the sake of a bit.

You can have a bit that makes no sense. “Guilty Party” makes other absurdist elements work. A wannabe Tiger King character named Wyatt who’s inches away from being a David Spade sketch helps create a sequence that’s both tense and funny. What you can’t do is stick a bit in that so thoroughly undercuts the most foundational piece of who Beth is, especially when that’s the only piece of an unreliable protagonist that anchors us to her. Beth’s attempted prison bribe is a situational premise that could have been pulled off by a Rebel Wilson or Will Ferrell in the kinds of comedies they’re best known for making. That doesn’t mean it fits here. “Guilty Party” wants to have a consistent, consequential world, so when it does something like the prison bribe scene, the comedy has zero chance of working because it doesn’t fit the world, the show, or the character.

I really do think Beckinsale saves the series, and gives a performance worth watching. That said, I have a hard time seeing “Guilty Party” work with most actors in the lead because of the show around it. The ensemble is fine – especially Jules Latimer’s imprisoned Toni, Madeleine Arthur’s editor Amber, Andre Hyland’s Wyatt, and coworkers played by Djouliet Amara and Tiya Sircar. It’s the writing that too often stumbles.

For the discussions about privilege it wants to have, it stretches too far into comedic scenes that undercut its foundation. There’s still a good comedy here without those scenes, and probably a much more pointed one. If you expand social criticism into the entire show, then the comedy needs to be a lot more precise than this is. “Guilty Party” has these themes embodied in its characters; it should trust this more and bring the comedy closer to them.

I plan to keep watching. There’s enough interesting possibility for where “Guilty Party” could go, and Beckinsale is doing a superb job of making the series work better than it should.

Enough of the dialogue and Beckinsale’s physical comedy works to still sell the comedic elements. Where Beckinsale really excels is by pinpointing the themes of the show and giving us a character who zig-zags around them so much that we won’t be surprised if she serves them or opposes them. This could be a redemptive tale about two women wronged by very different systems, a black comedy “House of Cards” about someone who plays the victim brilliantly, or half of each. Beth could be innocent and idealistic, or manipulative and egotistical. Or all of the above. This takes what would otherwise be a very watchable but unremarkable series and turns it into something genuinely intriguing.

Just like I don’t know what to think of Beth, I can’t tell whether “Guilty Party” is going to land where it wants. I won’t be surprised if it begins zeroing in on its social critiques much more effectively. I also won’t be surprised if it screws up the conversations it wants to have. I won’t be surprised if it gets more cohesive and gels around the irreverent, manipulative performance Beckinsale is giving. I won’t be surprised if it continues to undercut its themes and that performance trying to out-comedy the parts of it that are already pointed and funny.

I’m pretty sure “Guilty Party” knows what it wants to be thematically. Hiding what this is behind an unreliable protagonist doesn’t change that, but it does require some patience. That it’s so imprecise about what it wants to be tonally does give me some pause about how effective it will be about landing those thematic reveals.

I plan to keep watching, but consider it a light recommendation.

It’s a watch if that sounds intriguing, and you’re willing to let a series into your life that needs leeway before showing you what it is. It’s a watch if you’re a Beckinsale fan – it’s refreshing to see her flex her acting chops this way.

Alternately, it’s not a watch if you can’t place that kind of trust or time in a series before knowing if it’s worth it. If you couldn’t care less about Beckinsale, this is unlikely to change that.

You can watch “Guilty Party” on Paramount+. New episodes arrive every Thursday.

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