A solid entry in the Jesse Stone series. Sony Pictures Television has released Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt, the eighth (and possibly last) in the CBS-aired made-for-TV mysteries based on the Robert B. Parker novels, and starring marvelous Tom Selleck as the broken, alcoholic, small-town police chief. More mystery and a little less morose soul-searching this time out gives the series a much needed boost (after the misconceived Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost), while all the production credits are up to their usual A+ standards. Fans of the series will no doubt want this one, while newcomers, who may scratch their heads at the strange artifact of a "made-for-network-TV movie," might enjoy another superior example of the fast-fading (if not completely gone) format.
Jesse Stone (Tom Selleck) was right: fate wouldn't do that to him: he gets his old job back as Chief of Police of Paradise, Massachusetts. Previously fired because of small-town politics and his own self-destructive nature, Jesse is called to duty again by his nemesis, Councilman Carter Hanson (Jeremy Akerman), who is devastated at the loss of his son-in-law, William Butler (Jeff Geddis), the officious newcomer who replaced Jesse as Paradise's chief. Blown up in his police cruiser (along with an officer whom Jesse had fired), Butler's death is ruled suspicious, leading State Police Captain Healy (Stephen McHattie) to discover the contents of Butler's cruiser's trunk: bags of heroin and 100K in scorched bills. Jesse, his police chief ball cap firmly pulled down, wants to give a fellow cop―even one he disliked―the benefit of the doubt, so it's time to poke around and see just who wanted to kill Butler, and why.
I've reviewed the last six Jesse Stone made-for-TV movies starring Tom Selleck (you can read those review here), covering their shared themes and aesthetics in a fair amount of detail, so I won't go over the same ground here. Suffice it to say, the Jesse Stone movies are, on the whole, beautifully-crafted, methodical, meditative, noirish mysteries that rely on deliberate retro pacing―pacing that is about as far removed as you can get from the style of the flashy, peripatetic police procedurals that have dominated network television for the past 15 years or so. Out of the eight Jesse Stone movies I reviewed, Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt is a solid entry from the series, balancing well the further exploration of the morose, emotionally damaged Jesse against a crackerjack mystery that, while not exactly surprising, is extremely well-designed. From what I've read, Selleck, who also executive produces the movies now as well as co-financing them, isn't too sure how many more of these Jesse Stones are going to show up on network TV, mainly due to escalating costs (and possibly diminishing viewers?). As far as I know, the "Big Three" network made-for-TV movie is a virtual dinosaur now, so not only from an entertainment viewpoint but a historical one, it would be a shame to lose such superior examples of this dying-out format.
In my review of the last outing, Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost, I grouched about the series feeling stuck in a repetitive, naval-gazing rut, with the Jesse character so thoroughly downbeaten that suicide seemed the only possible (and frankly at that point for the viewer, welcome) option. So...it's nice to see co-scripter Tom Selleck is reading my reviews (hee hee!) since Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt shows concrete signs of moving (glacially, mind you) Jesse into an incrementally more positive place in his life. There's no ex-wife talk this time. No admissions of out-of-control drinking. Jesse is able to tell his lover, singer Thelma Gleffey (the sexy Gloria Reuben from E.R.) that's she's important to him, bringing him through his lowest point (which would seem to indicate he's on the upswing). We even get to see Jesse be amusing, for chrissakes, when he talks to his overly-sensitive former landlord Stan (a dryly funny Brian Heighton), and when he breaks into the police station and zaps an irritatingly insistent burglar alarm. Most remarkably, scripters Selleck and series regular Michael Brandman have decided it's time for Reggie (Joe the Dog), the golden retriever living with Jesse after witnessing the murder of his master, to actually make an affectionate move towards Jesse. Patting the bed next to him (as he's done numerous times before, with no results), Jesse is taken aback when Reggie finally decides to climb up. It sounds like a nothing scene, but followers of the series register it as a monumental moment between two emotionally shattered characters (yes, the dog is an important though minor character), played with the movies' usual reserve and deep feeling. Maybe things are on the mend for Jesse.
As for the rest of Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt, some hold-over elements still bug me, like that rather obvious "fate" talk that gets bandied about, or Jesse watching old movie clips (this time it's even more ironically ham-handed: he and Reggie catch John Ford's The Last Hurrah), or Jesse trying to bring back a reluctant Rose, who's now living in Toledo (poor dear), positively groaning into the phone, "Come back to Paradise, Rose," (perhaps this well-written series' worst line). Those are minor carps, though, considering the overall polish of this nicely-crafted mystery. Selleck's and Brandman's dialogue is up to its usual quirky bantering, with smart exchanges like this between Jesse and Healy―"I think it looks like he hung himself." "I think he hung himself." "Not the same thing."―the norm. If the mystery angle isn't so surprising to long-time fans of the series, the pleasure of seeing how it's worked out here more than makes up for that "surprise" ending (I won't spoil it...but it's rather fun). Performances are top-notch, as always (it's a cliché by now, but man-mountain Selleck just keeps getting better every time he does one of these), while production credits are big-screen worthy. Let's hope Selleck has deep pockets and keeps co-funding these evocative TV mysteries.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.