‘Payback’ (1997): Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner reunite

Good ‘ol Mare. I had to poke around all the way up into the 1990s to find a TV movie where Mary Tyler Moore is menaced (apparently she was too good to do cheap actioners during her series’ heyday…): ABC’s Payback, from 1997, with Fredric Lehne, Adam Scott, and guess who? ‘Ol Lou Grant!

By Paul Mavis

Kathryn Stanfill (Mary Tyler Moore) might just make it after all. She has a loving second husband, university professor Neil Stanfill (Denis Arndt), a loving ex-car thief, ex-junkie, ex-drunk son, Adam (Adam Scott), and a four-star restaurant she runs with her friend, Barbara (Beverly Sanders). One night, as she’s leaving the restaurant with that day’s bank deposit, she spots a thug sitting outside in her parking lot, watching her. Frightened, she goes back inside and calls the cops. Two uniformed officers arrive, but they can’t get the suspect out of his car. Sergeant Brian Kayleen (Fredric Lehne) arrives, and takes matters into his own hands: he beats the sh*t out of the man for resisting the officers (who also pile on). Kathryn witnesses this brutality, and calls the police again.

This Region 2 DVD of Payback is the only version currently available for purchase at Amazon. You’ll need a region-free player to play this DVD.

Arriving on the scene is rat f*ck Internal Affairs investigator Jack Patkanis (Edward Asner). He needs Kathryn to be a witness in Kayleen’s disciplinary hearing; apparently, Patkanis has known that Kayleen had pulled this kind of police brutality many times before, and Kathryn’s testimony is his big chance to pull down the law-breaking cop. Kathryn is hesitant—and her wary son and husband certainly don’t want her to testify—but she does, with the result that Kayleen’s ascendant career with the force is effectively over. So guess what happens? Lots of bad things to Kathryn, that’s what, and to her husband, and particularly to her ex-con son, who’s framed for murder.

Oh boy. Well…you can’t win ‘em all. I didn’t see ABC’s Payback when it aired on February 10th, 1997; I made a conscious effort to skip it (the last thing I wanted to see were two old TV favorites from my past…looking old). Having watched it on YouTube the other day, it looks like I made the right choice; it’s one of those projects where the production history is far more entertaining than the piece itself.


It’s hard to believe today, but the TV movie reunion of Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner actually created a bit of a publicity flurry with major news outlets like The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune …particularly after a scratchy Moore publicly lacerated the MTV before it ever aired. It had been twenty years since Moore and Asner had worked together on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and in the meantime, TMTMS had achieved iconic status, pulling in steady viewers on cable’s Nick at Nite. Asner, the executive producer of Payback, acknowledged that the movie wouldn’t have been green-lighted unless Moore was attached to the project (after all…their previous series wasn’t called The Ed Asner Show). At the time, he stated he had been looking for a joint project for his former co-star and employer for years, and that when Payback came along, it seemed like a natural (he even briefly entertained ideas of it being a pilot for a regular series).

According to numerous published reports, though, Payback’s production was anything but a happy labor of love between two old friends. Rewrites on the supposedly true story (nowhere in any of the interviews does anyone say exactly what true story this MTV is based on) took almost three years, as first Asner and then Moore decided their characters weren’t gritty or tortured enough (Moore specifically requested her character have a subplot that mirrored her own: wracking guilt from choosing a career over her son). Once shooting began in Portland, Oregon, Moore was her usual brittle, difficult self on set (I’ve yet to read an account of her career where someone didn’t say she was a pain in the ass), but the real fireworks began once she was shown a rough cut.

Taking the unpopular step of going to the press with her grievances, Moore pissed off both Asner and producer Ken Kaufman when Moore laid out why Payback was subpar. Her biggest complaint was how her character was portrayed as a hand-wringing mother crying all the time. She even attacked the nostalgia angle built into the project (a huge mistake), saying the movie did no honor to Asner’s and her previous pairing. Moore blamed the editing, which also, she stated, took out a sexual subtext to her relationship with Asner (thank you, god). Kaufman refused to comment, and Asner tried to do some damage control, but it was too late (can you imagine Asner’s reaction, when the whole point of the movie was to get Moore back on the screen with him?). By the time the airdate rolled around, Payback was getting plenty of publicity for sure, but it was the wrong kind, focusing on Moore’s beefs and not on the movie itself (for her part, Moore flat out stated she couldn’t comment anymore, for fear of being sued). Of course, none of this mattered in the slightest when the critics lambasted it, and very few viewers tuned in to Payback on February 10th, 1997 (NBC’s pulpy true-crime MTV, Love’s Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder, pasted Payback in the ratings).

As for Payback itself…it’s an incredibly boring Lifetime Movie Network outing, with an overly familiar, ludicrously exaggerated plotline, indifferent, anonymous direction and production design, and at best, some wildly fluctuating performances. Australian Ken Cameron (The Good Wife) directs smoothly if completely anonymously, without a trace of interest in deviating from square, unimaginative framing and dull-ish pacing. Screenwriter Dennis Nemec (several MTVs like Murder in Coweta County has a solid if familiar premise, but as it progresses it becomes increasingly bizarre in its exaggerations and implausibilities, to the point where one is laughing out loud at the twist finale (just for starters…there aren’t any journalists in this major metropolitan city? Nobody’s writing about this amazing series of frame-ups and police intimidations that everyone is openly talking about?).

As for the performances, Fredric Lehne comes off best, essaying a cocky, popular cop who’s too fast with his fists, and willing to do anything to keep his job (one of the big problems of the script is too much time spent on Mary and Lou, and not on Lehne’s character). Asner’s fine doing what he always does, but Moore is embarrassingly off her game. Looking frighteningly frail (due in part to her diabetes and past alcoholism), her voice a constant quaver, one is constantly distracted by trying to detect the “old” Mary in this new old Mary. Her performance pitched right at “11” from the start doesn’t help matters, either; there’s no build, no arc to the character. She’s just unhinged from the start, and stays hysterical for the entire movie. It’s an excruciating turn from Moore, one that’s far more terrifying than what’s happening to her character on screen.

This review was originally published as part of our series, Killing the Ladies of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Here are the other reviews in the series:
Dying Room Only
Night Terror

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. Click to order.

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