Warden Sentenced to Mediocrity

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Of late, the prison drama has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Recent entries, such as Tom Hanks' The Green Mile
and the Tim Robbins-Morgan Freeman vehicle The Shawshank Redemption
have meant big box-office sales and Oscar nominations. And, of course, there's Home Box Office's critically acclaimed Oz.

Turner Network Television takes a stab at the genre next month with the two-hour original movie The Warden. Ally Sheedy ( The Breakfast Club) stars as Helen Hewitt, an ambitious assistant warden at a women's prison who is handed the tough assignment of restoring order at a maximum-security men's facility after a calamitous riot.

Written and produced by Natalie Chaidez ( JudgingAmy), the movie is based on the 1996 British television series The Governor, created by executive producer Lynda LaPlante, best known for Prime Suspect
on PBS.

Sheedy's character is a modern woman struggling with the demands of an all-consuming career in one of the toughest jobs imaginable. On top of that, she must deal with the tattered threads of a disheveled family life and the legacy left by her father, a former prison administrator who retired under a cloud of suspicion.

Appointed the prison's first female warden, her professional jubilation is short-lived as she encounters a facility in chaos, superiors who don't want her to succeed, a conspiracy and cover-up hatched by her own prison guards and a rebellious staff.

Ron Rifkin ( L.A. Confidential) plays Judge Faschbinder, Hewitt's boss, who regularly undermines her authority and harbors his own secret agenda. Robert Gossett ( Arlington Road) is the rebellious assistant warden, resentful of being passed up for the warden's job. Dale Midkiff ( The Magnificent Seven) is the prisoner and riot leader Murphy; Sam Robards ( Bounce) is her estranged husband, Axel; and Lindsay Crouse ( Places in the Heart) is Hewitt's no-nonsense former boss and mentor.

The Warden
attempts to blend a commentary on the privatization of the American prison system with the struggles of a woman doing "a man's job," wrapped in a prison murder mystery. It does so with mixed results.

The strength of the story undoubtedly flows from the fine performance by Sheedy-clearly a sympathetic, if not quite persuasive character. Lacking much of the grit that makes a show like Oz
compelling, it presents an overly sanitized look at prison life.

The best performance is by Roger Guenveur Smith, the former A Different World
star, as Napoliano, the jailhouse kingpin. Smith's malevolent demeanor and hissing delivery, honed in his traveling one man show A Huey O. Newton Story
and on Oz, lends an air of real menace.

The Warden
airs Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. on TNT.

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