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Portrayal of Stewart in prison is a tough cell Shepherd reprises role as domestic diva in dull 'Behind Bars'

The opening Emmy musical number by Earth, Wind & Fire on Sunday night included these specially designed rap lyrics from Black Eyed Peas: "Martha went to jail, got a show, that's the way entertainment goes."

Actually, Stewart got two shows, the daytime "Martha" and the prime-time NBC series "The Apprentice" (8 tonight, WGRZ), and two movies about her starring Cybill Shepherd.

The first one, "Martha Inc: The Story of Martha Stewart," ran on NBC a year before the network attempted to transform her into the feel-good story of this TV season.

The second one, CBS' "Martha Behind Bars" (9 p.m. Sunday, WIVB), was originally supposed to run last May before being pulled at the last minute.

The delay might have been a good-timing thing for CBS if "Behind Bars" wasn't competing with the season premieres of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy."

It also would be a good thing if it were a good movie. It isn't. How dull is it?

It is about as dull as I imagine Stewart's five-month prison stay was after her conviction. It is about as dull as her prison wardrobe. It is about as dull as reading SEC legal papers.

And viewers should sue for false advertising. The movie is almost two-thirds over before Martha actually goes behind bars, her every move watched by her fellow, star-struck inmates.

Before we discover that criminals learned to love Martha, we have to endure a dry retelling of her legal case. The script blames Martha for either being unwilling or unable to admit she made a mistake. A third theory comes from an inmate. After seeing Martha's post-prison TV plans, the inmate declares "she knows exactly what she's doing."

On her Monday appearance with David Letterman, Stewart said she was told she walked around in a daze on her first day in jail, which validates Shepherd's portrayal. Shepherd plays Stewart as a restrained, dazed, cool customer whose primary love and concern is for her billion-dollar business. She is so cool that it is hard to fathom why any inmate would warm up to her and eventually present her with a knitted sweater. Eventually, Martha even bonds with the snitch who reported that she had been hoarding eggs.

The movie suggests the egg incident actually made Stewart a sympathetic prison figure. Upon returning to her cell, she is greeted with a chorus of "Martha is a bad girl, Martha is a bad girl." It's one of two interesting moments in the film, the other being the indignity of a Stewart-led Christmas decoration unfairly losing an "Apprentice"-like prison competition.

Some viewers may walk away from "Behind Bars" feeling some sympathy for Stewart even if they believe she needlessly lied. My advice is to just walk away fast from this slow-moving film.

In an interview in Los Angeles, Shepherd said she approached her second assignment as Stewart as if she never played her before as a raging task-maker in NBC's movie.

"Rage-a-holism is an aspect of Martha Stewart's history of taking it out on people," said Shepherd. "The first film just covered more of that particular territory over the arc of her career. . . . It covered a whole crazy arc in her life when she was just experiencing the stress of being so successful. It's a very difficult thing to handle."

But not as difficult as prison. Shepherd said she had to believe she was going through what Stewart went through in prison.

"I came out of it with a tremendous amount of admiration for Martha Stewart, and I think much more than ever before," said Shepherd. "There's nothing more grounding or falling down or unsuccessful than going to jail, and that was really enlightening for me as a human being."

Producer Tom Patricia said the prison scenes were based on published interviews with Stewart family members and from comments made by Stewart on her Web site while in prison. Asked whether the cruel Martha in the NBC movie or the restrained one in CBS' movie was the real Stewart, Shepherd said she thought both.

"That's what makes her such an interesting character to play," said Shepherd. "She's enormously complicated. I think she's capable of the greatest things in the world, and like all of us, we have our faults, we have our failings, and she's not perfect any more than any of us. She's Shakespearean, really, in terms of character."

And what does she think Stewart will think of the film?

"I have no idea, but I know if she came in the room right now, I might make a fast exit," said Shepherd. "I mean I'm not worried about it. I would wear a bulletproof vest."

Shepherd needn't worry. The last thing Stewart would want to do is go behind bars again. And the last thing I'd want to see is another Stewart movie. We've all suffered enough.

Review: 2 stars out of 4

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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