Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

Lifetime’s ‘Flowers in the Attic’: Cruel punishment, indeed. (Plus: ‘Sherlock’ lives!)

(James Dittiger/ Lifetime ) - ‘Flowers in the Attic’ premiering Saturday, January 18, at 8pm on Lifetime.

(James Dittiger/ Lifetime ) - ‘Flowers in the Attic’ premiering Saturday, January 18, at 8pm on Lifetime.

The bookish girls I knew in seventh grade, circa 1980, dropped Laura Ingalls Wilder like a rock in Plum Creek for “Flowers in the Attic,” a creepy novel by V.C. Andrews that has sold some 40 million copies worldwide, spawning a 1987 movie version that met with disapproval from fans. Among other letdowns, I reckon, the movie left out the book’s scenes of brother-sister incest.

So Lifetime is taking another, long-overdue stab at a “Flowers in the Attic” movie Saturday night — and this time the incest has been included, so, uh, hooray?

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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Bad news, though: Even allowing for the lowbrow standards that can paradoxically turn a Lifetime movie into a delectable piece of trash, this “Flowers in the Attic” is a remarkably weak effort. Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”) stars as Cathy Dollanganger, a midcentury American teen whose salesman father is killed in a car wreck. Faced with mounting bills, Cathy’s grieving mother, Corrine (Heather Graham), weirds out and decides to take Cathy and her distractingly attractive elder brother, Christopher (Mason Dye), and the two younger, whinier Dollanganger siblings to rural Virginia to live at the vast estate of their in­cred­ibly wealthy grandparents, who disowned Corrine years ago.

When they arrive, the Dollanganger children are forced by their spitefully religious grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) to live in a locked room that also leads to an attic. Corinne begs her children to cooperate while she attempts to persuade her dying father (who must never find out about the children) to put her back in his will. It’ll only take a few days, she promises, and then we’ll all be rich.

The days turn into weeks, the months turn into years, the commercial breaks keep coming, and the children see less and less of their mother. Meanwhile, Grandma drops by to deliver their daily provisions and an occasional beating, calling them the devil’s spawn.

You can see why the book resonates with adolescents — it’s perfect material for anyone who was ever grounded or sent to bed without dinner. I was particularly delighted when the children figured out that their mother was trying to kill them with powdered rat poison sprinkled on doughnuts, but this should all be a lot more frightening — or at least more unsettling — than it winds up being.

Shipka, accustomed to far better dialogue on “Mad Men,” doesn’t know what to do with herself and falls back on Sally Draper-style glaring at Graham, who is just dreadful and passionless in a role that anyone else might have relished. One’s hopes lift whenever Burstyn storms into the room, eyes aflame and willow switch in hand, but “Flowers in the Attic” has a curiously reticent instinct for follow-through. If you’re going to make a movie about abused children locked in an attic, I say have more fun with it.

No such luck. As Cathy marks the days and turns inevitably to the affections of her horny bro, who can really blame her? One feels an intense shame for having watched the whole thing.

‘Sherlock’

“Sherlock” is back, but I’m not supposed to tell you how. At the conclusion of the second season of the exceedingly stylish British update (which returns Sunday night on PBS’s “Masterpiece Mystery!”), the famous sleuth jumped off a rooftop after matching wits with his nemesis Moriarty. He landed splat on the sidewalk below.

Or did he? “Sherlock” always thinks of an intensely clever way out. The fact that the show is back — after what seemed like an interminable wait for fans — indicates that Holmes (played by the permanently steely Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t truly buried under that gravestone visited by his bereft assistant, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman).

Two years have passed. With a pressing mystery to solve (of the 21st-century counterterrorism variety), a resurrected Holmes begs an angry and emotionally wounded Watson to once more join him on the case. Soon enough, I am reminded of how quickly the show’s nifty momentum becomes a distracting blur of euro-chic gimmickry. “Sherlock” moves swiftly and intelligently but also a little too coldly, like a long commercial for better WiFi.

This all depends on how enthralled you are with Cumberbatch’s marbly, aloof elegance. He’s easily the smartest Sherlock Holmes around (and we have several to choose from, including CBS’s “Elementary”), but his take on Holmes’s narcissism can come off as skeevishly robotic. If not for Freeman’s deeper, more human work as Watson, the style would soon go sterile.

Flowers in the Attic

(two hours) airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.

Masterpiece Mystery!

Sherlock

(90 minutes) returns Sunday at 9:58 p.m. on WETA, 10 p.m. on MPT.

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