NBC gave six hours of prime time to this glossy adaptation of two soapy bestsellers: Burt Hirschfeld’s ASPEN and THE ADVERSARY by Bart Spicer. Producers Roy Huggins (MAVERICK) and Jo Swerling Jr. (THE ROCKFORD FILES) and writer/director Douglas Heyes (TWILIGHT ZONE) had collaborated on THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS, a critical and popular NBC series one year earlier.
The sprawling plot is spread over three decades, but nobody makes any attempt to make any scene look or sound like any other year than 1977 (unless “turkey” was a popular insult in 1965). Heyes’ teleplay centers around the messy murder trial of Lee Bishop (Perry King, later the star of RIPTIDE), a reckless tennis pro accused of raping, killing, and mutilating a promiscuous 15-year-old girl (Debi Richter). To add meat to the dish, Heyes interlaces a second story involving millionaire land developer Carl Osborne’s (BURKE'S LAW's Gene Barry) plan to buy out the local ranchers and build a massive ski resort.
Told in flashback (and flashback within flashback) form by Bishop’s attorney, ambitious cowboy Tom Keating (the excellent Sam Elliott, who was in the miniseries ONCE AN EAGLE the year before), ASPEN introduces a colorful slate of characters: sexy, irresponsible Gloria Osborne (Michelle Phillips), Carl’s daughter and the woman whom Bishop came to Aspen to marry; Max Kendrick (Roger Davis), Keating’s best friend and the son of the wealthy Miles Kendrick (William Prince), the judge at Bishop’s trial; Kit (Jessica Harper), with whom both Max and Tom are in love; Alex Budde (Tony Franciosa), local business owner with Mob ties; the dangerous Budd Townsend (Bo Hopkins), Lee’s old Army buddy; sheriff Sam Dinehart (Lee de Broux); and prosecuting attorney Abe Singer (George DiCenzo, previously prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in HELTER SKELTER).
Dripping with empty calories and produced on a shoestring (most of Aspen is represented by Hollywood soundstages), ASPEN is undeniably entertaining. Elliott is great as a principled, centered young attorney who butts heads with the good ol’ boy network of lawyers and judges more concerned with protecting their backdoor deals than applying justice. At least, Keating starts out that way, and his growth over the eight years of the main storyline is an unheralded highlight of Elliott's career. Originally aired November 5¬-7, 1977, the miniseries was retitled THE INNOCENT AND THE DAMNED when NBC reran it in 1979.