RED WIDOW: Midseason TBD on ABC – If Nothing Else Is On…
Disclaimer: Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall. Pilots are often reedited and re-scored, and in some cases even recast or reshot. These critiques shouldn’t be taken as full pilot reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.
RED WIDOW feels very much like an updated 1940s “women’s picture,” but it’s also an example of how different network television drama is from its cable counterpart these days. The Red Widow premise is a variation of the old saw about the innocent who’s forced by circumstances to turn to a life of crime. In this case, it’s a wife (Radha Mitchell, as Marta Walraven) who has to take over her husband’s (guest star Anson Mount, from Hell On Wheels) drug business. It most resembles the Catherine Zeta-Jones storyline from the movie (and before that, the British miniseries) Traffic, but the protagonist is also Nancy Botwin on Weeds, Walter White on Breaking Bad, and the Kelly McDonald character on Boardwalk Empire, among others. (Not to mention, of course, Michael Corleone, the God-daddy of them all.)
The vicarious thrill for the audience in these stories is that inevitably, the character starts to feel the dirty thrill of the dark side, and so do we. But Red Widow, written by Melissa Rosenberg (for better and worse, forever to be known as the screenwriter of the Twilight movies), dampens the nasty zing of the material, at least in the pilot, and the result is much duller than it should be. Marta knows that her own Lazarov family, headed by father Andrei (Rade Serbedzija), is part of the Russian mob, and that her brother Irwin (Wil Traval) is in the pot-smuggling business with husband Franklin and partner Steven Tomlin (Lee Tergesen). She’s content to raise her 3 kids, concerned only when younger son Boris (Jakob Salvati) shows up at school with daddy’s gun. At that point, she demands that Franklin leave the business, but Irwin has stolen $1.5M of harder drugs from kingpin Schiller (without Franklin’s approval), and before long Franklin meets the end that the premise requires. But was it Schiller behind the killing, or one of Franklin’s untrustworthy partners? In any case, by the end of the pilot, Marta is forced to agree to compensate Schiller by smuggling “just one” shipment of drugs into the country.
Maybe down the road, Marta will take some pleasure in her own ruthlessness, but in the pilot, she’s a wet blanket. She doesn’t seem shrewder or more daring than anyone else around her (well, except for Irwin, who’s clearly a moron), and she acts illegally only to save her children, which is a worthy goal, but not very much fun. Mitchell, a very serious actress, is convincingly intense, but her earnest style also doesn’t provide any subversive undertone to the story; she’s like a latter-day Joan Crawford. Tergesen and Serbedzija, who do have that kind of style, don’t have much to do in the pilot.
At this point in post-Godfather, post-Goodfellas, post-Sopranos pop culture, we expect to enjoy ourselves watching villains, not get moral lessons in how bad it is to be bad. Red Widow is efficient enough, moving along at a neat clip under Mark Pellington’s direction and introducing a host of characters with clarity. But it feels tired, as though it could be in black & white and airing on TCM. The title evokes a lethal spider, yet the show is critically lacking in venom.