March 4, 2013

THE SKED’S PILOT (+ 1) REVIEW: “Red Widow”


RED WIDOW:  Sunday 10PM on ABC

The “2-hour premiere” of RED WIDOW actually consisted of the pilot that was shot before last year’s upfronts, combined with the first regular episode (both halves written by series creator Melissa Rosenberg, with the pilot directed by Mark Pellington and episode 2 by Daniel Sackheim).  Watching the combination now, after the 2012/13 season is mostly in the books, the initial impression Red Widow made last summer is even more pronounced.  Like The Mob Doctor, Vegas, Golden Boy and Do No Harm, among others this season, Widow is stuck between toying with the dark content that’s now routine–even expected–on cable, and network television’s need for the broadest possible audience.

This dichotomy is especially obvious in Red Widow, because its premise of an ordinary suburbanite forced by circumstances to get into the narcotics business has already been the plot of two celebrated cable series, Weeds and Breaking Bad.  Those shows thrived on their protagonists getting a taste for their lives of crime, despite often disastrous consequences–they’re simultaneously tantalizing and cautionary.  But as successful as those shows were and are for Showtime and AMC, Breaking Bad gets a rating in the low 1s among viewers under 50, and Weeds, in its final season, had less than half that, untenable numbers for a broadcast network with no revenue from subscription fees.  One of the central dilemmas for ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX is that they want those edgy, often affluent audiences attracted to cable drama, but their advertising sales are driven by lowest-common denominator crowds.  Their solution, such as it is, has been to take on shows that sound as though they could have been on cable, but then water them down for wider consumption. (The one exception has been Scandal, so irrepressibly nutty that even its darkest twists feel like they come with a dose of helium, and perhaps not coincidentally the biggest success story of the season.)

So Red Widow is at great pains to tell us, over and over again, that Marta Walraven (Radha Mitchell), widowed by the shooting death of her husband Evan (Anson Mount), knew almost nothing about the drug business (but only pot!) that her father Andrei Lazarev (Rade Serbedzija) and brother Irwin (Wil Traval) engaged in with her husband and his best friend Mike Tomlin (Lee Tergesen), and all she ever wanted was for Evan to get out of it, even at the cost of their house, money, family and friends.  The crisis that leads to Evan’s death is caused partly by Irwin robbing a rival drug smuggler, Schiller (Goran Visnjic), but also by her resulting demand that Evan leave the business or she’d take their 3 kids and leave him.  (The person behind Evan’s killing, and the disappearance of Schiller’s drugs from Evan’s hiding place, is meant to be a central mystery, with possible suspects including Irwin, Mike and Schiller, but so far there’s little suspense attached to it.)  When Schiller insists that Marta repay the debt by arranging personally for a shipment of his drugs to enter port–and not that plausibility is a big issue here, but how likely is it that a hugely successful criminal would entrust himself to a woman who’s never touched the smuggling business before?–it’s very much against Marta’s will, and something she does solely to protect her children.

This is, to put it plainly, no fun.  The second episode continues Marta’s righteousness, as she needs to enlist a dock supervisor to look the other way when the drugs come in, and after a failed attempt to bribe him and Andrei’s offer to threaten him, she chooses instead to tell the guy the entire truth about her situation, and he agrees to cooperate just to help her out.  So again, she’s able to remain a “good person” despite it all.  When older son Gabriel (Sterling Beaumon) tries to help Marta by puncturing the tires of a nosy federal agent (Clifton Collins, Jr), Marta schleps him to prison so convict Irwin can give him a “scared straight” speech.  Nancy on Weeds used to worry about what kind of mother she was being, but that was full of irony, because everyone knew damn well how narcissistic and self-destructive she was.  Marta seems to be trying for mom of the year, having her maternal cake and eating it.

Red Widow is smoothly put together, but there’s nothing very compelling about it, and Radha Mitchell is all too earnest as Marta.  She has steely determination, but conveys no appreciation for the black comedy of her situation.  The rest of the cast has so far been purely functional, including even Tergesen and Collins, who’ve shown plenty of personality elsewhere.  The only exception is Visnjic, who brings a hint of wit to his sub-Bondian villain, happily wearing his expensive suits and conducting martial arts training in buildings under construction.

Sunday 10PM hasn’t been a happy timeslot for ABC in the past couple of seasons, with Pan Am and 666 Park Avenue the most recent casualties–and Revenge isn’t capable of providing much of a lead-in these days.  It doesn’t seem likely that Red Widow will break this streak, unless it begins taking some genuine risks.

ORIGINAL VERDICT:  If Nothing Else Is On…

PILOT + 1:  It’s Sunday Night–There Are A Dozen Good Shows On Cable


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."