ABC’s new drama “Red Widow” attempts to blend cable style storytelling with the network’s brand of female-driven serials: Think “Breaking Bad” meets “Desperate Housewives,” except with just one housewife.
It’s an ambitious goal, based — inevitably — on a preexisting idea. In this case, that’s the Dutch series “Penoza,” which serves as inspiration for executive producer Melissa Rosenberg (“Dexter,” “The Twilight Saga”) as she explores the story of Marin County mom Marta Walraven (Radha Mitchell) who is drawn into the world of the Russian mafia after the death of her husband (guest star Anson Mount of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels”).
The intriguing concept gets an awfully prolonged set-up in the first of two hours premiering on ABC Sunday night. The opening stretch intends to establish Marta’s marriage, the couple’s three children, various family relationships and her husband’s life of crime. He makes his living exporting marijuana, but a recent bad business decision by Marta’s hot-headed gangster brother (Wil Traval) threatens to have serious blowback. Marta begs her husband to leave the life, and he agrees. But it’s ultimately too late.
Unfortunately, none of this introductory business is particularly interesting. There’s no real chemistry between Mitchell and Mount (not a problem in the long-term, given his fate and the show’s title, but still damaging to their scenes together), their children stand out as weak links, the mafia angle feels watered down for network TV, and none of the characters pop out as compelling individuals.
But once Marta’s snooze of a husband is out of the way, the show starts to find its voice by focusing on the idiosyncratic scenario of a mild-mannered housewife rubbing elbows with gangsters, criminals and other various assorted lowlifes. It’s not quite on par with chemistry teacher Walter White remaking himself as a fearsome drug lord, but “Red Widow” at least begins to demonstrate some potential.
The second hour — which includes a nicely offbeat guest turn by Rod Rowland as a depressed divorced man Marta needs a favor from, and increased screen time for co-star Lee Tergesen (HBO’s “Oz”) as Marta’s unlikely mentor — is considerably more involving than the first, if viewers are patient enough to stick around to see what develops.
Where the show goes from there is harder to predict. It’s possible that “Penoza” (which has not been broadcast in the U.S.) provides a sturdy template to follow, and the show has a multitude of characters available to explore.
In addition to Mitchell, Traval and Tergesen, notable co-stars include Rade Serbedzija as Marta’s crime boss father, Jaime Ray Newman as her newly married younger sister, Luke
Goss as the bodyguard Marta’s father assigns to protect her family, Clifton Collins Jr. as a determined FBI agent with relationship problems of his own and — most promising of all — Goran Visnjic (“ER”) as another major mafia player, Nicholae Schiller.
Schiller is the one who pulls Marta in to pay off her husband’s debts, and Visnjic’s smooth and mysterious turn in just a handful of scenes instantly emerges as the best thing “Red Widow” has going for it. That’s either the sign of a series with fundamental flaws, or the roots of a show that will only get better as it goes.
The question is: Will enough viewers tune in and stick around to give “Red Widow” time to prove which one it is?