'Red Widow' Is Not the Answer ABC Has Been Looking For

The latest in the network's tough-mom thrillers — a confusing two-hour premiere centered on the Russian mob in San Francisco — feels more like a fill-in distraction than anything else. Which is exactly what Sunday night doesn't need right now.

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Did anyone else watch Red Widow last night? It's that new ABC show starring Radha Mitchell, the latest in ABC's string of women-led thrillers. Mitchell plays Marta, a wealthy and happy woman — handsome husband, three attractive children, gorgeous home in San Francisco — whose life is torn apart when her husband is murdered because of his involvement in a drug robbery. See, Marta's family is big in the Russian mob, and her ne'er-do-well brother got her husband involved in stealing cocaine from a really dangerous rival gangster. (Even Marta's powerful, old-school dad is scared of this scary gangster.) Still owing a debt after her husband's murder, Marta figures she has no choice but to go to work for said scary gangster, and thus begins our tale of a woman doing what needs doing to protect her family. Sigh. We've been here before, haven't we?

It's not exactly the same thing, but didn't Ashley Judd just get sucked back into her old dangerous life to rescue her son last year? Her show, Missing, was a European spooks 'n' spies travelogue, whereas Red Widow is a San Francisco-set mob tale, but the tone still feels very familiar. Idyllic life shattered by violence, tough mom finding reserves of strength to do morally questionable things to righteously protect her family, etc. etc. And it's all given the warmed-over network treatment, where serious stakes are meant to be felt without the presence of bad language or worse violence. It's not that these shows aren't entertaining — Missing proved to be a surprising good time — but I'm just not sure who they're for, exactly.

At the start of the season, ABC packaged its Sunday night as a mystical mystery evening. Once Upon a Time was a returning hit and the new series 666 Park Avenue came with a high-profile cast and higher hopes. The never-rated-as-highly-as-you-might-think Revenge was sorta worked in there somehow, seeing as it too is a mystery, albeit of the decidedly unsupernatural kind. But then 666 was a complete flop and ABC was more than ready to go another route. So now the evening is marketed as a sexy, sinister bloc of intrigue and vengeance. Plus, y'know, Once Upon a Time. Which could never in a million years be called either sexy or sinister. (Unless you count the decidedly sinister quality of the show's unsexiness.) So somehow the night's true ratings hit, Once Upon a Time, is relegated to the backseat while ABC heavy-peddles the increasingly silly and unwatchable Revenge (I gave up weeks ago) and this wan new thriller about the Russian mob in San Francisco. (You know, the Russian mob! In San Francisco! Tale as old as time.) It seems like a strange strategy, considering that Missing was a huge bomb on the network not but a year ago.

I guess ABC is trying to cash in on the whole adapt-a-foreign-TV-show craze, as Red Widow is based on the Dutch series Penoza. But how successful is that trend, really? It worked for Homeland (originally an Israeli series), but certainly less so for The Killing, which is huge in Denmark. (And keep in mind that by network standards, Homeland's ratings are very low.) And there's nothing particularly standout about the basic plot of either Red Widow or its progenitor, so it's tough to see why this show was given such a prominent position on the schedule. Radha Mitchell is not a terribly big star, nor are any of her costars. It's nice to see E.R.'s Goran Visnjic again, but he's so far wasted in a silly role as Marta's new enemy/employer/possible love interest. The whole thing feels awfully B-grade, especially for something that was touted over and over again during ABC's big Oscars broadcast (not to mention its big NBA games) and has been given such a plum Sundays at 10 PM slot. It's a muddle — part cash-in on Revenge-y thrillers, part scramble to get in on the foreign show trend — that produces mostly confusion. (Again, the Russian mob in San Francisco? I know they've got Russians there, but is that really a thing?) The fact that the show is adapted by the lady who wrote the Twilight movies doesn't help.

So basically I'm scratching my head about this show. By the time last night's big two-hour premiere had devolved into Lee Tergesen giving Radha Mitchell goofy drug smuggling lessons, I had no idea what ABC's game was anymore. For a network that's dwelling awkwardly in the middlelands of the ratings game, and that needs to rebuild its once terrifically strong Sunday night — Grey's and Housewives used to reign supreme, and Scandal is all the way on Thursday — they're navigating their leaner years pretty clumsily. Far from a great red hope, Widow feels more like a fill-in distraction than anything else. Which is exactly what ABC doesn't need right now. Maybe they should just air three hours of Once Upon a Time on Sunday nights. Or I guess they'll just bide their time until the spinoff.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.