Rich Heldenfels: ‘Red Widow’ gives me the blues

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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ABC's "Red Widow" stars Lee Tergesen as Mike Tomlin, Suleka Mathew as Dina Tomlin, Clifton Collins, Jr. as FBI Agent James Ramos, Luke Goss as Luther, Wil Traval as Irwin Petrov, Goran Visnjic as Nicholae Schiller, Radha Mitchell as Marta Walraven, Rade Serbedzija as Andrei Petrov, Jaime Ray Newman as Kat Castillo, Sterling Beaumon as Gabriel Walraven, Jakob Salvati as Boris Walraven and Erin Moriarty as Natalie Walraven. (Bob D'Amico/ABC)

The last couple of seasons, ABC has shown a considerable fondness for drama series titles that promise a pulpy sort of adventure. Think Scandal, Last Resort, Zero Hour, 666 Park Avenue — and the new Red Widow, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC.

Considering how competitive TV can be, any little edge may help (although CBS, for one, has built a huge stack of successful crime shows with often bland names). And Red Widow, which moves to the 10 p.m. Sunday hour on March 10, is going to have to fight off some serious foes, since Sunday also brings the likes of All-Star Celebrity Apprentice at 9 p.m. on NBC, and the History channel’s two-hour premiere of The Bible, a series featuring stories from the Bible, at 8 p.m.

But, among the tantalizing titles I mentioned, Scandal is the only one that has provided what its title implied: a loony, trust-no-one, anything-is-possible set of twists and turns redeemed by a good pace and more than capable acting. Zero Hour, for one, does not recognize the line between loony and stupid, and 666 Park Avenue was little more than a reworking of Rosemary’s Baby and Stephen King that did not meet the standards of either. Last Resort wanted to be taken seriously — to use some pulp conventions as a way to talk about politics and character — which made it a good show but not one that many people ended up watching.

Red Widow falls into the Last Resort trap. While it is not nearly as good as that show, the two-hour Red Widow premiere suggests a show that wants to be serious, and so does not seem comfortable with the basic idea: Marta Walraven (Radha Mitchell) has to take over the family’s drug business after her husband’s murder — and find who killed him.

The writer, Don Winslow, used a similar idea on his novels Savages and Kings of Cool, but embraced it; there was no question that his widow was going to be as murderous and ruthless as conditions required. Red Widow, like its main character, is more squeamish. It wants us to like the character, and respect her reluctance, even though eventually she will need to be a badass.

Marta, after all, should know what she is in for. Even though she has settled into being the suburban mother of three, her father is Russian gangster Andrei Petrov (Rade Serbedzija, Taken 2). She is well aware of her husband’s business and its risk; as the show begins she wants to get him out of the violent life, only to be dragged into it after his death.

In short, there’s no reason for her to seem as put-upon (and unaware of smuggling basics) as she does early in the show. Sure, it recognizes some of the requirements of melodrama: plenty of acting with eyes wide and nostrils flared, face-to-face confrontations that in a more logical world would take place on the phone. But it’s still a bland effort when it really needs to bring the craziness.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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