It's not much of a spoiler alert to point out that the title character of ABC's Red Widow winds up in (sexy) mourning by the half-hour mark of Sunday's dreary two-hour premiere (9/8c). It's even less of a surprise, given the nature of this most dismal network midseason in recent memory, that these widow's weeds are fashioned from less than sturdy dramatic fabric.
Weeds being among the shows that dealt with this sort of subject with more imaginative verve. The subject: murderous drug intrigue cloaked in a family façade. Poor Marta Walraven (Radha Mitchell, gorgeous and tough) has spent her life looking the other way: as the daughter of a Russian mobster who uses his ethnic restaurant as a front, and as the wife of a well-meaning pot smuggler (Anson Mount, moonlighting from Hell on Wheels) who's keeping it all in the family, partnering with her jerk of a brother. In a set-up reminiscent of Fox's thankfully defunct and even more ridiculous The Mob Doctor, Marta's numbskull sib opens the show by recklessly stealing $1.5 million in cocaine from feared crime boss Nicolae Schiller (the dashing Goran Visnjic), killing two of his henchmen in the process.
"We're all dead," mutters Marta's hubby when he learns what went down, but before he can spirit his family out of the San Francisco Bay area and turn evidence over to the feds, he's been rubbed out, and the widow's worries have just begun. (Actually, they started a few scenes earlier, when their youngest son Boris takes his dad's gun to school to scare off a bully. But that's another story, for a potentially better show. And little Boris spends the rest of the premiere traumatized by having witnessed his dad's bloody murder in the driveway of their fabulous home.)
"You married me, not my family," Marta's sister (Jaime Ray Newman) tells her new groom in a wedding-party scene that sets up some of the conflicts to follow. We'd know this wasn't true even if we hadn't seen the Godfather movies. Or The Sopranos, which I found myself missing with renewed intensity as Red Widow plods through the preposterous machinations that trap the unschooled Marta into agreeing to import a "consignment" for Schiller to repay the debt, while feds hound her every move.
"Is this who I am now, that I do this to people?" she laments to her dad, as she plots to lure an innocent dupe into her melodramatic web. To the show's credit, there are multiple scenes of people erupting in laughter (sometimes including Marta) as they consider the contrived nature of this premise. "When I want to torture someone, I'm much more direct about it," Schiller tells her with a sly grin, which doesn't really alleviate her panic.
Red Widow presents mediocrity as its own brand of torture. It's like a bad Lifetime movie that doesn't know when to quit.
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VIKINGS AS RAIDERS: Here's blood in your eye. And ears, hair, nose and mouth. The sword and ax blades are flying, the body count's rising, and Game of Thrones hasn't even come back yet. While Starz' Spartacus: War of the Damned nears its final showdown, the latest addition to TV's warrior ranks, History's Vikings (Sunday, 10/9c), is just getting started, introducing an awfully scruffy tribe of dubious heroes. A superstitious lot, these Scandinavian pagans' main purpose in 8th-century feudal life seems to consist of sailing off on raids to plunder from less barbaric others. Go, team?
"Odin gave his eye to acquire knowledge. But I would give far more," pledges the visionary Ragnar (Travis Fimmel, TV's bland answer to Brad Pitt), a Viking farmer with wanderlust. He endangers his life and his family's security, defying the corrupt and close-minded town chief (a smoldering Gabriel Byrne) by sailing in a secretly commissioned new ship to the forbidden and unknown West. First stop: a remote monastery in Northumbria, where Ragnar and his gang slaughter, enslave and steal treasured relics from the terrified monks. On a later trek, Ragnar has learned enough to wait until a village goes to church to make his move against these praying sitting ducks. What fools these Christians be.
But we know which civilization endures, and Vikings doesn't do much to make this vanished culture fascinating. Although it is encouraging to note that, much like in Thrones and Spartacus, the women are sometimes more than willing to get into the thick of the action, especially Ragnar's "shield maiden" wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick). Still, the acting is mostly flat and dour, with the exception of scene-stealer Gustaf Skarsgåd (brother of True Blood's Alexander) as the merrily deranged boat-builder/mystic Floki, and the carnage is bone-crunchingly generic. There is sex amid the pillage — and rape (but only by the truly bad Vikings) — though like the violence, it's depicted fairly discreetly by today's, and one would imagine their own, standards.
At least it's a story likely to be unfamiliar to most. Which isn't the case with History's other big-budget scripted project: the 10-part The Bible (Sunday, 8/7c), which tackles the most ubiquitous Bible stories (first hour, Abraham with a Noah preface; second hour, the Moses chronicles) in crude, broad strokes, with acting and writing taking a back seat to cheesy CGI spectacle that's likely to make one pine for the relative subtlety and craft of Cecil B. DeMille. The Bible's Red Sea sequence can't hold a candle to what DeMille achieved more than a half-century ago in The Ten Commandments, and you're probably better off waiting for ABC's annual telecast later this month.
The final word on The Bible, more than with most such projects: The Book is better.