By Mary McNamara
February 20, 2009
“Mistresses,” which premieres tonight, takes itself pretty seriously considering its title. Yes, the one-hour BBC drama is a sexual soap opera in which a quartet of lovely and complicated women negotiates alarmingly fraught romantic lives, but honestly, there's not a "mistress" among them.
Adultery abounds, you can be sure, but it's thoroughly democratic -- no one's sitting around on her peignoired fanny awaiting the whim of her rich married lover or flipping open a jeweled ring to dump poison into the foaming latte of said lover's wife. Which is sort of what the term "mistress" still conjures.
No, these women are all too busy navigating the travails of "real life," at least as we know it on TV -- the hours spent texting, phoning and meeting up with your girlfriends to discuss those pesky relationships (and occasionally children and jobs) that provide counterpoint to the only bond that truly matters: female friendship. We could call it "womance" except that just sounds silly, doesn't it?
It won't kill you to while away an hour a week watching "Mistresses," but it won't offer you anything you haven't seen before. In fact, it manages to offer you pretty much everything you've seen before -- the most admirable part of the project is how the writers have managed to jam so many issues into so few plotlines.
With Katie (Sarah Parish) alone, we kill three birds with one stone. She's the husky-voiced physician who's been having an affair with a married patient with cancer. When he dies, with a little requested help from her, she becomes entangled with his son.
Siobhan (Orla Brady) is a married lawyer so relentlessly trying to make partner and get pregnant that she hasn't seen all the other television shows cautioning that this can only lead to problems in the marriage. Jessica (Shelley Conn) is the kohl-eyed sleep-around whose cavalier attitude toward men is quickly explained when she embarks on a little experiment with an attractive female client, and Trudi (Sharon Small) is a 9/11 widow who, several years later, is almost ready to stop believing that those weird hang-up phone calls aren't her dead husband, Paul.
So we've got mercy killing along with the May-September (and semi-incestuous) angle covered, infertility, late-blooming lesbians and the . . . well, I have to admit the 9/11 widow is actually a new twist on the old middle-aged-mum-gets-back-into-the-game scenario.
Of course, because this is a British production, it goes without saying that the acting across the board is terrific, adding a certain sheen to the well-thumbed plots. (There are so many wonderful-looking and unbelievably good actresses in Britain that you wonder if some state-run science project is at work, and why doesn't someone make a TV series about that?)
Conn's Jess is flirty and delicious, which makes her same-sex awakening more compelling than it might be in these post-"L Word" times (not to mention the fact that she's having it with Anna Torv of Fox's “Fringe”). As Trudi, Small is disheveled, overly chatty and hilarious, although it seems almost a given that those hang-ups will turn out to be something significant.
But it's hard to warm up to Siobhan and Katie -- well, it's not so much the ick factor of the college-aged-son-of-your-very-recently-dead-lover as it is the hours Katie spends staring out of windows into the rain that make you hope the kid is a serial killer. Or Trudi's husband. Or something.
The strongest bits are, of course, the moments among the women, when they say to one another the things that must be said in the way only long-term friends can. But the Writers Guild of America and its British counterpart really need to issue some rules on texting and cellphone use in a script. It was cute when all our little gizmos were first invented; now it's just a time killer.
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