To create a successful antihero, a writer must pull off a narrative sleight of hand, convincing the audience that black is white, or at least an acceptable shade of gray. The trick is to pull it off without getting caught, which is the first failure of ABC's high-aspiring but poorly executed "Red Widow."
In the series, which premieres Sunday, the antihero is Marta Walraven (Radha Mitchell) living the uber Mommy high life in Marin County until her husband is gunned down in her driveway. Suddenly, she finds herself in debt to the dastardly drug lord Schiller (Goran Visnjic) who will accept only her drug smuggling services as payment. On paper, it's a darker version of "Weeds," with top notes of "Breaking Bad."
Marta isn't exactly an innocent; she is the daughter of a Russian mobster, a woman who convinced her affable husband, Evan (Anson Mount), to go into the pot smuggling business in the hopes of keeping her weaselly younger brother, Irwin (Wil Traval), out of real trouble. Not surprisingly, this doesn't work. Irwin's decision to swipe a ton of coke from Schiller leads to Evan's death, making Marta a bit more Medean than creator Melissa Rosenberg knows how to handle.
Marta informs everyone on the planet that to protect her children, she will do whatever it takes, yet after her husband is shot, the idea that she might want to turn over what information she has to the very decent Agent James Ramos (Clifton Collins Jr.) does not cross her mind. No, it takes ol' Marta only about 15 seconds to decide she needs to go gangster and we, the audience, are expected to support this decision because she has no other choice.
No, thanks. Working from the original Dutch series "Penoza," "Red Widow" is plagued by sanctimony. It wants to have it all: a sympathetic soccer mom heroine suddenly willing and able to do business with murderous thugs.
"You have the Petrov DNA," Schiller tells her, referring to her father, a mobster so old school he runs his business out of a Russian restaurant. But tear-filled eyes and trembling lips do not create moral complexity — she is simply a woman reaping what she has sown, and in an effort to protect herself, she has decided to seed another acre or two in the back 40.
It doesn't help that the two-hour pilot is laced with manipulative "there's not enough time" moments or that the characters are defined as much by their costumes (black leather coats for the Russians, booty hugging skirts for their wives, active wear for Marta) as their conversations, which run high to the "I can't believe this is happening" and "but what else can I do?" variety.
It's easy to see the sort of show Rosenberg envisioned, one in which a "normal" woman finds herself juggling the mundane tasks of motherhood with the high-octane exploits required to keep one step in front of a drug lord. But the show is too busy hedging its bets — hey, he was just running pot, not the hard stuff, and she feels sort of guilty about dragging him into it — that it undercuts its own potential power.
Successful antiheroes own their dark sides; what draws us to them is their acceptance of who they really are. If Rosenberg wants Marta to outsmart the mobsters, that's fine, but she has to stop whining about it. Nobody likes a whiner, even if she is a widow.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG-LSV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)