In another midseason of some parallel TV dimension, “Red Widow,” ABC’s new Sunday night crime drama, would be easily panned. But with show after show belly-flopping into the mud pond these days, “Red Widow” comes across as having relative depth and a stylish instinct for family intrigue, if you can get past its mildly outlandish premise.
Radha Mitchell stars as Marta Walraven, a yoga-toned, stay-at-home mom of three children living in a dreamy Bay Area house. Everything’s perfect, if only because Marta has lived her life looking away and not asking questions — about the under-the-table business interests that her Russian father conducts out of his restaurant (they’re Bratva gangsters) and certainly not about the “import/export” venture (translation: marijuana dealing) her husband, Evan, runs out of the marina.
Marta’s no-good brother (Wil Traval) steals a shipment of cocaine from big-time crime boss Nicholae Schiller (“E.R.’s” Goran Visnjic) and then tries to involve Evan in a scheme to sell it off. The deal falls apart, the coke disappears and it’s not long before Evan (“Hell on Wheels’ ” Anson Mount) is pumped full of lead.
“Red Widow,” which is based on a Dutch TV series, asks a viewer to keep track of several sticky wickets at once: A grief-stricken Marta learns about the cocaine heist, but if she accepts help from a sympathetic federal agent (Clifton Collins Jr.), it will mean disobeying the Bratva code of silence she was brought up with. More mystifying, she learns that her late husband was getting ready to rat on his in-laws anyhow, in search of a new, witness-protected life for his wife and children. And her biggest problem is that Schiller has demanded she pay off the debt for the cocaine — not in cash, but by taking over her husband’s boat business and aiding in the drug trade.
“Mr. Schiller,” she pleads with him, “I’m a mom with a mortgage, car repairs and three grieving children — one of whom is being home-schooled because no school will take him after he brought a gun to his last school. The fact that his father was gunned down in our driveway doesn’t help. That’s my life.”
Too bad, so sad, tell it to the mommy blogs. Faced with no other choice (the writers make sure every sane option is ruled out), Marta must become a criminal and somehow keep this fact from her two youngest children, since her oldest, Gabriel (Sterling Beaumon), is a budding criminal. Summarizing the show here makes me realize how “Red Widow” sounds either tedious or ridiculous, or some familiar combination of the two.
But Mitchell’s coolly understated performance makes it all slightly more believable and worth a few episodes to see where it leads. The best thing I can say about “Red Widow” is that it doesn’t feel slapped together and held in place by rubber bands. Someone involved — perhaps Melissa Rosenberg, a former head writer for “Dexter,” who executive-produces here — has a feel for character nuance, the long arc and multilayered plots.
This show needs a little room to breathe, so it’s probably a good idea that ABC has scheduled back-to-back episodes to debut Sunday. In the second hour, we begin to sympathize with Marta’s desperation and her utter naivete about the underworld. In a lot of ways, she’s no different from anyone who never asked her spouse enough questions about where the money came from and where the money went. A more clumsy and formulaic show would have immediately put a gun in Marta’s hand and sent her off on a laundry list of seedy criminal missions at Schiller’s command. “Red Widow” is better than that, but keep in mind that we’re grading on a curve.
(two hours) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.