Watching the two-hour pilot for ABC’s “Red Widow” got me thinking — once again — about the remarkable pacing of “Breaking Bad.” The AMC series may have ruined the possibility of nuanced character development for most other TV series. We’ve been able to intimately watch Walter White change across almost five seasons, with an incremental progress that has made each tiny shift visible and distinct. The man lost his heart, his dignity, his family, his morality, step by excruciating step. His journey has shown personality change as a kind of gradual erosion.
“Red Widow” is about a Bay Area housewife and mother of three named Marta Walraven (Radha Mitchell) who becomes a mob criminal after her drug-smuggling husband is shot to death. Her evolution is whiplash fast, and by the end of the premiere, Sunday at 9 p.m. on Channel 5, she’s using her sex appeal to help along an elaborate drug deal. She’s charging into the office of evil crime boss Nicholae Schiller (Goran Visnjic) to give him a piece of her mind. Sure, Marta still exhibits signs of wariness and fear, but I’m guessing by next week’s episode she’ll be packing heat.
This is, of course, network TV, which is far less tolerant of TV projects that have a more deliberate stride. So there’s no point in expecting a lot of shading. But still, watching Mitchell as an actress trying to morph from a contented wife into a corrupt widow in a single sitting is painful. One minute, she’s so enveloped by denial that she doesn’t quite realize her husband (guest star Anson Mount), her brother, Irwin (Wil Traval), and their friend Mike (Lee Tergesen) are exporting pot as a livelihood. The next, she’s picking up where they left off. And yet, because this is network TV, Marta will need to remain likable, and she will probably fall short of becoming fascinatingly malicious. This isn’t “Revenge,” after all; the tone is very middle-of-the-road.
“Red Widow” has been adapted from a Dutch series called “Penoza” by Melissa Rosenberg. The show has a few diverting subplots that make Marta’s clunky transition and Mitchell’s awkward performance easier to get through. Marta’s brother has stolen kilos of cocaine from Schiller; he blames that crime on his late brother-in-law, which screws with Marta’s beloved memory. Marta’s father, Andrei (Rade Serbedzija), is part of the Russian mob, but even he is cowed by the power of Schiller. Marta’s older son, teenager Gabriel (Sterling Beaumon), is an observant kid who’s quietly becoming his mother’s attaché. And FBI agent James Ramos (Clifton Collins Jr.) prowls around Marta’s spectacularly beautiful house, ignoring the fact that his own wife is a drug abuser.
All of these byways add to “Red Widow,” and at least two members of the cast — Beaumon, with his inscrutable face, and Traval — give the drama a desperately needed sense of mystery as they stand on the sidelines of Marta’s life. They don’t negate the absurdity that is Marta and her nonsensical personality, but they make the premiere a little less of a slog. Perhaps, as the show develops across the eight episodes of the season, Marta’s silly conversion will take a back seat to the present tense of these stories. Now that the preamble about how Marta became the titular figure is over, Rosenberg and Mitchell can pull up anchor and just let the widow become a full-on monster.
If “Red Widow” were more psychologically twisty or more excessive and over-the-top, it could be more engaging. As it is, the show is ludicrous and not much fun.