Better known as one of the writer/producers behind Dexter and the Twilight film adaptations, Melissa Rosenberg decided to get her hands dirty with yet another series built on a previously-done concept: Red Widow, a fish-outta-water crime drama about a "soccer mom" caught in a world of drug-dealing, double-crossing and mob warfare, adapted from a Dutch series, Penoza. Striking while the iron's hot after the likes of Revenge, The Mob Doctor, and Breaking Bad generated some demand for similar content, this ABC vehicle showed promise by roping in an under-appreciated genre actress, Radha Mitchell, as an earnest mother caught in a high-stakes, out-of-control criminal situation. Moral relativism involving a family's history and the debts they're forced to pay becomes crucial to whether the show's intensity might work, as well as an intriguing villain pulling the strings. Despite having the tools at their disposal, however, Red Widow fizzles out as an exaggerated, taxing misfire that lacks the subtlety and genuineness to spin a proper web of intrigue.
In the very first episode, it's clear that shock-value will play a large role in Red Widow: we see a young boy pull a gun on a bully at his school, and, later on, witness his father's gunned-down body bleed out before his very eyes. And that's far from the last of the shocks. That murdered man would be Evan Walraven (Anson Mount), a marijuana smuggler in San Francisco with a charter-boat business as his cover, who was targeted because his operation stole a wealth of cocaine from one of the bay area's prominent "entrepreneurs", Nicholae Schiller (Goran Visnjic). With the cocaine lost in the shuffle, the debt then passed on to his surviving family to repay, namely to his wife, Marta (Mitchell), also the daughter of a well-known crime figure in the Russian mob. Whether Marta's able to compensate for the debt in other ways or not doesn't really matter, though, because Schiller instead wants her services in the smuggling racket as repayment, forcing her into a world that's entirely out of her element. A mother of three children, whose brother, Irwin (Wil Traval), is caught in Evan's business just as deeply, must adapt and rely on intuition to appease Schiller.
The premise of a housewife getting thrown into drug importation and fear of the mob is intriguing, but the drawn-out drama built around Marta's situation -- and the truth behind who caused her husband's trouble -- instead makes Red Widow overstated and tonally heavy. Writer/producer Rosenberg and her team struggle with this from the get-go, revealing who's really responsible for changing the Walraven/Petrov family's status quo and leaving Marta to, in fact, work off a debt that she's not exclusively responsible for. Everything builds on top of that "hidden" issue, from her brother facing criminal charges to a diligent, probing FBI agent (Clifton Collins Jr.) staked out in front of her home, and it transforms what could be a meaningful foundation for the story into one of confused emotional intentions, framing Evan the drug smuggler into a loving father who wasn't all that bad. The show uses gray-area morality to its advantage by emphasizing a man's desire to provide a bountiful life for his wife and kids, sure, but from his children's posthumous discovery of his profession to how Marta handles the ongoing provocation from Schiller, its purpose gets lost.
Red Widow focuses on the tension of a housewife awaiting and adapting to her new duties as an illegal importer under the threats of an ominous crime boss, while trying to sustain her life at home in the wake of tragedy and, somehow, figure out the truth of her husband's death. While her charismatic ferocity and modest sincerity fit in with horror films like Rogue and Silent Hill and in dramas like Mozart and the Whale and The Children of Huang Shi, Radha Mitchell often goes too intense and animated to accentuate the nuance of Marta's turmoil -- both her family concerns and her awkwardness as a criminal. The show forces this idea of a synergy between maternal and criminal instincts as a view into her acclimation, a fight-or-flee response that taps into her family's history and her strength as a mother, but Mitchell's presence struggles to embody that in a convincing, empathetic manner. Thankfully, she's dealing with a compelling "antagonist" in Schiller, given an intimidating, layered presence and grasp on morality by Goran Visnjic. Essentially, their chemistry make Marta's situation and responses far more intriguing than they should be, though it can't justify why Schiller would continue to tolerate her unreliability in business deals.
What's really frustrating about Red Widow are the foolish decisions the characters make that lead to the show's cliche escalation of thrills and twists. From greedy, vindictive criminals to those caught in the chaos who are desperate for passion and instant gratification, the cast of personas here -- few of whom are likable -- play fast and loose with the situation in unlikely ways, giving it a soap-opera touch as bloated arguments ensue over poor choices. Schiller incorporating a housewife into a key role in his illegal, nerve-rattling business seems insignificant in comparison to the renegade thievery, the taboo kisses in broad daylight, and the mentioning of sensitive information that occurs when the plot needs a beat. Frenzied performances and assertive music manufacture some tension on the surface -- it's a polished, clear-headed show on a technical level -- yet a lack of common sense in what happens left me puzzled instead of wanting to know what'll happen next. It plays like a guilty pleasure without the pleasure, where its solemn premise hinders whatever degree of indulgence it could muster.
Logic be damned, Red Widow commendably sticks it out through eight episodes of insistent tension built around Marta's investigation and transformation into a "solver of problems", following a chain of plot twists and revelations that, perhaps, would've been better spread out had the series received a longer lifespan. Instead, Melissa Rosenberg and her team tread a lot of ground as the plot quickly unravels, from predictable notes about how mob life impacts Marta's family -- namely her "business"-interested son, Gabriel -- to some wilder bends in the road; flipped allegiances, red herrings, and impromptu deaths at least make the shock-value rush to the finish a fast-moving one. While the finale still leaves a few expected loose threads and closes on a cliffhanger of sorts, it does reach a semi-conclusive point in the overarching story, with an emphasis on emotional catharsis for the family and the mystery behind Evan's death. Those drawn into the premise will land on enough of an end to justify the ride, I guess, but that doesn't stop Red Widow from getting tangled in its own lack of sensibility.
Video and Audio:
While cancelled shows like Red Widow might not offer a lucrative-enough opportunity for a Blu-ray release, ABC/Disney's DVD-only presentations -- as seen with Revenge -- have developed a reputation for typically being good enough to make those watching mostly forget about the lack of a HD treatment. This is another example: each disc holds four (4) 1.78:1-framed episodes that total nearly three hours of content, and they're all exceptional in terms of their color palette, contrast, and detail clarity. Granted, the digitally-shot show lends itself to impressive visuals, with warm colors and tight close-ups, but the digital sturdiness and the appealing robustness of the photography come together into a rather impressive treatment. Skin tones are balanced and very fleshy, foliage and skies in exterior sequences are exceptionally robust, and darker nighttime sequences exhibit sturdy, deep black levels. There are moments where mosquito noise and garbled details in background present a few problems if blown up on a larger screen, but overall it's quite nice.
Each episode also boasts a weighty 5-channel Dolby Digital track that makes the most of the sound design wherever it's possible, though Red Widow does focus quite a bit of front-loaded dialogue. Clarity, then, becomes the chief element to enjoy in the treatment, and it's ... decent. There are some instances where dialogue becomes muffled, hollow, and coarse, yet other times exhibit very, very clear delivery with plenty of awareness of the environment. It's never inaudible to a point where , but there are enough instances of patchiness for it to be noticeable. Certain effects do occasionally travel from the rear speakers to the front for an atmospheric effect, though, and the power of the score commands quite a presence that fills the surround space. Aggressive sound elements do arise, from fistfights to gun shots, and they're typically supported by fine mid-range clarity and lower-frequency buoyancy. Overall, it's an unexceptional but appropriate treatment that handles the nuance and assertiveness of the tracks well enough. Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese alongside the sole English language option.
Outside of a series of eight Deleted Scenes (16x9) -- a few of which actually felt pertinent enough to the plot that they should've been included -- and some Bloopers (3:42, 16x9), the only substantial special feature available here is Red Widow: The Journey (13:47), which offers a glimpse into the creative and production process of assembling an episode of the series. Melissa Rosenberg offers her insights as a producer as she leads the brainstorm meeting for the season's finale, revealing how they collaborate on ideas and deal with conflicts. She then shifts into how they coordinate with the actual studio in Vancouver (they use Skype for meetings!) before she sets off to do her thing on the set for the finale. Behind-the-scenes shots capture certain on-location scenes, as well as how they create the illusion of a boat out to see and how some of the actors got into their headspaces. And yeah, the piece certainly has a "this ended abruptly" vibe to it.
Red Widow has the components at its disposal to work as an emotional, tense thriller about a mother who gets pulled into world of organized crime to get rid of her drug-smuggling husband's post-mortem debt. A capable lead in Radha Mitchell and a compelling antagonist in Goran Visnjic's Schiller could've progressed into an extended narrative based on their rapport and the moral gray-area where they tread. Unfortunately, the intentions behind Marta Walraven's search for closure and forced obligation to a crime lord are undermined by the writing's lack of finesse and believability, as well as an inability to properly harness Mitchell's talents as the focal mother. What instead comes out of Red Widow's first and only season is a trite, overblown, yet ultimately watchable crescendo of suspense that can't quite grasp what it sets out to do as a drama about the mob, the family bond, and the transition between parental instinct and street savvy. Rent It.