Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
There are good pilots, there are bad pilots, and then there are pilots so mediocre, so devoid of anything resembling life and potential longevity that it seems incredible they ever got picked up to series. Betrayal, a bland-as-boiled-potatoes nighttime soap about two married lovers’ affair and the effects it has on their intertwined families, is definitively an example of the latter. While it may not be the worst new show of the season, it feels like the least essential—which, in this crowded television landscape, is a far more grievous sin.
Since moving Revenge to Sunday nights in an attempt to fill the gaping, Desperate Housewives-shaped hole in its schedule, ABC has struggled mightily to find a compatible lead out, crashing and burning with the seemingly compatible 666 Park Avenue and Red Widow (and, in perhaps the strangest scheduling decision in recent memory, the decidedly less-compatible Happy Endings). On paper, Betrayal appears to be the perfect fit, but the show’s execution takes almost all of the things that make Revenge compulsively watchable and grinds them down into the weakest, most facile versions of themselves.
It doesn’t help Betrayal’s case that the show kicks off with an extremely Revenge-esque in medias res opening, featuring lead Hannah Ware bloodied and being hauled into an ambulance before quickly flashing back to an indeterminate time in the past when her life was headed in a far more positive direction. It’s done with so little conviction that it becomes inconsequential and is immediately forgotten, so when the device pops back up at the pilot’s conclusion it feels almost intrusive instead of enticing. If the show cares so little about teasing where this is going, why should the audience?
The meat of the show and the reason anyone is going to tune in is the aforementioned affair between Ware and Stuart Townsend, and in that regard Betrayal is perfectly adequate, if a bit overly convinced of its own importance. This isn’t a will-they/won’t-they story, it’s a when-will-they story; the hookup in inevitable. If the pilot makes one misstep in establishing the affair, it’s spending far too much time trying to paint the plot as love at first sight and far too little time having fun ratcheting up the sexual tension. This is largely a product of how little Ware and Townsend’s characters are developed beyond “vaguely unhappy” and how tepid their chemistry turns out to be, feeling far more like a warm hug than the illicit bundle of sexual intrigue the show wants it to be.
Strangely, Betrayal’s biggest problem is that the affair—as tame as it may be thus far—isn’t the whole show. What could be a decent examination of what happens when a life is turned upside down by a chance meeting goes completely off the rails in the attempt to intertwine Ware and Townsend’s lives beyond the affair. This is handled through a rip-roaringly awful murder plot centering on James Cromwell and Henry Thomas (as Cromwell’s intellectually disabled son). Every moment Cromwell and Thomas are on the screen is thoroughly cringe-inducing—in Cromwell’s case because he’s playing less of a character than a wooden archetype of power and corruption, and in Thomas’ case because his portrayal of a disabled person is terrible to the point of being borderline offensive. It’s the kind of performance that raises questions about how it got through the multiple layers of notes and approvals a network show must endure before making it to air.
Betrayal does have one small thing going for it, though; it looks great. Director Patty Jenkins has this pilot honed into an upper-class urban dream, with the gleaming buildings and muted pastel palette of Ware’s life nicely contrasted with the falsely warm, imposing grandiosity of Townsend’s. The pilot also features an agreeably distinctive feel from other recent shows set and shot in and around Chicago. Jenkins fans as many flames as possible from Ware and Townsend’s limited spark, building up a decently satisfying sense of tension to the inevitable moment of physical betrayal. The scenes revolving around the murder don’t fare quite as well, getting lost in tone somewhere between the dreamy longing of the affair and the cartoonish nonsense of the death and its ensuing power struggle.
Based on the Dutch series Overspel and developed for American television by longtime ER executive producer David Zabel, Betrayal feels exactly like what happens when someone wants to use an established format in an attempt to replicate the successes of Scandal and Revenge without understanding anything about what actually makes those showsa hit. Sex and murder don’t automatically a compelling soap make (though they don’t hurt); what separates ABC’s hits from the misses is exactly what Betrayal is lacking here: strong characters with a compelling mission driving the narrative forward. Without those, there’s nothing to grasp onto, leaving just a timid affair and toothless murder mystery in their place. The biggest infidelity in Betrayal is how easily it lets down its own characters.
Developed for American television by: David Zabel
Starring: Hannah Ware, Henry Thomas, Chris Johnson, Wendy Moniz, Elizabeth McLaughlin, Braeden Lemasters, Stuart Townsend, James Cromwell
Debuting: Sunday at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Hour-long drama
Pilot episode watched for review