Mistresses

Mistresses debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Mistresses just kind of exists. Too narratively banal to be memorable and not nearly sexy enough to make up for its narrative shortcomings, Mistresses is the dry toast and applesauce of nighttime soaps: You probably won’t regret watching, but it would never be your first choice when the hunger to watch a juicy summer drama strikes.

Based on a BBC series of the same name, Mistresses follows four friends in various stages of relationship upheaval: Savi (Alyssa Milano) is in a rut with her husband following an unsuccessful attempt to have a baby; Savi’s sister Joss (Jes Macallan) is a woman so relationship-averse she sleeps with her boss and begs him not to leave his wife for her; Karen (Yunjim Kim) is a psychiatrist dealing with the aftermath of having an affair with her now-deceased patient; and April (Rochelle Aytes), a widow who starts getting prank phone calls she’s convinced are coming from the ghost of her dead husband.

As kooky as that last character description sounds, the thing Mistresses lacks the most is any sense of interesting tenor or quirk lurking beneath its polished exterior. This is an extremely straightforward affair, so even-keeled in its generic tone that if they didn’t mention things like tweeting I wouldn’t have been surprised if this had been sitting on ABC’s shelf since 2003 and they just decided to dust it off for a burn off during the summer programming doldrums.

This throwback feeling wouldn’t be an issue if the whole affair was a bit more dynamic. For a show ostensibly about how sex can bulldoze a path through even the most sensible and stable relationships, Mistresses is surprisingly timid about the actual sex part. Despite frontloading the pilot with weirdly abstract steaminess and one fairly overt sex scene, the show is far more interested in the emotional and interpersonal ramifications of cheating than the actual act. This is simultaneously the most and least frustrating thing about the show, because its biggest strength is in dealing with the ramifications of the cheating, so to mostly shy away from the sex part feels like a bit of a cop out. Also, if someone is going to go out of their way to watch what is advertised as a steamy summer soap, to mostly deprive them of that steam is fairly maddening.

But if there is one thing to recommend about Mistresses, it’s that the show doesn’t back down from showing what cheating does to both the person committing the act and the victim of the act. The storylines the four friends are involved in are wholly separate from each other—only intersecting when the ladies get together for friendly advice or a bit of girl talk, with one exception—but the show smartly gives each story a bit of thematic overlap to another, a way to connect the friends and potentially cause rifts between them due to their actions in their own lives. The best and most compelling example of this is when one of the four whose husband cheated on her finds out her friend is a cheater herself, and it causes a real rift in their relationship. This is a great character-building moment for both women and an aspect of female friendship that hasn’t been explored much on television, so to see a show about female friends tackle it head-on is heartening.

The problem is the show doesn’t have this sense of character definition on display practically anywhere else. ABC provided three episodes for review, and after watching only the pilot it was easy to see why—the pilot was a completely amorphous mixture of things that were happening with no sense of who these people were or why any of them would be worth investing in. After three episodes there’s barely anything more to latch onto, as the show suffers from the classic mistake of giving these characters potentially compelling emotional stakes to deal with but forgetting that in order for these stakes to land the audience has to care about the characters first. This is especially essential in a soap like this one, where character is the only thing sustaining the audience in the first place. This isn’t Desperate Housewives where there’s a clever narrative construct and overarching plot to pull the audience along until the characters are established; the characters here have to be the pull, because the narrative stakes are just too bland to do it on their own.

Not helping the show’s case is the cast, who aside from some familiar faces are about as nondescript as it gets. Alyssa Milano fares the best based almost solely on her recognizablilty and likeability from past roles, which is fortunate because her character Savi is the most prominent over the first three episodes and also the most troublingly obtuse. Every action Savi takes is almost completely undermined by the writers in that they never write in enough shading for it to feel justified, making it extremely difficult to emotionally track. Milano does her best to make things come together and only sometimes succeeds. Familiar face Yunjim Kim (Lost) does her best with an extremely stupid plot centering on her secret affair with a dying patient and her inability to extricate herself from the patient's family after his death, but the role is so thanklessly written even she can’t save it.

The strangest thing about Mistresses might be that it got picked up at all. Despite being based on a successful BBC property, the pilot simply didn’t show much promise of turning into a compelling series, and the next two episodes only confirm this fear. If anything, Mistresses feels like it belongs either on the ABC of yore or Lifetime (who originally tried to develop the show and passed), and not on the network pushing more edgy soaps like Scandal and Revenge.

The worst part is that it isn’t terrible; it’s just terribly, terribly boring and unnecessary. In a television landscape as rich as the one today, this might be the biggest strike against it of all.

Stray observations:

  • I haven't seen the BBC version but according to the plot descriptions, it seems ABC is taking most of its stories directly from the original, save one big exception: that crazy April story (Trudi in the UK version). For those of you who have seen the BBC version, how did her "twist" play over there? Because yikes. (Major potential plot spoilers for both versions of the show in that link, obviously.)

More TV Club