A new gang­ster se­ries is edgier than the usual free-to-air crime fare

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell

‘ WE ab­hor the au­then­tic stuff and turn in national re­vul­sion from it,’’ Pulitzer prize-win­ning Amer­i­can film critic Stephen Hunter, also a dis­tin­guished crime nov­el­ist, once wrote. ‘‘ Then we go pay seven bucks to watch it in Tech­ni­color in the mall.’’ And he’s right: our re­sponses to film and TV vi­o­lence are com­plex. As he sug­gests, it di­vides us al­most into two halves: the half that tsk-tsks and tut-tuts over its vul­gar­ity, craven­ness, rude­ness, noise and gore, and the half that ‘‘ gets with’’ the ex­act same val­ues.

I’m not sure what ei­ther half will make of Seven’s new gang­ster se­ries Red Widow, in which the vi­o­lence is some­times grossly re­al­is­tic but never ar­bi­trary, re­flec­tive of a kind of cor­ro­sive ni­hilism that in­fects its lead char­ac­ter. (It starts with the grimly re­al­is­tic shoot­ing of two Rus­sian gang­sters on a ship, ejected shells clat­ter­ing nois­ily to the deck, the shooter al­most com­i­cally in­sou­ciant.)

The eight-part se­ries was cre­ated by the tal­ented Melissa Rosen­berg, best known for her screen­writ­ing work on the wildly suc­cess­ful Twi­light movie fran­chise, but who was also a pro­ducer on Dex­ter for four years. So she knows a bit, not only about vi­o­lence but how to make the ex­tra­or­di­nary feel re­lat­able. Her new show was con­ceived as one of those long-haul pay-TV se­ries that de­mands you hang in while the var­i­ous story arcs work their way out and char­ac­ters slowly es­tab­lish them­selves.

The dif­fer­ence is that the high-con­cept drama was cre­ated for the ABC net­work, one of the three big Amer­i­can free-to-air com­pa­nies, and Red Widow is an am­bi­tious at­tempt to bridge the gap be­tween ca­ble and net­work. While it doesn’t have the in­ces­sant swear­ing, full-on brazen nu­dity, flood­ing pools of blood and ul­tra-phys­i­cal vi­o­lence of many ca­ble shows, the sto­ry­telling is much edgier and more chal­leng­ing than more con­ven­tional net­work TV. (Rosen­berg likes to call it ‘‘ ca­ble-y’’ in in­ter­views.)

Red Widow — its tag line is No Time to Mourn, the ti­tle sug­ges­tive not only of loss but also of Rus­sia and blood — is based on the Dutch TV drama Penoza, about a wife and mother who takes over her hus­band’s crim­i­nal en­ter­prises af­ter he’s as­sas­si­nated.

Aus­tralian ac­tress Radha Mitchell stars as Marta Wal­raven, a stay-at-home soc­cer mum in Marin County, just north of San Fran­cisco. Reared by a Rus­sian mob­ster An­drei Petrov (Rade Serbedz­ija), a lead­ing mem­ber of the Bratva, a col­lec­tive of or­gan­ised crime syn­di­cates, she and her sis­ter, Kat (Jaime Ray New­man), tried to es­cape their fa­ther’s bru­tal world but Marta mar­ried the wrong guy. Her hus­band Evan (An­son Mount) sup­ports his fam­ily by ex­port­ing mar­i­juana and when he is bru­tally killed in the fam­ily’s drive­way in front of their son, Marta’s life changes.

Soon the truth about her hus­band’s mur­der be­gins to emerge. Evan’s busi­ness part­ners, Marta’s de­vi­ous brother, Irwin Petrov (Wil Traval), and their best friend, the hap­less Mike Tom­lin (Lee Tergesen), were in­volved in the theft of a huge ship­ment of co­caine from for­mi­da­ble in­ter­na­tional crime boss Ni­cholae Schiller (Go­ran Vis­njic).

Evan may have died on the con­crete drive­way of the ritzy fam­ily house but, as far as Schiller is con­cerned, his debt has not been cleared. It falls to Marta, as Evan’s widow, to nav­i­gate the crim­i­nal un­der­world to see off this debt in what­ever way Schiller sees fit. And the mother of three, call­ing on all her Bratva in­her­i­tance, is forced to make some morally am­bigu­ous de­ci­sions: she is hounded on the one hand by the FBI and by a danger­ous crime boss on the other.

It’s a great set-up for a se­ries and it’s ob­vi­ous Rosen­berg will take Marta on some pretty risky and du­bi­ous paths, though it seems un­likely she will do a Break­ing Bad and turn her into a fe­male Scar­face. Fam­ily is re­ally at the cen­tre of Red Widow and ev­ery­thing Marta does is to pro­tect her chil­dren, which, up to a point, keeps us em­pathis­ing with her.

Mitchell is good as the up­per-class sub­ur­ban house­wife turned gang­ster, play­ing her with a prickly sense of dis­cern­ment. With her now ex­ten­sive fea­ture film ex­pe­ri­ence, she’s ex­pert at let­ting the scene do the work for her, re­frain­ing from comment and play­ing each mo­ment as it comes.

The largely en­sem­ble cast is as pro­fi­cient as you would ex­pect, with Mount a stand-out in the first episode be­fore, un­for­tu­nately, he is cut down by the as­sas­sin’s bul­lets. And Croa­t­ian ac­tor Serbedz­ija steals ev­ery scene in which he ap­pears as the pa­tri­arch of the Petrov clan, mid-level gang­ster and loving fam­ily man, charis­matic and self-as­sured. There is a touch of the new fe­male anti-hero about Mitchell’s Marta Wal­raven, a type of char­ac­ter we rarely see on free-to-air drama. She’s like Edie Falco’s Nurse Jackie, that min­is­ter­ing an­gel with the devil’s own ad­dic­tion to painkillers, and, from Weeds, Mary-Louise Parker’s des­per­ate house­wife Nancy Botwin, who be­comes a mar­i­juana dealer to pay the bills.

‘‘ Don’t pin it down. Leave ques­tions. Treat the au­di­ence like they’re smart,’’ Falco said of this ca­ble-y phi­los­o­phy of sto­ry­telling.

And Rosen­berg and her di­rec­tor Mark Pelling­ton largely get the edgi­ness right. The di­rec­tion is as­sured and cin­e­matic, set­ting up scenes played out in panoramic wide shots, while the dia­logue scenes are largely car­ried in close-up, us­ing long lenses that flat­ten out and ab­stract the back­grounds.

Red Widow is an ad­mirable at­tempt to bring ca­ble to net­work TV; it’s a pity the se­ries was not re­newed so we won’t see just how far Rosen­berg might have taken Marta Wal­raven. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how the se­ries fares on Seven as free-to-air Aus­tralian view­ers seem to be los­ing in­ter­est in US dra­mas. The new Ten show The Amer­i­cans has bombed and Nine’s The Fol­low­ing and, more sen­sa­tion­ally, the ac­claimed Pa­rade’s End also faded. Now avail­able on DVD, Red Widow is a great se­ries for binge view­ing one week­end af­ter­noon. KEVIN McCloud’s highly pop­u­lar Grand De­signs re­turns to the ABC this week for its 10th se­ries. And the dap­per McCloud is still of­fer­ing a kind of as­pi­ra­tional prop­erty evan­ge­lism as he fol­lows his sub­jects’ at­tempts to con­vert light­houses on the coast, build Ge­or­gian man­sions un­der­ground or glass-roofed eco­houses in the forests.

In the years since 1999, when the show first

Red Widow

Radha Mitchell in

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