LAW AND DISORDER
A new gangster series is edgier than the usual free-to-air crime fare
‘ 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
Radha Mitchell in