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The Telefile
Red Widow: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Last spring, ABC experimented with the short-run series model that's so popular abroad (think the Israeli show Prisoner of War, which beget Homeland here), ordering up a ten-episode, single-season run of the Taken knock-off Missing, starring Ashley Judd in the Liam Neeson role of a vengeful parent searching for a kidnapped kid. Although the series was constructed with a definite endpoint in mind, the finale carefully left room for another batch of episodes should the show prove to be a hit. It wasn't. But the network is giving the concept a second chance with Red Widow, another limited-run series that aired the first two of its eight hours tonight.

Adapted from the Dutch series Penoza, Widow stars Radha Mitchell as seemingly ordinary NoCal housewife Marta Walraven, who is actually, literally married to the mob. Her Russian-born daddy Andrei (Rade Serbedzija, no stranger to playing Euro gangsters), is a well-known -- but so far unarrestable -- gangster and he recruited her husband, Evan (Anson Mount), to be part of his operation. But Marta's weary of being connected to that world and demands that Evan get her and their three children out at the first opportunity. Before he can do that, though, he's gunned down in the driveway and his wife is forced to tie up his various loose ends, which include a stolen shipment of drugs and a debt to another mobster, Nicholae Schiller (Goran Visnjic). Based on the first two episodes, Red Widow is a tough show to get a bead on; it's not good enough to become appointment viewing, but at the same time it's not so terrible that we wouldn't stick around for six more hours to see how it all wraps up. Here are three reasons to keep watching... and three reasons to bail.

Reasons We'd Keep Watching
Radha Mitchell
Part of the wave of Aussie performers who crossed the Pacific to sunny Cali in the late '90s and early '00s (see also: George, Melissa and Jackman, Hugh), Mitchell has been kicking around Hollywood for some time without scoring that one big breakout role. A decade later, she may finally have found it. Now, let's keep things in perspective here: we're not anointing her the next big TV star, but her performance as Marta does indicate she could carry her own series far more easily than she could carry a feature film. Looking considerably older than her 39 years -- which works in her favor and kudos to the producers for not forcibly aging the character down -- Mitchell projects a weariness and uncertainty that's entirely appropriate for a character who has suddenly been thrust into a world she doesn't understand and hates being a part of. It would have been easy to depict Marta as adapting to her new role too quickly, but Mitchell indicates that she's got a steep learning curve in front of her, which could prove fun to watch.

Who Shot J.R. Evan?
The premiere established a number of intriguing suspects, starting with Evan's pal Mike (the always welcome Lee Tergesen), who accused him of ratting another their other partner-in-drug-related crime -- Marta's brother Irwin -- out to the feds. You've also got Schiller, the dude whose stash was stolen and is known to retaliate with extreme prejudice against anyone dumb enough to cross him. Last, but not least, you can't rule out Evan's own father-in-law Andrei, who sure seems like the kind of guy who doesn't let family ties get in the way of business. So far, the writers have avoided tipping their hands about which of these three ordered the hit and/or pulled the trigger. We're kinda want to stay with it until we can guess the reveal ... and then the inevitable last-second twist.

It'll Be Over in a Month
If we knew we'd be waiting around until May to see how Red Widow wraps up, we'd be less inclined to care. But provided that ABC airs it every Sunday in March without any delays, it'll be a short-term proposition, airing its finale (in which the creators have promised that all questions will be answered... although we've heard that before) five or six weeks from now. That seems like an entirely reasonable time commitment for a show that we're, for now, only moderately interested in.

Reasons We'd Jump Ship
The Purple Prose
While we weren't anticipating crime fiction writing on the level of, say, Justified, we were hoping Red Widow's scripts wouldn't be as clunky and cliché-ridden as what we heard in the first two hours. And while the writing staff seems to have the show's major story arcs figured out on a macro level (having a fixed number of episodes helps with that), we're not as confident that they'll be able to tell them in a compelling way on a scene-to-scene basis. If this represents the best they're capable of, it may be best to tune out now rather than risk inevitable disappointment.

The Kids
Where, oh where, have all the good child actors gone? The three tykes that make up Marta and Evan's clan are all deeply annoying and too reminiscent of other obnoxious TV kids, from the Leo-from-Smash-like older son, Gabriel (Sterling Beaumon), to the Dana-from-Homeland-like teenage daughter Natalie (Erin Moriarty), to the Luke-from-Modern Family-like tyke, Boris (Jakob Salvati). Every scene with one -- or even worse, all -- of them was an endurance test. We can't help but wonder if, wherever he is, Evan is just a tiny bit relieved that he no longer has to come home to this trio every night.

Eight Episodes Seems Like a Stretch
Television does allow for a more novelistic approach to storytelling, which is great provided you have a novel-length story to tell. Red Widow, though, feels like it would be most satisfying as a two-hour movie (okay, maybe two-and-a-half) and we're not yet convinced that stretching it out to eight hours adds anything more to the material than running time. Seriously, give this same premise to a director like David Fincher or even the guy who made the first Taken and you've got the set-up for a potentially killer one-shot feature. But in this case -- to paraphrase the title of an old ABC series -- eight seems like more than enough.

Miss the premiere of Red Widow? Watch the first hour below.

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