Mistresses Series Premiere Review: You Have Seen This Show Before (And Not Just Because It's an Adaptation)

Mistresses S01E01: "Pilot"

Mistresses is extremely predictable. You might think that the premiere episode of ABC's new primetime soap never ventured outside much-covered territory because the show is an adaptation of a British series that ran from 2008 to 2010. But even though this new version of the story appears to be on a very similar trajectory to that of its BBC One forebearer, that isn't really much of a problem so far. (I haven't seen the original, just researched it.) No, Mistresses is predictable all on it own, independent of its source material. Its pilot offered nothing new whatsoever, not even to ABC's brand of female-targeted soapy offerings. By the time it ended and I saw the "This Season On...," I'd predicted every single plot point that made an appearance in the clips. Characters made bad choices that were telegraphed from miles away, and at times, it was hard not to roll my eyes at some of the slow-motion "intimacy" and bad puns. 

The thing is, predictable isn't always bad. Many shows telegraph story points and follow familiar rhythms; it's up to the cast and crew to make their version of the recognizable formula compelling and watchable. Despite some of the leads' best intentions, Mistresses failed to accomplish that with the pilot. 

ABC promoted this show as some sort of lust-filled sex romp, but that's not entirely true. While two of the four lead female characters are in fact mistresses (Yunjin Kim's Karen and Jes Macallan s Josslyn), neither is really satisfied with her romantic choices. Shrink Karen is depressed because she had a torrid affair with a dying, married patient (John Schneiderand supplied him with the morphine that allowed him to end his life. Now, she's trying to hide the affair from the patient's young son, who is also romantically interested in her. Josslyn is supposed to be the flirty wild child of the group, yet already in the pilot she was disappointed with the lack of fulfillment her casual sexual experiences afforded her and was considering a lesbian relationship. Meanwhile, Savannah (Alyssa Milano) is stuck in a sexually frustrating relationship with her husband, a relationship that got worse once they learned that it's his "fault" they can't conceive. After a fight with her husband, Savannah decided to give in and have sex with her tremendously forward co-worker Dominic (Jason George, from every ABC show ever) Finally, April (Rochelle Aytes) is still struggling to get over the death of her husband and start dating again, a process that's going to get much more difficult now that she's learned that he had a love child with another women. 

There's no real reason to trust a network publicity department, but this is not the show ABC has been selling . The characters aren't happy in their lives, nor do their various versions of adultery help them grow happier. While I didn't expect this series to be totally pro-cheating or anything, I was surprised at how quickly Mistresses fell right into the rhythms of all the comedy-light Desperate Housewives knock-offs that ABC has aired since 2004. This pilot wasn't as bad as something so tonally deaf as GCB, but it also didn't provide interesting insights into any of its characters' relationships. Someone clearly made the choice for the show not to be too celebratory about being a mistress, but from the jump, we saw unhappy women being unhappy. No one's circumstances seemed remotely enjoyable. If there's nothing inherently interesting about the premise, why not try a more detached, comedic version of this story? ABC's female-heavy audience probably wouldn't accept that, but it's not like characters on Desperate Housewives or Grey's Anatomy were/are perfect. 

The cast is top-lined by some people who you definitely recognize and maybe even like, and they're trying their hardest to bring real pathos to the show's various romantic melodramas. Kin is saddled with the most ridiculous of the stories—going from the now-dead father to the grieving son is quite the journey—and she's morose enough to almost make it work, but Karen's choices were so poor that it's going to be tough for people to root for her. Milano is part of the most realistic of the pilot's storylines, and I actually thought she did fine enough embodying Savannah's frustrations with her husband. However, George's character is such an obnoxious creep that a successful woman like Savannah would be much better off filling a sexual harassment suit than giving in to his constant barrage of uncouth comments. I get it, she's lonely and wants to be sexualized, but yeesh. Macallan and Aytes are less familiar to me, which is maybe why I didn't even give their characters any benefit of the doubt as I watched the premiere. Their respective stories were definitely lower-billed, but also not given enough time to come close to interesting.

The drab tone and passable performances were mediocre in their own right, but they certainly couldn't overcome the show's seemingly unlimited number of blatantly obvious story points. My partner and I had called every single development shown later in the season-long trailer by about 15 minutes into the episode. Every pregnancy, lesbian make-out session, fist fight, and creepy doctor-patient encounter was clearly plotted out in the pilot. This wouldn't've been as problematic if there'd been something else keeping Mistresses above water. But there wasn't, at least in the pilot.

I'll be interested to see how this show performs for ABC. The network has done solid business with summer Canadian co-productions like Rookie Blue, but this project is ABC's alone, and presumably more expensive. The post-Bachelorette timeslot is theoretically the most valuable spot for a new soap in the summer, so maybe it'll succeed. There's usually a sense that for scripted summer shows on broadcast, the bar is much lower, but even with those diminished expectations, I'm not sure that Mistresses is worth the 13-week investment. It's not remotely good, nor is it especially bad. It's just exceptionally dull, and would be completely lifeless if not for a few decent performances. If you're itching for a watered-down version of the kind of soap ABC has been doing for nearly a decade, maybe this is worth a shot. But you could also just watch old episodes of Desperate Housewives, or even Grey's Anatomy or Scandal on Netflix, and be much more entertained.


– This show was originally developed at Lifetime a handful of years ago, and it shows. No disrespect to Lifetime, but Mistresses' lack of zip and more straightforward approach to the primetime soap would be a better fit there.

– I'd be interested to hear how this pilot stacks up against the British version of the series. As I noted, it seemed pretty similar based on plot descriptions I found on Wikipedia and IMDb. This show could easily stray from that one's stories, but it doesn't seem like it will.

– This cast is weirdly filled out with familiar faces: Penelope Ann Miller! Shannyn Sossamon!

– Cherlie Nowlan's directing was fine. This was certainly a bright affair, and some of the locations were interesting. But it still looked like every ABC drama pilot you've ever seen.

What'd you think of Mistresses' series premiere?

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