Being a long-term viewer of any TV drama has its rewards: knowledge of the backstory, familiarity with the characters, and (hopefully) that pleasantly surprised feeling you get when the story takes off in unexpected directions. Yet these can also be barriers to anyone trying to dive into an already established series. As Mistresses begins its third and final run on BBC One, is it worth tuning in for the first time?
Set in Bristol and focusing on the lives of four successful, attractive middle-aged female friends, it’s worth noting that this is not the British Sex and the City. It’s more subtle and earthy than that, and while there is humour, it’s wry. The opening credits feature only the eyes of the four leads. It’s seductive, yet suggestive. The opening scene is very downbeat, and as the four friends gather with unspoken recriminations in the air, it’s clear that something major has occurred. Jarringly, the rest of the episode takes place six months later. It’s tempting to sit there scratching your head and wondering what’s happening, but there are characters’ names to learn, relationships to decipher, and hot ex-husbands to ogle.
There are several modern “issues” bandied about, from IVF to internet dating and gender battles. Yet, thanks to a lack of exterior street filming, it feels almost timeless, and the location could be anywhere. The world these women inhabit is claustrophobic, and viewers are quickly sucked in. The drama comes from the characters and their domestic spheres--there’s no flashy camera work, and it’s elegantly shot with a muted palette.
Mistresses is very good at capturing the subtle status battles that occur within groups of middle-class friends. The frustrations and failures of two of the male partners feel realistic and drive the plot. These women are facing financial, sexual and emotional upheavals, and you start to care what happens to them surprisingly quickly.
The writing can occasionally let the series down, though. The fat, inappropriate secretary is a cliché (and was done years ago on This Life, which Mistresses bears some resemblance to). An internet dating scene is very corny, and making a new rock-the-boat character an airhead American just seemed too easy. Meanwhile, Shelley Conn's often-stiff performances mark her out as the weak link in the lead quartet.
Yet none of that matters when you’re dealing with a show which manages to be classy without being too glam or (shudder) ‘aspirational.’ The icing on the cake has to be the addition of Joanna Lumley as Katie's (Sarah Parish) mother. As a cat among the pigeons, her involvement seals the deal. Mistresses is definitely worth making a date with (on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC One and BBC HD from August 5).