Judge Christopher Kulik had a mistress once, but the endless shagging kept him from writing reviews.
It's more than just a fling.
Originally broadcast by the BBC back in early 2008, Mistresses is another one of those provocative, adult dramas that should appeal to fans of American cousins Sex And The City and Desperate Housewives. It may lack the guilty pleasures of both, but it still has a respective amount of class and sophistication. The show's title suggests this is a humdrum melodrama about married English slags seeking a casual shag every now and then. However, Mistresses is far more intelligent to go down that path towards creative bankruptcy. Granted, it has the odor of a soap opera, one which will only appeal to stay-at-home women looking for something else to do besides laundry.
Regardless, I found Mistresses compelling entertainment, with an attractive cast on fire the whole time and writing that never becomes maudlin or repetitive. If you happened to miss Mistresses' premiere back in February 2009 on BBC America, now is the perfect chance to catch up. In Volume One, we have all 12 episodes from Series One & Two. While an American version is currently cast and looking to find a home (the Lifetime Channel dropped it sometime ago), I can't imagine it being nearly as intoxicating or original.
Facts of the Case
Mistresses focuses on four female friends (all in their 30s) who live normal, but hectic lives. Every once in a great while, they hook up to drink up some wine and compare notes on what they're going through.
Trudi Malloy (Sharon Small, About A Boy) has been a widow for eight years, with her life now fully devoted to raising two young daughters. Her husband Paul lost his life on 9/11, yet she's still convinced he's still alive, and it only generates feelings of guilt when she nervously enters a relationship with nice guy Richard (Patrick Baladi, Last Chance Harvey). His wife left him months ago, and he's in a similar predicament of raising a daughter. When a mysterious young woman claiming to be Paul's mistress approaches her, however, it puts Trudi in an uncomfortable situation.
One of Trudi's good friends is the pushing-40 Katie Roden (Sarah Parish, The Wedding Date). She's a dedicated doctor who had fallen in love with a married patient, but he died unexpectedly. Now, his uni-bound son Sam Grey (Max Brown, The Tudors) suspects Katie of not only sleeping with his father but also assisting in his death to merely end his suffering. Katie lies so she doesn't cause Sam and his mother any more grief, but things spiral out of control when she and Sam (who's always had a crush on her) begin a torrid affair.
Another friend is Siobhan Dhillon (Orla Brady, Empire), an attorney who's been married to the faithful Hari (Raza Jeffrey, Eastern Promises) for 10 years. Their happiness suddenly evaporates when they are informed of Hari's incapability of producing enough sperm to get Siobhan pregnant. This discovery puts a damper in the couple's sex life, and Hari begins to emotionally withdraw from her. As for Siobhan, she finds sexual excitement in her partner Dominic (Adam Rayner, Love And Other Disasters).
Finally, there is Jessica (Shelley Conn, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory), the most spirited and vivacious of the quartet. She works as a wedding organizer and has a "no strings attached" relationship with her married boss. Their new clients are Alex (Anna Torv, Fringe) and Lisa, two women on the hunt for the perfect place to hold their upcoming ceremony. Alex begins to get friendly with Jessica, and the two go out to look for the right gown. When Jessica discovers Alex has no hen night planned, she takes her out to dinner…fully prepared to reveal her true feelings.
If Mistresses sounds like pure soap, you are correct. The dark mood, occasional twists, and serial nature are all here. Disturbing themes such as abortion, euthanasia, deceit, and (of course) infidelity dot the scripts. If you don't keep up with the complex relationships, you could find yourself lost in a sea of confessions, guilt, sex, and working-class courtships. Each episode is designed to increase the character conflict and by the time of the conclusion they all reach the boiling point. It's addictive, yes, but also worth escaping into if you have the time and patience. I imagine all four of the women's situations have been recycled for years, whether it's on British or American television. However, I think few have come close to being as absorbing, detailed or stimulating. Mistresses may be little more than fluff, but it's well-produced and acted fluff, absolutely seductive in its storytelling.
Credit must be given to creators Rachel Anthony and S.J. Clarkson for not making the material supine in its drama or flaccid in its delivery. They wisely draw these women in a candid light, not making them simply carnal figures or whorish tramps. Most stories depict mistresses as being simply the "other women," the heartless individuals who are out to destroy euphoria in other people's lives. We watch these women do immoral things, but the writers don't shy away from the suffering or penitence. They don't want us to love these women, but they also don't want us hate them, and it's refreshing to see Trudi, Katie, Siobhan, and Jessica not be painted in shades of black and white only. Consequently, the Creators also don't write the men off as being faithful wussies or horny blokes, but rather with an equal amount of contrast and humanity. I actually bought these people and their relationships as being real, thus keeping my attention.
Another reason I respect Mistresses is it doesn't give any of its characters a single-minded motivation. None of these women use sex as a tool for personal pleasure. Their "adulterous" decisions are based on overwhelming emotional needs, whether it's romantic or nostalgic. Their goals are to fill voids, be alive, and combat depression. This aspect makes the show less about lust and more about sexual tension and longing, the kind of fire which ignites between two people no matter who their known partners are. For example, Trudi questions her faithfulness when she spends time with Richard, and vice versa…because, technically, they are still both married and (at least) one spouse is still alive. Katie eventually succumbs to Sam's advances because she misses his father; and Jessica, for the first time in her life, re-examines her sexuality when she finds herself in Alex's arms…anyway, you probably get the idea. Thankfully, Mistresses focuses on these relationships with taste and acumen, never surrendering itself to overblown melodrama and soft-core aesthetics.
Also, some words about the inclusion of the gay characters in this show. I've never seen any episode of The L Word or Queer As Folk; that being said, I was so relieved Mistresses didn't insist on injecting a voice to antagonize or ridicule the same-sex unions. These characters live in a world where prejudice is non-existent. This may be unrealistic, but surely idealistic. Jessica's friends never influence her or think she's suffering from mental illness or moral incapacity. Her boss never steers her away from her "abnormal" desires. No religious objections are provided by observers to provide a dramatic battle between what is right and wrong. Best of all, the decision which Jessica makes at end of the sixth episode (which closes Series One) is not based on sexual confusion. Some of the relationships in Mistresses (and how they play out), maybe standard. But the show doesn't, at any time, judge these women and their sexual desires. I'm sure Radclyffe Hall would have be an avid watcher.
Much of my praise for Mistresses is because of its exceptionally strong first Series. The second Series, which picks up these women's lives a year later, is a considerable letdown for a variety of reasons. The writers must have been presented with a real challenge, which is how to continue developing these characters without allowing the storylines to become repetitive, reducing them to self-parody. Series Two makes a sharp left turn towards eliminating much of the supporting cast and focusing on largely new complications which permeate the proceedings. Some viewers will no doubt be turned off by this maneuver, but I can understand the writers' decisions. Radical revisions include Jessica's impending marriage (to a man!) and Katie getting involved with two men after beginning a new job, and they're all difficult to accept. Yet, Mistresses maintains its credible intrigue and careful construction, again walking a fine line between loving these women and viewing them with utter contempt. If anything, the show remains immensely watchable, thus making us hunger for a Third series. The BBC still hasn't made up their minds if they want to continue, but at least the Second series wraps everything up nicely in case it's the last.
One thing the BBC promises, however, is a stellar DVD package. All existing twelve episodes of Mistresses are beautifully presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The bright colors pop with brightness, the sepia tones are appropriately subdued, and the black levels are pitch-perfect. Trust me when I say the show's high gloss and glorious production values are delivered in all their pristine glory, making each episode literally glow with radiance. While a 5.1 mix would been welcome, the 2.0 Stereo tracks do an exquisite job when emanating music and natural sounds from the speakers. Even the couple of extras are above and beyond the call of duty. The second disc (of four) has a 29-minute featurette introducing the leading ladies, providing some behind-the-scenes access, and even an interview with Fringe's Anna Torv (who plays Agent Olivia Dunham on J.J. Abrams' new hit). Despite some extended clips, the featurette is much more than the usual promotional dreck. The other bonus is on the last disc and contains group interviews with both the women and men in Series Two. They each talk about their approach to the characters and how the show depicts infidelity. The only disappointment about these two excellent features is none of the show's Creators show up for a few words; otherwise, fans will be satisfied.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Obviously, two camps will be intimidated when it comes to watching Mistresses: non-fans of British television and, well, men. Even with the looming possibility of an American remake, Mistresses will be a tough sell in any capacity. While I do highly recommend the show, it probably would be best for newcomers to try and catch an episode on BBC America before they commit themselves to 12+ hours on this DVD set. I've never really understood why viewers on this side of the pond are unwilling to view the original British versions of shows like The Office and Three's Company, particularly when they are committed fans of those remakes. Honestly, a slight disconnection with Brit slang and culture is not really an excuse in my eye.
Despite its soap-ish slant, Mistresses is a rewarding show in the tradition of popular HBO and Showtime originals. Whether you're male or female, give it a chance…you might very well be surprised.
These mistresses are found not guilty, and the court requests the BBC to make a decision soon as to their fate on the telly.
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