Somewhere deep in the BBC, a commissioning editor has been asleep for far too long. Like Rip Van Winkle, he or she has languished while Sex and the City, and all its inept foursome rips-offs flowed by, along with six seasons of The L Word. Not to mention Demi Moore’s marriage to Ashton Kutchner—which deflated anxieties about older women and younger men. Stirring in the first decade of the 21st century, this commissioning editor decided to reveal women to be “sexy, sophisticated and modern.” The result is Mistresses, a six-part series about four 30something university friends that unfolds as a tacky rip-off from American primetime, complete with circa-‘50s prurience.
Sharon Small, most familiar in the U.S. as Barbara Havers in The Inspector Linley Mysteries, plays Trudi, a stay-at-home 9/11 widow still grieving for her husband. While Stone is certainly an asset to the show, her considerable range and naturalistic performance also sharpens the focus on the other leads’ hair-swinging, eyes-wide-and-stricken affectations.
That’s not to say the characters’ lives don’t offer some potential for drama. Katie (Sarah Parish), a single doctor, cannot balance her love life and her Hippocratic Oath. Married Siobhan (Orla Brady) prefers working to procreation, while Jessica (Shelley Conn) parties with everyone, including one of her lesbian clients. But Mistresses, rich only in inept direction and the kind of dialogue that should never be considered, much less uttered, outside the covers of a supermarket romance, reduces all its women to addicted consumers of love and sex and cell phones, incapable of satisfaction as parents or professionals, and with all the discernment of hormone-ravaged teenagers.
While the writers (Rachel Anthony, Richard Warlow, Harriet Braun, and Catrin Clarke) have to shoulder much of the responsibility for the series’ doldrums, the three directors enthusiastically compound it, with the visual equivalent of bodice-ripping and heavy breathing. Every longing look lasts at least 10 seconds after the audience has worked out not only what is going on, but also what is going to happen next and, in all probability, in the following episode, too. No scene includes one yearning look when a sequence of three or four will do. The second coupling of Siobhan and her workplace lover, Dominic (Adam Rayner), turns into a farcical pantomime of pull focus, pained expressions, and slow-motion skin-stroking.
Such extending of sequences suggests the directors are stretching what they shot to fit the required time slot, and that the production may have been as short on budget as it was on inspiration. For example, the same shots appear over and over again. When Katie relaxes at home, she repeatedly gazes somberly through her Venetian blinds at the night, or is being scrutinized rather creepily by a voyeuristic camera through the same set of blinds. Siobhan’s office seems to accommodate only two camera angles, and Trudi spends an awful lot of time on the patch of ground outside her children’s school, even if she is an anxious mother hoping to bump into her potential love interest, fellow parent Richard (Patrick Baladi).
More troubling, behind this amateur-hour production lies a puritanical vindictiveness. This categorizes Jessica—who treats sex as a pleasure and commitment—as a bore and a slapper (a not very pleasant British circumlocution for a very old profession), and not at all subtly contends that if a woman eschews sexual continence and steps, in any way, outside the protective custody of a man, all she deserves (and gets) is misery and disaster. If the women in this series found genuine consolation in each other’s company, they might challenge this perspective. But in Mistresses, the friends’ meetings are simply temporary way-stations on the calvary of social transgression.
British television of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s included groundbreaking shows like Take Three Girls, which viewed seriously the lives of young women living independently of families or husbands. Roll forward to the 1980s and the BBC’s Boys from the Blackstuff drove into British homes the unremitting devastation of an economic crisis very like 2009’s.
Mistresses, however, represents the 21st century version of the BBC’s “provocative” quality programming. It’s a co-production with an outside company, poorly scripted and directed. There’s a fine British word to describe this mess: naff, kindly defined by BBC America’s in-house dictionary as “really bad or useless; unfashionable; something that shows poor judgment.” So much bad judgment really is a crime.