Red Widow Radha Mitchell in this premiere on ABC, Sunday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
In the “Twilight” series Bella Swan holds out until the fourth movie before being forced to transform from young human bride into vampire. In “Red Widow” Marta Walraven makes a parallel jump — from Marin County suburban homemaker to Russian mobster — before the end of Sunday night’s two-hour premiere. That’s television, always in a hurry.
The connection between that multibillion-dollar movie franchise and this eight-episode ABC spring placeholder is real: Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the screenplays for all five “Twilight” films, created “Red Widow” (based on the Dutch series “Penoza”) and wrote the pilot.
Despite Ms. Rosenberg’s recent history — before the “Twilight” gig she was head writer on Showtime’s crime-lab, serial killer series “Dexter” — the “Red” in the title of her new series appears to refer not to blood but, in a weirdly anachronistic way, to Marta’s Russian heritage.
There’s the usual crime thriller quotient of violence and death, but the real plot propellant is the mama bear idea: the story of the ordinary woman who does whatever it takes to protect her family with no regard to safety, shame, the logic of the plot or credible motivation.
Marta, played by Radha Mitchell in her first American television series role, is not a widow when the action begins, but that situation is quickly remedied. When her dope-smuggling husband is gunned down, her gangster DNA kicks in — Marta is the daughter of a San Francisco-based Russian gangster — and before you know it, she’s facing down F.B.I. agents and learning how to seduce weak-willed port supervisors.
Ms. Rosenberg is a talented writer, and moment to moment, “Red Widow” makes sense and holds your attention. But if you start thinking about it, you’re in trouble. Like the soccer ball Marta’s son Boris kicks around, the story is booted forward by head-scratching decisions.
Marta, after what were apparently many years of happily tolerating her husband’s dealings, suddenly decides that they’re too dangerous and delivers a get-out-now ultimatum that may be a factor in his death. Even less believable is the scene in which Schiller, the criminal mastermind played by Goran Visnjic, meets Marta for the first time and tasks her with handling his next drug shipment.
This kind of thing could work in a show with some humor or more of a comic-book style — there are moments in the second hour of the premiere when you can see glimmers of what might have been a decent comedy. But Ms. Rosenberg’s bent is to take genre entertainment in the direction of domestic soap opera. That requires strong plotting, and while “Red Widow” is complicated, with layers of criminality and several mysteries that will take a full season to solve, the story doesn’t have enough oomph to get you past the credibility gaps. Combine that with a moralizing tendency that was probably necessary for broadcast-network prime time, and you’re left with pretty weak tea. “Breaking Bad” this isn’t.
The problem is embodied in the casting of Ms. Mitchell (“High Art”), a star of weighty film dramas who’s good when tension, brittleness or fear are called for but doesn’t appear to have the light touch that would help enliven scenes in which Marta adapts to her new role.
“Red Widow” has an interesting cast, over all, for a midseason replacement series — in addition to Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Visnjic (who isn’t on screen much in the premiere), it includes Lee Tergesen as Marta’s reluctant partner and instructor, and Rade Serbedzija as her father. Unfortunately, the best performance in the premiere is given by Anson Mount as her husband. Enjoy it while you can.
ABC, Sunday at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Produced by ABC Studios in association with Endemol Studios. Written by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the Dutch series “Penoza”; Ms. Rosenberg, Howard Klein and Alon Aranya, executive producers.
WITH: Radha Mitchell (Marta Walraven), Sterling Beaumon (Gabriel Walraven), Clifton Collins Jr. (F.B.I. Agent James Ramos), Luke Goss (Luther), Suleka Mathew (Dina Tomlin), Erin Moriarty (Natalie Walraven), Jaime Ray Newman (Kat Castillo), Jakob Salvati (Boris Walraven), Lee Tergesen (Mike Tomlin), Wil Traval (Irwin Petrov), Rade Serbedzija (Andrei Petrov) and Goran Visnjic (Nicholae Schiller).