As soon as I hit ‘play,’ bodies started writhing and undulating all over the screen. I scrolled down carefully to determine whether I’d accidentally loaded soft porn, but I hadn’t, and thus I stared at the screen in mounting amazement. Constant intercuts, confusing camera angles, and awkward lighting conspired to make it difficult to determine who precisely was in view, but what they were doing was pretty obvious. What was less clear was why, exactly, I was supposed to care about it.
I’d entered the first few minutes of ABC’s Mistresses, which I wanted desperately to like because it featured Yunjin Kim and Rochelle Aytes, both of whom are great actresses who tend to get underutilised. I hadn’t realised that the show planned to take its mission quite so seriously right out of the gate; this is a show about adultery, and by gum, they’re going to show some stiff, uninspiring sex before the opening credits even have a chance to roll. Honestly, if this is adultery, I can’t imagine why anyone does it. It looks mindbogglingly dull. You’d be better off popping down to the cinema for a few hours.
The thing is that Mistresses really only went downhill from there. In an endless parade of mostly white people in designer clothes, I rather lost track of who was who, and more to the point, I couldn’t really bring myself to care all that much. Characters sort of blurred hazily across the screen and periodically they’d drop trou to fornicate against kitchen counters or desks, usually furtively, only to quietly button up again and return to whatever it was they were doing before, which appeared to be selling houses or designer throw pillows or something, I’m honestly not quite sure.
I believe I was supposed to be impressed by the idle luxury on display, but as is often the case with television showcasing the lives of the wealthy and powerful, it served only to further abstract me from the setting. Moreover, it carried a note of harsh sexism, a sternly reproving tone suggesting that the spoilt women of Mistresses couldn’t be content with what they had, so had to go out seeking even more. That might make a good commentary on capitalism, but that’s blatantly not what the series is about; it appears to be more about trashing bored women in silk slips.
Honestly, I could get behind a good sultry adultery series for summer, though I’m always a bit confused by the sex antics of people who seem like they could get a lot more accomplished by just communicating with each other. Perhaps I’m too coldly objective for the nuances of monogamy, but I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. But this isn’t a good sultry adultery series; it’s not a steamy, it’s a yawner, and really, people, if you’re going to produce borderline soft porn for network viewers in a blatant ripoff of cable, you could at least take the time to try to make it look good.
Even the cast appear embarrassed by what they’re doing, swiftly skittering across the screen like they hope no one will notice what they’re doing if they move very stealthily. It’s like everyone signed up for one thing and then arrived for the first day of filming to realise they’d been cruelly tricked, at which point they’d already been locked into their contracts and were incapable of escape. Which, come to think of it, is a lot like being stuck in a bad marriage—except that unlike their characters, the cast of Mistresses can’t escape by hopping over to a different soundstage.
Fortunately for me, I am bound by no such contract, and after enduring the first mind-numbingly boring ten minutes, I turned it off. This is highly unusual for me; I usually at least finish a pilot episode, and commonly watch through the third episode in awareness of the fact that pilots and early episodes can be rough as shows establish their footing. With Mistresses, though, I had seen enough, and in fact was desperately hoping to never be subjected to it again, as I find television this bad to be an offense to my sensibilities, my palate, and the unfortunates who get embroiled in it—Ms. Kim, you deserve better.
The question is whether anyone will agree with me. It seems as though many critics are not fans of Mistresses, dinging it for many of the same reasons I did, most of which boil down to the fact that the show is terribly boring considering all the sex going about. The lack of characterisation is another issue, as, quite frankly, is the show’s lack of ability to get us invested in anything or anyone on screen. Who are these people? What are they doing? Why do we care? Is it commercial break yet? Has the CIA considered using this for torture sessions?
Audiences often seem to eat up television that critics dislike, but I’m not sure that Mistresses will resonate with audiences, honestly. While shows featuring the wealthy and bored tend to do well, they usually involve at least some character development and audience investment to get people engaged and interested, and ABC’s effort quite frankly lacks that. I can only hope that the programme will be put out of its misery soon, so that the talented cast members involved can go on to something actually challenging, interesting, and worth their time.