TV on DVD: Mistresses: Volume One (2008)

Own the BBC Hit On DVD

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With May releases finding me up to my eyeballs in paranoia (Falling Down, Changing Lanes, Paycheck, 3 Days of the Condor, etc.)-- aside from the amount of Father's Day tie-in sports and action related titles (Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Burn Notice Season 2), June has found things heating up considerably.

Over the past few weeks I've been consumed by infidelity-- on-screen of course-- as this polite native Midwestern gal is shy enough as it is chatting with single men let alone volunteering for extra drama.

While Adrian Lyne's Blu-ray double feature of Indecent Proposal and Fatal Attraction relished in showing the complexities of infidelity whether or not the partner is aware and I found myself especially fascinated and much more appreciative of Indecent Proposal as a high-quality soap opera this time around, more often than not the portrayals of cheaters on film and especially in the characterizations of the women who become mistresses are often of the shrill, irrational, potentially dangerous, and monstrously cliched variety of watered down versions of Glenn Close's masterful turn as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum-- we have infidelity for laughs or salacious satire in the formerly brilliant Desperate Housewives that took a plunge after its second season as it began to lather, rinse, and repeat so much that it finally embraced the fact that it jumped the shark by making a literal jump in time for the most recent season.

Yet thankfully, once again we have to leave it to the BBC to produce high quality and fully three-dimensional brainy, escapist, and emotionally charged soap operas such as the wildly successful smash Mistresses which has aired in nearly every country around the globe (yes even in Russia, Serbia, and Israel) yet unfortunately-- just like their other most recent brilliant romantic comedy series Gavin & Stacey, I've just learned that an American remake of Mistresses is in the works for the Fall of '09 TV lineup.

However--The Office, of course not withstanding-- given the abysmal failure of other UK shows when they get watered down for American audiences such as Cracker, Coupling, and the other remake from Mistresses creator S.J. Clarkson (UK's hugely successful Life on Mars)-- hopefully we won't have to suffer the substitute very long. And thus we can stick with the superior original that honestly should be just played in the prime-time lineup instead of a new rehash.

Actually making a joke about "bunny-boilers" a la Alex Forrest in its critically lauded two season run which has been released by Warner Brothers and BBC America to viewers on this side of the pond-- the tight-knit group of four friends prove within the very first episode that there's nothing cliched or stereotypical about them.

While on the surface, easily the most beautiful and free-spirited "mistress"-- the young Jessica (Shelley Conn) seems like a BBC version of Kim Cattrall's Samantha Jones from Sex and the City with the replacement of PR with party planning. Yet soon the bed-hopping Jessica who has no qualms about life without commitments or attachments is thrown for a loop when she comes face to face with a relationship she actually respects after she's hired to organize the upcoming wedding of a committed lesbian couple.

Finally she realizes that life shagging her boss Simon (Adam Astill-- with whom Conn shares a great series-long Hepburn and Tracy banter) is growing old. And when one of the engaged clients-- the lovely photographer Alex (Fringe's Anna Torv)-- sparks with Jessica unexpectedly, she's left reeling, wondering not only about the prospect of romance with women but also when Alex sees right through her tough facade and questions Jessica's continuous decision to under-value herself in a perpetual role as the second choice or second phone call of any given lover.

And although Jessica's character grows infinitely more complicated and likable as the series continues which shows the deft skill of the writers to let the women of Mistresses evolve in the most unexpected of ways, right off the bat, it's the character of Katie (Sarah Parish) who instantly captivates viewers.

A successful, empathetic, and genuinely thoughtful general practitioner-- within the start of the first episode, we realize that the womens' joking question of "sex, love or kids?" is a no-brainer for Katie. Soon we understand that the woman's every action revolves around love whether it's romantic, platonic, or simply humanistic as off-screen she helps a terminally ill patient die with dignity, only for us to ascertain shortly thereafter that-- aside from being just a patient-- the man was also her married lover for two years.

Left sitting near the back of the church and having to maintain a level of simple and straightforward professional concern as opposed to being able to grieve openly like the man's widow-- Katie is challenged when the deceased man's college age son Sam Grey (Max Brown) arrives unexpectedly after having taken a leave of absence from school.

Embittered and angry that he wasn't there to see his father's final moments, Sam begins paying routine visits to Katie for information-- increasingly determined to unmask the woman with whom his father had been involved after he found an anonymous love note in the man's burial suit jacket pocket.

When his suspicions that Katie was the lover are replaced by his own attraction to the doctor whom he shamelessly pursues with the intensity typical of his twenty-four years-- the vulnerable, confused, and still grieving Katie is caught between what is morally right and an equal interest in Sam. It's this harsh confrontation of an existential dilemma which surrounds Katie for the first several episodes since she's uncertain whether this could be a valid and genuine attraction for him on his own or if she's reacting to a lack of closure she'd never received regarding the death of his father.

Torn as well between commitment, duty, and temptation-- Orla Brady's unexpectedly riveting turn as Siobhan is perhaps the show's most controversial one as it evolves over the course of two seasons. As the only main character who's happily married-- the overworked lawyer on the path to partner at her law firm-- Siobhan finds that stress isn't left behind when she leaves the office. For lately, life in the bedroom has become part of her work routine as she and her doting husband Hari (Raza Jeffrey) try in exhaustion to conceive a child.

Abandoning romance and replacing the love part of making love with the mechanics and talk of what is scientifically most beneficial in trying to impregnate Siobhan as their labor continuously fails to bear fruit-- the tension between them inevitably grows. Likewise, as things cool down in the bedroom, they heat up at work given her flirtation with a loyal colleague (Adam Rayner) who's never hidden his puppy dog crush on Siobhan which escalates to life-altering results.

Yet while Siobhan's domestic life is a mess-- for the sweet natured maternal Trudi (Sharon Small), her home life taking care of two young daughters is all the drama and comedy she needs. A 9/11 widow still trying to resign herself to the idea that her husband is actually dead which isn't done any favors by suspicious and frequent phone calls and a sense of being followed-- Trudi finds romance a pleasant and rather unexpected distraction when a handsome single father (Patrick Baladi) asks her out for coffee.

Although Siobhan and Katie urge Trudi to get back in the dating scene since she's been a celibate widow for six years, Jessica fears the worst since Trudi's relationship with the newly arrived Richard coincides with her receipt of the UK's 9/11 fund check which is worth the equivalent of a million U.S. dollars.

Deliciously addictive and constantly surprising-- elevated by a refreshingly non-judgmental and objective approach to the women and the impossible situations in which they find themselves over the course of two seasons (with all 12 episodes contained in this slim packaged 4-DVD set), it's one superb offering. And its quality is apparent right from the start given the attention to authenticity and the presentation of psychologically believable characters from the series creators Lowri Glain and SJ Clarkson (who was also responsible for the wildly acclaimed Life on Mars and popular Hustle).

With a pitch perfect cast that ensures that you fully engage and empathize with their characters even when admittedly you find yourself shouting back at the screen in frustration or even anger when they make mistakes or do something that you feel is beneath them-- overall Mistresses is effective precisely for that reason.

Namely it makes us take a closer look at why four exceptionally bright women would find themselves in some overwhelmingly disastrous situations (some of their own making and some just a matter of horrific circumstance) by always avoiding the American temptation to insert a moral, a speech a la a Carrie Bradshaw voice-over or the Mary Alice narration of Desperate Housewives and instead Mistresses demands viewer intellectual participation the entire way.

And as a recent viewer, I can guarantee that it's a gamble that pays off brilliantly. The series consistently keeps you keep watching one episode right after another like the type of high quality soap we'd love to see as a guilty pleasure but one that actually takes the time to develop very complicated storylines, characters who sometimes get on our bad sides, and stellar production values that all contribute to the work as in a color design for each character (that changes as well as they do) by helping us adapt quicker on a subconscious level to the intricate and demanding situations right from the get-go.

Additionally it gets bonus points for making sure that-- unlike Housewives and SATC-- the men aren't shortchanged as well since it provides ample fodder for male actors to play a variety of roles that move easily from confidence to vulnerability to sexy leading men which is extremely rare in the chick-flick, soap opera or rom-com genres. Although arguably it's The International and Office star Patrick Baladi who has the most scenes and the most easily rewarding role as Trudi's Richard, the extremely well cast Raza Jeffrey as the emotive Hari who goes from anger to sadness like a smoldering James Dean when Siobhan frequently and unintentionally toys with his emotions and Jessica's ideal conversational sparring partner Adam Astill as Simon make Mistresses such a standout in a sea of far too similar post Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives works.

Fortunately it's been given a great transfer to DVD by BBC America and Warner Brothers. The set also including cast interviews and conversations with the women and then the men separately on the show's recurring topic of "sex, lies and infidelity" and a making of featurette that adds to each individual season. And while my research indicated that possibly a third season is in the works, viewers looking for television of superior quality during the summer months won't do any better than picking up Mistresses which is so impressive, entertaining, and brilliantly executed that it's almost sinful.