I don’t know if men are conducting a war on women, but television certainly is — if Sunday night is any indication. The most prominent female character in the History Channel’s miniseries The Bible gets turned into a pillar of salt, while the frustrated feminist lead of the network’s Vikings has to stay home with the kids instead of showing that she can rape, loot and pillage just as well as the boys. And on ABC’s Red Widow, a soccer mom’s power-shopping is seriously disrupted by the discovery that her deceased husband has left her with a $1.5 million narcotrafficking debt to some totally insensitive people. I don’t think even Oprah would be able to get all this straightened out, although I’ll bet Martha Stewart has some ideas about turning what’s left of Lot’s wife into tasty holiday treats.
Gender-role anxieties aside, there is some pretty good viewing to be had in all this — particularly Red Widow, ABC’s radical redefinition of suburban angst. Adapted from the hit Dutch show Penoza (roughly, mafiosa), Red Widow is set in San Francisco’s posh neighbor to the north, Marin County, where complacent housewife Marta Walraven has for years lived on the fruits of organized crime without ever noticing how they’re harvested.
Though her father is a semi-retired Russian mob chieftain and her husband Evan heads a marijuana-smuggling operation that includes her scheming brother Irwin and their best friend Mike, Marta is content to ferry around her three kids in between seaside lunches with the ladies.
But that all changes when her husband is gunned down in the driveway and Marta discovers that he had ripped off cocaine gangsters and was planning to rat out most of her family in a deal for federal witness protection. Now Marta must parry the FBI while paying off the debt for the stolen cocaine by helping import another load. “This is not my business,” she protests, to which a dead-eyed gangster replies: “It is now.”
Australian actress Radha Mitchell ( The Crazies) offers a compelling performance as Marta, whose smug yuppie contentment quickly burns away in her new role as a narcotrafficker newbie. “Is this who I am now?” she asks, her face a mask of appalled wonder after a long day of whoring, thieving and extorting. Red Widow can be viewed as a peculiar feminist fable of glass-ceiling-busting; a cockeyed tale of personal self-discovery (I can beat a customs inspector’s head in with a big stick); or just an old-fashioned gangster good time. Whichever you prefer, it’s entertaining and engrossing.
The Bible and Vikings, on the other hand, are interesting mostly as evidence of mealy-mouthed gutlessness and hypocrisy at the History Channel, which a couple of years ago killed a dramatic mini-series about the Kennedy family on the grounds that its “dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.”
Cynics who thought the decision had less to do with fact-checking than it did with immense corporate pressure brought to bear by the Kennedys and their pals will be amused at the standards of historical accuracy applied to these two series. Vikings is essentially a single fact — a raid by Norsemen on a monastery in northeastern England in the year 793 A.D. — surrounded by nine hours of fictional adventure story. As for The Bible, let’s just say that there’s considerably more historiographic controversy over Jesus’ resurrection from the dead than there is about whether John F. Kennedy really stole the 1960 West Virginia primary.
Vikings is at least fun to watch, in a sword-swinging, head-chopping, maiden-despoiling sort of way, with Travis Fimmel ( The Beast) as a Viking raider who’s sick of pillaging the same old Baltic towns each year and wants to head west. Unfortunately, his chieftain (Gabriel Byrne) — a guy whose idea of management science is to offer subordinates the chance to sleep with his wife, then kill anybody who shows interest — is opposed. And then there’s Fimmel’s wife (Katheryn Winnick, Bones), pouting at home because she isn’t invited on the raid. Lots of steaming viscera ensues.
The Bible, on the other hand, doesn’t amount to much more than a further piece of evidence that drama and reverence don’t mix well. (To be fair, it would be the prohibitive favorite if only there were an Emmy for Screenplay In Which The Sentences ‘God Has Spoken To Me’ and ‘God Will Provide’ Are Said the Most Times.) With the pace of a music video, the characterizations of a comic book and the political-correctness quotient of a Berkeley vegetarian commune — laughably, the destruction of Sodom is depicted without the faintest hint of the sexual peccadillo that takes its name from the city — this production makes Cecil B. DeMille look like a sober theologian. The Bible marks the first attempt at drama by reality-show maven Mark Burnett, whose soul I would consider in serious jeopardy if it hadn’t already been forfeited during the second season of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?