A decade ago, admiring — OK, envying — the success of The Sopranos, broadcast television networks bet heavily on highly serialized suspense dramas. The result was some pretty good shows and some pretty disastrous Nielsen ratings. Does anybody remember the mob drama Smith, the time-traveling Day Break or the conspiracy thriller Kidnapped? They all sank without a trace within weeks of their debuts.
These days, serialized dramas survive mostly on cable, where the economics permit shows like Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy to sustain themselves on audiences that would be a ticket to oblivion in the broadcast world. (Even there, it’s a chancy business; AMC’s Nordic-noir crime drama The Killing was recently canceled for a second and surely final time.)
The only broadcast network that still seriously pursues the genre is ABC, which has had some luck with thrillers like Scandal and Revenge. On Sunday, ABC tries again with Betrayal, and let’s hope it pays off in decent Nielsen numbers. Because Betrayal is a dark gem of a show.
Adapted from the hit Dutch television series Overspel (or — spoiler alert — Adultery), Betrayal is a Hitchcockian web of suspenseful treachery. It takes its American name from a gangster aphorism, “After the first betrayal, there is no other.”
But that doesn’t really hold true in this show, in which duplicity and disaffection are practically a genetic compulsion. Early in the first episode, as two characters ponder the surprising breakup of another couple, one of them wonders aloud how something like a marriage can suddenly blow up without warning. Shrugs the other: “Someone lights a match.” And on Betrayal, nobody ever closes the cover before striking.
The betrayal at the heart of Betrayal is marital: a chance encounter at a Chicago art gallery between two vaguely dissatisfied spouses — Sarah (Hannah Ware, Boss), a professional photographer, and Jack (Stuart Townsend, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), a corporate attorney — triggers a steamy affair. And if the term “star-crossed” hadn’t already been invented by somebody in the pre-W2XBS world, it surely would be coined for Jack and Sarah.
Jack is the chief legal advisor to his father-in-law, the powerful and mobbed-up businessman Karsten Thatcher (James Cromwell, Six Feet Under). Sara, meanwhile, is married to a ruthless and politically ambitious prosecutor (Chris Johnson, The Vampire Diaries). When a disloyal business associate of Thatcher’s is murdered, Sara’s husband seizes the case as a career springboard, and the lovers find themselves on opposite sides of a murder investigation.
Though Betrayal’s plot is complex, its characters numerous and its action fast, they’re handled so skillfully by screenwriter David Zabel ( ER) and director Patty Jenkins ( The Killing) that the show never seems rushed or confusing. Part of the credit for that should probably go to veteran cinematographer Peter Wunstorf , whose rich work spectacularly colors in narrative details.
If Betrayed sizzles, Monday night’s lone debut — the CBS sitcom We Are Men — is tepid stuff. Chris Smith, whose face is familiar from any number of sitcom guest roles, plays a young guy crushed when his fiancée leaves him at the altar.
Booted from their apartment, he winds up in a short-term rental complex where he bonds with a bunch of middle-aged divorced guys. They quickly become a band of brothers in the War on Women, roaming the Los Angeles night in pursuit of Guy Stuff: drinking beer until comatose, eating greasy burgers instead of organic tangerines and playing basketball on a kiddy court where they can throw down swaggeringly LeBronian dunks. What they don’t do: anything very funny.