David Zabel, who adapted an international show for his new ABC adultery drama Betrayal, seems to be banking on the fact that there is a good portion of the Scandal audience who wants to watch the early days of an affair play out, to experience the heat and excitement and thrills alongside those characters involved. And there probably is a good chunk of the audience who would want to watch that-- but watching even a few minutes of Betrayal proves that if that's what you want, you're not going to find it here. Sure, the show absolutely explores the early days of an affair-- but there is no heat or excitement or thrills about it.
Betrayal plays with some interesting themes but doesn't seem to know quite how to handle them effectively in the pilot episode. There is T.J.'s (Henry Thomas, who is an absolute stand-out and shining light here and the only one who actually manages to pop off the screen) diminished mental capacity which is tip-toed around, despite obviously not being a secret; there is the ominous nature to businessman Thatcher (James Cromwell), whom the show dances around as if it's not quite sure what he is just yet; there's a high profile murder that threatens to tear apart relationships-- but it's the murder of a character who was so on the sidelines of things it's hard to even care that we won't see him again-- and of course there is the central affair between two married individuals (Stuart Townsend and Hannah Ware) who are drawn to each other for...some inexplicable reason. For some, Betrayal will be offensive simply because it follows these two characters who are married to other people yet sleeping with each other. For others, it may be offensive because it seems to poorly copy plots and formulas from everything from Revenge to Nashville to Deception. For me, it is offensive because there is no spark, no heat, no magnetism, no reason to care.
The pilot attempts to cleanse the palate by showing why these marriages-- though not stereotypical "bad"-- are not keeping the characters individually happy. This is supposed to allow the audience to understand why each of them strayed to infidelity and therefore ease the audience into wanting to watch a torrid love affair play out. On paper, the idea that Sara's (Ware) husband (Chris Johnson) takes her for granted or undervalues her to the point that he won't wear the tie she bought him for a special event is a specific and perfectly everyday example of irritation that comes after years of being with the same person but no longer being caught under the spell of infatuation. On screen here, though, the complexity of that subtext is lost, as it just seems silly and childish for Sarah to be upset with such a thing. There should be a lot of subtle layers to Sara's character, as well as her relationship with both her husband and her new lover Jack (Townsend), but Ware misses it completely, bumming me out almost as much as the word "lover" does.
In order to want to watch a show about a romance-- affair or not-- the people involved have to have chemistry. When it is a show about an affair, that chemistry has to be downright palpable to understand why they would jeopardize the comfortable lives they have for it. There is none of that sizzle on-screen between Townsend and Ware, and the more his character pursued hers, the more he started to seem like a stalker, rather than a man in lust. The two of them together provide some of the most boring scenes of the show, and it appears the show knows it because it attempted to spice things up with a skin-filled sex romp to show you that while there's nothing behind their eyes when they talk to each other, there's something between the sheets. But there's nothing original about that, and there's nothing exciting about blurry ass shots. We got more than that on this same network, as an aside on a cop drama, in the 1990s.
Furthermore, the pilot of Betrayal actually starts in the future, Revenge-style, to show that whatever we are about to unfold goes horribly, horribly wrong, and Sara ends up suffering deeply for it. Whether it's because of her affair or part of how mixed up she gets with the murder trial is unknown, but it all felt manipulative regardless. Putting a character we don't know in peril in minute one is the cheapest way for a show to scream "See? You need to care about her!" without giving you actual, organic reasons to care. In a way, the show is promising some major action coming down the line, but it's coming so far down the line, you can't even look forward to the characters having to really deal with the consequences of their actions by dealing with what has happened to Sara. Instead, you're given a tease of something potentially titillating in the far future, only to thrust back into utter boredom first. A show shouldn't have to rely on a gimmick like that to pique your interest in sticking with it past the pilot, but with Betrayal, it feels like a promise of something good coming...if you just stick with this mess first. You should want to stick with it because you care-- or at least are intrigued-- about these people and their relationships and the world the show is set up. Betrayal doesn't offer any of that.
Cromwell deserves better. Townsend deserves better. Thomas deserves better. Johnson, whose work I was not familiar with prior to this pilot, deserves better. Effectively everyone involved deserves better. But they're saddled with this limited event series, forced to limp along with its 13 episodes to what I can only imagine will be as thrill-less a conclusion as the one that came before it, Red Widow. That is not to imply that I think the patriarch of the family is once again responsible for the shooting(s), only that it won't really matter in the end anyway.
Betrayal premieres on ABC on September 29 2013 at 10 p.m.
Want more Betrayal news and reviews? Follow LA TV Insider Examiner on Twitter!