Summer beach reading for those with portable video capability has arrived. “Mistresses” makes its debut on Monday night on ABC, and it’s everything you want a beach book to be: sexy but not pornographic; nontaxing yet not idiotic; and peppered with enough decent writing that you can tolerate its clichés.
The drama, which is based on a British series, follows four longtime friends who either have been a mistress, are affected by a mistress or seem liable to become a mistress. The stars — Alyssa Milano, Yunjin Kim, Jes Macallan and Rochelle Aytes — do the Four Musketeers thing pretty well, and all of them elevate the material. And it needs occasional elevating. Just when the show builds up some believability, it grasps for a not-very-credible crutch.
Ms. Milano plays Savi, a lawyer who is trying to have a child with her husband, a chef. Ms. Kim is Karen, a psychiatrist who slept with a married, terminally ill patient and, now that he is dead, is finding that this is having unexpected consequences. Ms. Macallan is Josslyn, a real estate agent and Savi’s slutty sister. Ms. Aytes is April, a widow who has a 10-year-old daughter and is reluctant to start dating again.
The first two episodes give each character a complication or two, some more complicated than others. To stitch it all together, the writers have a tendency to resort to stock devices that flatten rather than enrich the characters. A grown woman can’t dress for a date without summoning all of her friends for advice. Harry (Brett Tucker), Savi’s otherwise 21st-century husband, turns ragingly retro when a doctor tells the couple that their lack of reproductive success is attributable to him. Karen, an educated, intelligent woman, is made to sound like a naïve 20-year-old when talking about her lover’s death.
“In the end he chose his wife: that’s who he wanted to be with in his last moments,” she says. “Which means the whole time I was just” — and here there’s a pause to allow her I.Q. to drop — “a mistress.”
The bar is pretty high now for women-behaving-carnally TV, between HBO’s relatively fearless “Girls” and the high-stakes hanky-panky of ABC’s “Scandal.” Yes, we’re in a beach-reading state of mind now, and “Mistresses” is allowed to be more lowbrow than those shows, but please, not ditzy.
ABC, Monday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Produced by ABC Studios. Based on the British series; Rina Mimoun, K. J. Steinberg, Robert Sertner and Douglas Rae, executive producers.
WITH: Alyssa Milano (Savannah Davis), Yunjin Kim (Karen Kim), Rochelle Aytes (April Malloy), Jes Macallan (Josslyn Carver), Brett Tucker (Harry Davis), Jason George (Dominic Taylor) and Erik Stocklin (Sam Gray).