The problem with ABC's perfectly dreadful new drama "Betrayal," well, OK, the main problem is that it takes itself too seriously.
There is no shame in selling soap, as the highly-successful and Emmy-nominated "Scandal" has proven, but it does require a lightness of touch, an ability to acknowledge the camp factor without giving way to it. "Betrayal" enters instead with prestige-drama pretensions and quickly devolves into a lumbering form of mismatched parts borrowed from other, far better stories.
A gun is fired, a woman falls, a man's hand reaches for hers and then we're shoved back six months. The woman is one Sara Hayward (Hannah Ware), a beautiful photographer married to ambitious prosecuting attorney Drew (Chris Johnson), the kind of guy who can be parted from his cellphone just long enough to insult the tie his wife has bought for the occasion, in this case an exhibition of her art. There, the other players are assembled, including real estate/power broker Thatcher Karsten (James Cromwell), his mildly brain-damaged son T.J. (Henry Thomas) and, most important, Jack McAllister (Stuart Townsend).
Fleeing the party because that's what the plot requires, Sara meets Jack on the balcony where they exchange inane dialogue about art and life in tones previously unheard in any region of these United States. (Both Ware and Townsend are British, and her "New York" accent may finally avenge Dick Van Dyke's famous mangling of cockney in "Mary Poppins.") He buys one of her pictures, they bump into each other on the street and in the minutes better spent looking up the name of that Diane Lane adultery movie this seems to be ripping off ("Unfaithful'), they are jumping into an ill-advised and utterly nonsensical affair.
Not only do both of them have fine, functional marriages with children (tie dismissal is not grounds for adultery), Jack's wife is the daughter of his boss, Thatcher Karsten. Like every mobster created by man, Karsten values nothing more highly than loyalty. "After the first betrayal," he says in tones that clearly mean we should be paying attention, "there is no other."
Cromwell is one of the hardest working actors in the industry (he just won an Emmy for his role in "American Horror Story: Asylum" and had a lead role in a splendid production of "Waiting for Godot" at the Mark Taper Forum), and he is always a steadying force. But even he seems undone by the material, which boils him down to a cartoonish powerbroker brooding in front of an enormous fireplace. Bad things happen, as bad things will, and soon all their lives will intersect in the courtroom as well as the bedroom.
If only we cared. Even a little.
Ware is lovely, but Sara is nothing more than a dress-up doll. Just as fetching in tank tops as that little red dress, possessing a cool and convenient warehouse studio, she is utterly unbelievable as photographer, mother or wife. She is certainly unbelievable as a woman carried away by passion; she and Townsend's lack of chemistry threatens to form antimatter every time they look at each other.
So "Unfaithful" meets "The Godfather" meets "The Good Wife" (it's Chicago!) and, of course, "Revenge." But as Baron von Frankenstein discovered to his chagrin, you may be able to animate a bunch of assembled parts, but you will not like what happens next.
When: 10:01 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-DS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and sex)
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