Alyssa Milano has been in fairly racy series in her television career, such as the bed-hopping-crazy "Melrose Place," but she needed persuading to star in a drama called "Mistresses." By its very title, not to mention its ongoing focus on infidelity, the ABC primetime soap seemed to the veteran actress to be a potential lightning rod.
Milano, who eventually signed on as one of the four leading ladies, said she could just imagine the angry tweets when word leaked about a U.S. version of the hit BBC series.
"I thought people would say, 'How can you be involved in a show that glamorizes cheating?'" Milano said recently from her L.A.-area home. "So one of the first things I needed to know was that the show had more depth than that."
Instead of being a series about stereotypical home wreckers and stalkers, "Mistresses" deals with the fallout of adulterous spouses, said Milano, whose married character isn't technically a mistress but does stray with a handsome colleague. "She messes up, she crosses the line, and it doesn't just affect her marriage, it affects her whole family, her workplace, her friendships," Milano said. "She's a genuinely good person who does a bad thing. I think people will be able to relate to that."
Of the series' other stars — Yunjin Kim, Rochelle Aytes and Jes Macallan — only Kim's character, a therapist, slept with a married man. The aftermath of that relationship, as viewers learn in the first episode, is messy, complicated and possibly career-ending for her.
The British show on which "Mistresses" — which premieres June 3 — is based ran for three successful seasons. Some critics called the original "popcorn television" for its lightweight, addictive quality, though it veered into darker territory as it unfolded.
The Americanized version borrows freely from the source material but adds its own tweaks and twists aimed at hooking in devotees as well as the uninitiated, its producers said. But even those producers, who were ardent fans of the original, said they weren't on board initially to remake the show with the same name.
"I said, 'Absolutely not,'" said K.J. Steinberg, executive producer. "I know there's something extraordinarily provocative about the title, but it's a big hurdle to get over."
Rina Mimoun, an executive producer who noted that she was a women's studies major in college, said she understood that there was equity, and sex appeal, in the brand.
But she and Steinberg wanted to make sure they could center the story on the four characters' strong bonds rather than their indiscretions and romances. "It would be easy to go for the salacious and the shock value," Mimoun said. "But we looked for a very grounded way to tell stories about female friendships."
In one example early in the series, Aytes' character, a widowed mom, is shocked and angry when she finds out Milano's character had sex with a co-worker. The affair is unforgivable to her because she just learned that her late husband had a secret life, a mistress and an out-of-wedlock child.
"These women are each others' moral compasses," Milano said. "The characters are very honest with each other. They're judgmental like the audience at home will be."
The show, for all its steaminess and skin, does include some laughs, though it won't veer into wacky "Desperate Housewives" territory, Steinberg said. It was important to hire writers with comedy experience, she said, so the mood and tone of the show match its sunny L.A. setting.
Still, it's firmly rooted in melodrama, even though its four beautiful protagonists might draw comparisons to HBO's seminal comedy "Sex and the City." (Their clothes are fabulous too, if slightly more modest).
The show's producers agree that broadcast TV pushes boundaries these days, starting with a name like "Mistresses" that likely wouldn't have flown even a decade ago. But times have changed, they said, pointing to high divorce rates in this country, and audiences are used to adult content on cable.
"We hope the title will be intriguing enough to lure people in," Steinberg said, "but that the show is dimensional enough to surprise them, in a good way."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun