By Deanna Barnert
Special to MSN TV
ABC's "Red Widow" is a dark new series about a San Francisco housewife suddenly forced to balance family drama with the family drug trade. Though she's loath to admit it, Marta's background has prepared her to play the game, even as she finds herself stuck between international crime boss Nicholae Schiller and the FBI. Stars Radha Mitchell (Marta) and Goran Visnjic (Schiller) and executive producer-writer Melissa Rosenberg ("Dexter," "The Twilight Saga") set up the drama, premiering March 3.
"The pilot is an introduction to an epic story about a woman named Marta, who is associated with a Mafioso family," Radha Mitchell told MSN TV when we visited the chilly "Red Widow" docks in Vancouver where the show is filmed. "She's been living in denial, trying to shelter herself from that reality, protect her children and live the life of a San Francisco housewife."
Marta has a beautiful home, beautiful children and a beautiful husband (Anson Mount), who just happens to be in the business of exporting marijuana. When he gets assassinated, she's left with his debt, which will take the Russian mafia heiress way beyond the weed trade.
"She's Bratva [the gang name]: She has skills she doesn't want to have, which she will have to use, and then she kind of has fun using them -- well, I did!" Mitchell said with a laugh. "Marta will basically turn into someone else by the end of this show, but we try to keep it grounded in reality and not have her turn into some superhero or action character."
In spite of her new badass career path, the title character of "Red Widow" is still a mom with three grieving children, first and foremost.
"What's funny is that she'll be in the middle of hustling some drugs, and then she'll call her kids to arrange dinner," Mitchell previewed. "There's this dual reality that she's tightrope walking."
ABC's new series is based on the Dutch series "Penoza," which immediately captured the imagination of Rosenberg.
"The lead character drew me in the most: a mother of three who is doing everything to protect her children, and that includes heading dead center into the criminal underworld," Rosenberg recalled. "[This] very moral person [does] some pretty immoral things. She finds herself going deeper and deeper, in large part because Schiller is pulling her in and making it very difficult for her to extricate herself. "
The pilot offers only a single scene with Schiller, but there's plenty of setup from other characters that makes it clear he's one dangerous crime boss.
"He's definitely as bad as everybody says," promised "ER" alumnus Goran Visnjic. "But we're going to see much more into his life. We're going to see his father and their relationship. We're going to see how he operates in this world of criminal and legal business. And also, his relationship with Marta is going to become very unusual and unpredictable."
While Marta and Schiller come together under perilous circumstances, there's chemistry from that first meeting.
"A guy like that, there has to be something!" Mitchell said of her co-star. "But there's a lot of restraint."
"There's always this undertone of attraction -- unwanted attraction!" Rosenberg agreed. "Neither one of them wants to feel anything toward the other. They have an enormous hurdle keeping them apart, but that's also somewhat delicious."
One component of that hurdle is that Marta is a mourning widow who blames Schiller for her husband's death. The pair also come from feuding families. As they become closer, however, Schiller's work ethic may turn out to be the biggest hurdle for any potential romance -- or even a friendship.
"Whoever's going to be rooting for Marta and Schiller to get together is going to be rooting for a very dangerous relationship," Visnjic warned. "If he lets you too close, that almost means he's going to kill you. Schiller doesn't like any distractions. He believes if he becomes emotionally involved with anybody, that becomes a distraction. Is she going to be the first one to break that barrier? Or is she going to become a victim of a crazy, murderous instinct?"
While Marta and Schiller's relationship fuels her trajectory, the concept of family and the question of who Marta can trust are also central elements in the series.
"The building of trust and having to rely on her family comes more and more into play," Rosenberg previewed.
Her Bratva father (Rade Serbedzija) will send his loyal bodyguard Luther (Luke Goss) to protect her and Marta will find support from her brother and sister. While Kat (Jaime Ray Newman) has eschewed the family business just as Marta has, Irwin (Wil Traval) has not. In fact, it's clear from the first moment of the pilot that trusting her brother and family friend Mike (Lee Tergesen) is a dangerous call. It's Erwin's machinations that throw her into Schiller's path to begin with, but unlike viewers, Marta won't know that.
"That's probably one of my favorite relationships, this wayward brother who you've got to love but he's such a mess," Mitchell teased.
Marta's kids also become entangled, to a degree, after their father's murder destroys their sheltered world.
"The kids are going to learn more and more about what her family does and what she's doing over the course of the series," Rosenberg said. "They're a very tight family. They're going to help, be afraid, be horrified or attracted to the world.
"The one character that is surprising me is Natalie (Erin Moriarty), the teenage daughter," she continued. "Teen girls have been done to death, so I wanted to bring something interesting to that character in this world. Erin Moriarty is going to be a huge star. She's the next Jennifer Lawrence or Kristen Stewart! So we just started writing more and more. Since I didn't know who that character was to begin with, that's been exciting."
Marta will also have to juggle FBI Agent James Ramos (Clifton Collins Jr.), who promises her justice in exchange for her cooperation. She'll have to decide whether she can go against the Bratva code and work with him.
As the tension builds in this eight-episode season, Marta will face endless decisions like that. The biggest, of course, remain the same: Who can she trust, and how far is she willing to go to stay ahead in this deadly game?
"Red Widow" premieres Sunday, March 3, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.