ABC has a way of developing the occasional drama that, viewed with the sound down, could easily be mistaken for a perfume commercial. Enter “Betrayal,” described as a limited series, which might be a convenient way of saying, “We meant for this to go away after a limited number of episodes.” Conceptually a close cousin of old-fashioned Lifetime movies, the series hinges on a married photographer who is instantly drawn to a handsome attorney, initiating (after many longing looks) a “torrid affair,” per the press notes, that onscreen doesn’t even smolder. It’s more daytime soap, frankly, than ready for primetime.
Although she’s hardly unhappy in her marriage to a Chicago prosecutor (Chris Johnson), sparks quickly fly when Sara (Brit newcomer Hannah Ware) meets Jack McAllister (Stuart Townsend, another accent-less import) at a showing of her art. He’s a high-powered fixer/inhouse counsel for an imperious boss named Thatcher Karsten (James Cromwell) with one of those strung-out nincompoop sons (Henry Thomas) that wealthy and powerful men tend to produce, especially in TV and movies.
She’s working on a magazine piece about obsession, which certainly dovetails with these unexpected, troublesome feelings for Jack. Yet unlike the movie “Betrayal,” which documented an affair in reverse, this pilot (adapted from a Dutch series by David Zabel and directed, without particular flair, by “Monster’s” Patty Jenkins) chronicles the inevitable plunge toward infidelity in what feels like slow motion, giving Ware a chance to show off a truly fabulous set of lips, and eventually a whole lot more.
Still, in a world where cable is everywhere, hot sex by network standards isn’t as steamy as it used to be (though lord knows “Betrayal” pushes dorsal skin angles about as far and artfully as it can). And even with a closing twist that introduces a narrative hook beyond mere adultery involving a murder trial, the show already has a strained feel in its piling on of happenstance and near misses.
Granted, ABC has gotten more mileage out of that formula than anyone might have guessed with “Scandal” and “Revenge” — “Betrayal’s” lead-in, which has careened well beyond crazy at this point — and there’s a rich history of movies and TV aimed at tapping into women’s Harlequin Romance fantasies. That said, if “Betrayal” wants to evoke Adrian Lyne’s 2002 “Unfaithful,” it winds up hewing closer to the little-seen 1984 Simpson-Bruckheimer gem “Thief of Hearts.”
Barring an unexpected turn for the better, the show seems destined to generate more unintended giggles than heat (the ads should really say “ABC’s funniest new series!”). Because while TV has plenty of room for guilty pleasures, they should really be more satisfying than this.