British TV Series “Mistresses” Does Right

Continuing its history of lesbian-themed programs such as Tipping the Velvet (2002), Fingersmith (2005) and Daphne (2007), the BBC delivered another lesbian/bi tale this year in Mistresses, a six-episode drama focused on four 30-something female friends living in Bristol. The series, which just ended on Feb. 12, could be described as a more down-to-earth, British version of Sex and the City — including a prominent lesbian story line.

The twist, in Mistresses, is that each woman’s story centers on some form of romantic infidelity. There’s Katie (Sarah Parish), a doctor who has been having a two-year affair with one of her recently deceased male cancer patients. There’s Siobhan (Orla Brady), a lawyer who is drawn toward one of her male colleagues. There’s Trudi (Sharon Small), a 9/11 widow beginning to suspect that her husband might still be alive.

And there’s Jessica (Nina’s Heavenly Delights star Shelley Conn), a poised and confident events organizer who is having an affair with her male boss, but finds herself unexpectedly drawn to Alex (The Secret Life of Us star Anna Torv), one half of a lesbian couple whose wedding Jessica is supposed to be organizing.

Left to right: Sharon Small, Sarah Parish,
Shelley Conn and Orla Brady

Warning to non-U.K. viewers: This article contains details about the first season of Mistresses that has already aired in the U.K.

Jessica is the youngest, the most glamorous and in some ways the most hard-edged of the four friends, and from her first appearance she is presented as having a different attitude toward relationships than the others. At the beginning of the first episode when the women get together for a girls’ night in, Katie finds Jessica on the phone with her latest conquest and asks Trudi about him:

Katie: Married?
Aren’t they always?
Well, maybe it’s love.
What, with Jessica?

Later in the episode, Jessica expounds breezily to her friends on what she sees as the benefits of being a mistress rather than a wife: “You see, married men are a no-brainer. They’re bedroom-trained, they’re low-maintenance, and you’ve got a ready-made exit strategy. No mess, no fuss.”

While all of the other women have experienced deep romantic relationships — with Katie devastated by the loss of her married lover, Trudi still unable to let go of her husband six years later, and Siobhan in love with her husband even if sexually unsatisfied — Jessica is presented as someone who has yet to fall in love.

Shelley Conn (left) and Anna Torv

All that changes when she is introduced to Alex and Lisa (Alys Thomas), a couple of tall, blond lesbians who are planning their civil partnership ceremony. Hitting it off badly with Alex at first, and appalled at the idea of being involved in any way with a wedding, Jessica dubs them “the lezzers from hell,” prompting her friends to ask sympathetically how things are going with the “spiky dykes.”