Mistresses Season 3: EPs Tease Fresh Abs, 'Polarizing' Newcomer and 'Most Dangerous' Arc Ever

The women of Mistresses might spend more time in church pews than they do between the sheets during the ABC sudser’s two-hour Season 3 premiere (tonight, 9/8c on ABC), but fret not: Nobody’s shopping for purity rings anytime soon.

The chaste kickoff episode was a bit of a risk, says showrunner Rina Mimoun, “but I trusted our audience would know that our ladies can only swear off men for so long. We’ve got a lot of abs, and we’ve got to show them. Eventually clothes will have to come off.”

Not that fornication and supplication are mutually exclusive, of course. “Church became a really interesting part of the discussion in the writer’s room this year, but we had to find a balance because we didn’t want to suddenly pretend we were a totally different show,” says fellow showrunner K.J. Steinberg. “Still, it felt like everything Karen went through, the fact that she’s looking to something greater and searching for a deeper meaning, naturally led us to religion. It became a really nice place to juxtapose what’s going on in her private life.”

“Two Jewish gals running a show called Mistresses and we’re at church all day long,” Steinberg adds with a hearty laugh. “I don’t know how that happened!”

TVLine caught up with Mimoun and Steinberg — who are currently writing the Season 3 finale — to discuss how they’re handling Alyssa Milano’s exit, the introduction of Blue Bloods‘ Jennifer Esposito and the fallout of the Joss-Harry Verboten Beach Makeout Session of 2014. “This is the time of year where K.J. and I are like, ‘Boy I hope you like it because it’s in the can,'” teases Mimoun. “We can’t change it now!”

TVLINE | Alyssa Milano opted to not return for Season 3 once ABC announced production was moving to Vancouver — which meant you had to grapple with writing out Savi, one of your four core characters. Did you debate whether or not to have a time jump?
Rina Mimoun: We always wanted to jump in right where we left off. In this particular instance, all of the good drama was happening right at that moment [where Season 2 ended]. But, of course, we didn’t find out until after the [decision to move to Vancouver] that Alyssa wasn’t going to be joining us. It was a bit of a holy s–t moment, but we didn’t want to chicken out. We said, “Well, we’ll just have to make it that much better.”

JES MACALLANTVLINE | Savi’s exit obviously affects her younger sister Joss (Jes Macallan)— who hooked up with Savi’s ex-husband — but also her pals Karen (Yunjin Kim) and April (Rochelle Aytes). Was it fun exploring the dynamic in a group of women where one of them just disappears without warning?
Mimoun: In looking back at a lot of the choices that Savi made from the very first season — many of which came from directly from the BBC version [of Mistresses] — Savi has always been a very tough character, a very self-involved character and has done selfish things since the series began. And so when this situation fell in our laps, we thought, “As long as we stay true to the character, it won’t feel like it was just a casting situation.” It felt like a natural progression of the story, and in that way, it was fun to explore. It prompted a lot of honest conversation among the writers about our own friendships, about those friends who’ve come and gone, and that took us to the topic of fast friendships – which led to this new character of Calista (Jennifer Esposito).
K. J. Steinberg: It also opened us up to a new dynamic for Joss. Obviously, it would have been really fun and interesting and deep and painful to explore Joss and Savi trying to have a relationship after the betrayal. But in a way, Savi leaving left room for a different kind of soul-searching for Joss. Instead of being able to go to Savi for forgiveness or for permission, she has to find it on her own. Season 3 is, for Joss, suddenly about learning how to stand on her two feet and find all of that for herself.

TVLINE You clearly tackle Savi’s absence head-on in the premiere. Is her presence going to linger all through Season 3, or is it a case of dealing with it in the opening two hours, then letting these women’s stories spin forward?
Steinberg: It bubbles up at the right moments, where it’s really glaring that Savi should be here right now, or Savi would have had the right thing to say, or “This is something that I would have gone to Savi with.” But otherwise, the three of them… in order to move on and have lives — very full lives, with new romances and problems and twists and turns — they couldn’t dwell on that absence. They’re in the mindset, “OK, she’s doing what she needs to do. It’s not what we would have done, but now we have to give her time and live our lives, and maybe one day she’ll return.”

YUNJIN KIMTVLINE | Karen ended Season 2 with a cryptic phone call from her doctor. Did you always know what the call was about — or was it classic cliffhanger, and you figured you had the summer to fill in the blanks?
That was classic cliffhanger. [Laughs]
We had the two things that everybody thinks of it. And then we got thinking that maybe we should flip the expectations there.

TVLINE | We see Karen in the premiere: “Am I HIV positive? Is it cancer? Am I pregnant?” It was a little meta, reflecting viewers’ own worries.
Mimoun: It got a little meta. We spent a lot of time going down the two roads [of cancer and pregnancy], and to be honest, because in between Seasons 2 and 3, I went on to do Red Band Society, when I came back to Mistresses I was like, “It’s not going to be f—ing cancer. I can’t do that. I’m super depressed, I need a break, and so we decided to see if we could investigate other roads.

TVLINE | With Karen, she’s no longer in this mode of hanging out at bars, making up secret identities and having sex with strangers like she did in Season 2, nor is she sleeping with a dying, married man, then later his college-aged son. Is Karen going to get her life in order this year, or are you retaining some of the hot-mess characteristics that fans of the show love?
Steinberg: Michael, I will promise you… she will top it this season. [Laughs]
Mimoun: The mess does not subside, not for quite a while. In fact, I would argue we have escalated the mess.
Steinberg: Yeah. We’ve taken risks this season…
Mimoun: Only making it to Season 3 can give you this kind of permission to go for broke.

ROCHELLE AYTESTVLINE That’s very good news. The other big change this season is that April has split from Ricky Whittle’s Daniel — and his unbelievable physique. And yet, now you’ve cast Scandal‘s Brian White, who’ll be calling her down to the Principal’s office. You may have actually found the one actor on the planet with better abs!
Mimoun: Maybe we did. We’re getting very lucky with our ab work! [Laughs]
Steinberg: I believe, Michael, he’s shirtless as early as Episode 4.

TVLINE | OK, let’s talk about the newest Mistress on the block: Jennifer Esposito’s Calista. She comes on like a hurricane from her first scene — and not always in the most likable way. Were you aiming to create someone who might not fit so warmly into the core group of ladies?
Steinberg: Absolutely. She’s not warm and fuzzy. She’s eccentric, larger-than-life, unpredictable. The key with her is you never truly know what you’re getting. You’re seduced by her one moment and feeling like she’s your best, best friend, and then the next moment you’re wondering if she’s got an agenda. Like the actress herself in her scene work, she keeps you on your toes, and that is what we had intended for the character.
Mimoun: There’s a great thing about the show being set in L.A., even though it’s shooting in Vancouver. Living here in L.A., you are occasionally rubbing shoulders with “royalty,” those people that have somehow managed to become movie stars or have their own reality shows as fashion designers because that’s just how amazingly charismatic they are. They draw you into their worlds, and that’s very much what Calista does. Even when Karen and April meet her, it’s like meeting a movie star.

TVLINE | By the end of the premiere, I was a little uncertain about her reliability, about whether I can trust anything coming out of her mouth.
Steinberg: Then we have done our job.
Mimoun: You will feel one way about her one episode, and you’ll feel another way about her in another. She might be a little bit polarizing — in a great way.

JENNIFER ESPOSITO, PRIYA RAJARATNAMTVLINE Can she fit in to the Joss-April-Karen dynamic?
Steinberg: You’re really going to enjoy the connection between her and Joss. It’s really strong. I mean, perhaps Joss doesn’t ask enough questions at the beginning of the relationship. She’s going to dive into it headlong, but Calista dives into it, too. There’s a mutual satisfaction happening from their relationship, and the enjoyment in watching these two actresses play off of one another is worth its weight in gold.
Mimoun: And we very much didn’t want to feel like we were going the direction of so many headlines: “Jennifer Esposito replaces Alyssa Milano.” There is no replacing your sister. The character of Savi was by all accounts the glue that brought these women together, and we didn’t want to cheat and say you could just throw another woman into that dynamic. Anyone who knows anything about female friendships, that’s just not how it works. So those three women, Joss, April and Karen — who’ve been left and abandoned — their connection grows stronger. Calista is slowly introduced into our show — but she’s brought in through Joss, which then has a domino effect. But we definitely didn’t want to feel like women are interchangeable in these four-tops, because they’re not. One person can suddenly have a fast friendship, but if you’ve ever been part of a group, the pack mentality is always like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow down!” We stay pretty true to that.

TVLINE | We last saw Joss making out on the beach — in her wedding dress — with her ex-brother-in-law Harry, and leaving Scott waiting at the altar. Now, I don’t think too big of a tease to say there’s going to be a bumpy road ahead. Was there debate in the writer’s room about where they could go after this From Here to Eternity moment?
Mimoun: K.J. and I fought a lot. We were pulling out each other’s hair, because we felt very much like you want to give the audience some of the satisfaction of seeing these two people together — people we’ve essentially been waiting two seasons for. But at the same time, the heat of our show has been very much about the sort of love that is unable to be. I don’t know how long it took Meredith and McDreamy to finally get together for realsies, but we’re not there yet — and we wanted to keep the push-pull, to try to find real road blocks to the relationships instead of manufacturing bulls–t. We wanted to see how would this fall apart and then how would it get back together? And we definitely go far, I would say it’s farthest we’ve gone in terms of story.

TVLINE | Interesting. Is Calista going to be one of the complicating factors in their happiness?
Mimoun: Absolutely.
Steinberg: In a number of ways — mainly her influence on the way Joss lives her life and the way Joss spends her time. This relationship leads Joss to one of the most dangerous places we’ve seen the show go.