Netflix continues to dip from the well of nostalgia in a not as tawdry as it wants to be murder mystery.
With the meteoric popularity of Yellowjackets, a new installment of the Scream franchise, and the revival of shows like Saved by the Bell and The Babysitters Club, 90’s nostalgia is in full swing. It was only a matter of time before the true entertainment staple of the era made a comeback as well. I’m talking of course about the humble made-for-tv movie. The original TV movies of the 80’s and 90’s came in four basic flavors: teen morality play, hardboiled sleaze, young women being kidnapped/stalked/unalived, and Stephen King. The very best made-for-tv movies had overlap between the categories, with classics like Cyber Seduction, A Friend To Die For: Death of a Cheerleader, and No One Would Tell fueling the Monday morning water cooler roundups.
Netflix, already banking off of the success in copy-pasting the Hallmark Christmas formula, does their best to do the same with the Lifetime Original Movie with Brazen, this time adapting Nora Roberts’s book Brazen Virtue, in which a mystery writer tries to solve her sister’s murder. The casting of Alyssa Milano speaks to director Monika Mitchell’s intent to call back to the glory days of the 2-hour TV melodrama.
Milano plays Grace, the aforementioned mystery writer, who is enjoying her wildly successful career when her younger sister Kathleen (Emilie Ullerup) interrupts her book tour with an urgent request to see her. Embroiled in a custody battle with her generically evil ex, Kathleen is a recovering addict living a double life as a high school English teacher by day and webcam dominatrix Desiree by night. All of the salacious set pieces are put in place; Grace’s flirtation with the cop next door (Sam Page), Kathleen’s attentive male students, Desiree’s work for the blandly titled website Fantasy Inc, and the superfan who becomes the literal death of her. But if Brazen is proof of anything, it’s that you can’t just put the pieces in place and expect them to make a picture.
Instead of a self-aware, sordid good time, Mitchell and company serve up a lifeless jumble of police procedural, by-the-numbers romance, and missed opportunities. Had they just leaned in to the wildness of Roberts’s source material and gone for camp, this would be the movie everyone would be talking about for the next few weeks. Sadly, the writers and director opted for straightforward over sly, and spend more time showing Grace barging into spotless police offices saying things like “I have an instinct for motive!” than actually doing anything.
Once it’s revealed that her sister was living a double life as a sex worker, it’s clear that at some point Grace will go undercover into that world in order to catch the killer. Just don’t hold your breath as this moment arrive until the final third of the movie. There’s very little mystery to this mystery, and after a gay herring the killer is revealed to be the most obvious and least interesting suspect. The romantic B-plot could have been reason enough to tune in, but Milano and Page have as much heat and flavor as a room-temperature Hot Pocket.
To give credit where credit is due, Milano is putting her all into it, and when she finally does don the leather (or in this case some business casual PVC) she is pretty sexy, but it’s clear that Netflix didn’t consult any actual dommes in the making of this movie. Brazen should–if anything– serve as a reminder that sex work is real work, that sex workers are real people with real lives, and not everyone keeps that part of them hidden behind a padlocked door. It would have been nice had we spent more time with the men and women of Fantasy, Inc. to give the imminent danger they were in some actual weight and resonance. Instead, when Desiree’s killer continues their spree, each subsequent death seems to be of diminishing consequence to the investigation. In a world where sex workers face real dangers every day, it’s troubling to see them treated as disposable, an outdated notion that should have stayed in the 90’s where it belongs.
Brazen is now available on Netflix.