The new streaming series can never reconcile its parodic aims with its central mystery.
At this point, the wine-soaked citizen detective has become its own genre. Adaptations of boilerplate mysteries like The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window give plenty of fodder for Netflix’s newest series: The Woman In The House Across The Street From The Girl In The Window starring Kristen Bell as the titular Woman. Of course, spoofs and parodies are all well and good. Considering that Netflix also produced Woman in the Window, though, this newest feels a bit like having your cake and eating it too.
All of the elements of a good mystery series are here. Anna (Bell), the suburban divorcee spends her days drinking bottles of wine and staring out of the window after the bizarre death of her daughter. Knowing this is a spoof doesn’t make her daughter’s death a jot less horrific. It certainly provided catalyst enough Anna’s split from her gorgeous-if-clueless husband Douglas (Michael Ealy).
When widower Neil (Tom Riley) and his adorable nine-year-old daughter Emma (Samsara Leela Yett) move in across the street, Anna feels an instant connection, imagining herself slipping easily into the wife/mom vacancy Neil’s wife left behind. But after seeing Neil’s girlfriend Lisa (Shelley Hennig) bleeding and (probably) dying, it’s clear that not all is right with Neil. Thus follows Anna going full citizen detective, unraveling the mystery through a haze of wine and pills.
Kristen Bell has always been a gifted comedic actress. While Woman… is an excellent showcase for her talents, it never quite manages to bridge the gap between straight parody and straightforward mystery. Even the genuinely hysterical gags don’t hit frequently enough for Woman to be a laugh riot. What’s left feels more like Lifetime’s bizarre A Deadly Adoption. Ther in which Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell commit wholeheartedly to the script, leaving audiences to wonder is this funny? Should I be laughing?
While Woman… is an excellent showcase for [Kristen Bell’s] talents, it never quite manages to bridge the gap between straight parody and straightforward mystery.
There is a lot of that kind of cognitive dissonance at work here. There’s nothing hilarious about the death of a child (no matter how hard the script tries). Still, the recurring joke of Elizabeth’s (Appy Pratt) headstone having a different epitaph every time Anna visits her grave (“There’s no ‘I’ in Heaven” being my particular favorite) might earn a chuckle or two. Anna is supposedly a successful enough artist to afford unlimited wine and receive heaps of praise for her talent despite her paintings looking like bad hotel art.
The best goof of Woman might just be the opening credits. In it a creepily slowed-down version of Rain, Rain, Go Away plays over the title cards. Seeing the enormous red wine stain on Anna’s watching-the-neighborhood chair was a delightful visual joke that is brilliantly held back until the last few episodes.
The supporting cast does a lot of heavy lifting playing against Bell. Each role is a specific archetype in the genre, with Cameron Britton a particular standout as Anna’s oddball handyman Buell. Buell delivers the best (and weirdest) joke of the entire series, a prop joke so sublime I won’t attempt to explain it here lest I ruin what might be the best payoff in the series as the whole. Aside from Britton, Nicole Pulliam is terrific as Anna’s bitchy, husband-obsessed neighbor Claire, Mary Holland brings her particularly off-kilter charm to the role of Anna’s best friend Sloane, and Christina Anthony flawlessly fills the part of the caring detective who’s seen it all.
But it’s Riley’s Neil who plays off of Bell’s comedic chops so well. Like Woman, Neil is so mercurial it makes him difficult to pin down. Things continue to escalate between Anna and Neil to the point where any sane person would pull up stakes and put as much distance as possible between themselves and the other. It’s no surprise to anyone who caught Riley’s turn as Robin Hood on Doctor Who that he can turn in a hilarious performance. However, it’s the moments when Neil is suspicious or menacing that sizzle.
Woman’s most significant issue lies not in its genre-defying identity crisis but in its runtime. Had this been a 90-minute movie instead of eight half-hour episodes, it might have worked. But as it is, it’s not enough mystery to be compelling and not enough comedy to hold interest. Now that we are entering year three of a global pandemic, Anna’s sad life looks a lot more commonplace. We’re all just trying to survive in isolation after all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pour myself an entire bottle of wine.
The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window uncorks a bottle and swallows some pills starting January 28th on Netflix.