The original Fatal Attraction is not a particularly complex story. Boy meets girl. Boy has affair with girl. Boy ignores girl. Girl goes manic. It’s a tale as old as time. What is complex is what happens when you reevaluate the iconic 80s film in a modern context; many have argued, not unfoundedly, that the film is a problematic portrayal of feminism and, more specifically, mental illness. The notion of reframing the story with a modern understanding of both topics has merit, but the way in which showrunner Alexandra Cunningham has attempted to do so is thoroughly misguided.
Her 2023 reimagining not only comes to questionable conclusions in its revision of career woman Alex Forrest (previously Glenn Close, now Lizzy Caplan), but its countless attempts at expanding the story only water down what was originally an emotionally devastating, high-stakes three-hander. With a variety of additional characters, disparate themes, and flashes back and forward ad nauseam like an assembly cut of Rashomon, it’s unclear what new insight can or will be gleaned from this messy new drama.
From the very onset, the series starkly separates itself from its predecessor. Dan Gallagher (previously Michael Douglas, now Joshua Jackson), formerly a hotshot criminal defence attorney, has been let out on parole fifteen years after pleading guilty to the murder of Alex Forrest, a former work colleague whom he secretly had an affair with. The catch? He claims to have not actually murdered her and is dead set on proving his innocence despite all of the turmoil he caused his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and daughter (Alyssa Jirrels), who begin reprocessing the painful memories as new information comes to light. What begins as a simple framing device evolves into an elaborate, convoluted exploration of countless new layers to the story that, at best, turns it into a cable-level murder mystery and, at worst, adds incredulous new twists and turns that take away from the main storyline.
Speaking of which, the series, of course, goes back and forth in time, portraying Dan and Alex’s affair and the subsequent fallout. In this version, the two meet as colleagues at the same law firm whose innocent attraction festers into multiple hookups. Alex begins to grow overly attached, but when Dan cuts her out of his life, she begins to sabotage it. Sadly, Joshua Jackson is no Michael Douglas and, though it pains to say it, the admittedly talented Lizzy Caplan is no Glenn Close. The two have been zapped of any charm reminiscent of the original duo and share lacklustre chemistry both in and out of bed. For all of its sexually-driven source material, this adaptation is fairly sexless.
However, the ensemble cast has its stand-outs. Much like Anne Archer in the original film, Amanda Peet is the cast’s MVP as Beth Gallagher, Dan’s charming wife whose perseverance and empathy are immensely challenged throughout the series. From witty remarks to complete breakdowns, she embodies the character’s duality effortlessly. Another highlight is Vivien Lyra Blair, last seen as little Leia in Obi-Wan Kenobi, as a younger Ellen in flashbacks. Her precocious affect and quiet vulnerability greatly add to the show’s family dynamic. The remaining roles are fairly forgettable, minus Tony Huss as Dan’s longtime colleague Mike Gerard, who feels as though he is pulled straight from the world of the original film.
The show does recreate a number of the original’s memorable story beats, but it is all underscored with a far different context; Alex is revealed to be a woman struggling with a diagnosed mental illness – presumably a personality disorder, though it goes strangely undefined. Through more non-linear flashbacks, Alex’s many difficulties in battling her inner demons are portrayed in a sympathetic light. However, this version of the character reveals to be far more exacting and calculated than Close’s portrayal. The series’ attempts at reclaiming the character’s journey turn her into a borderline sociopath, a re-characterization that is potentially more irresponsible than its predecessor. To suggest mental illness is actually a powerful tool of feminist destability is certainly a take, but not a welcome one.
However, mental illness is but one of the show’s new thematic depths. As Ellen, a college student studying psychology, transcribes several lectures on Carl Yung, the show psychoanalyzes the potential motivations behind our characters’ actions. The writing questions if we can really escape our “shadow” selves, aka the parts of ourselves we don’t wish to admit are true. However, it does so in the form of countless prescriptive conversations that don’t supplement the show but rather strip it of any subtlety. Also explored is the systemic injustice of criminal justice, portraying both Dan and Alex to be victims of an institution that, gasp, maybe doesn’t have a victim’s best interests at heart. It’s a brutally honest portrayal of its unfairness and corruption from both sides, but it doesn’t ultimately support the main story.
Following disappointing reinventions of other iconic 80s films like American Gigolo and Dead Ringers, Fatal Attraction may be the most unnecessary of them all, which is ironic given how it is the most conceptually justifiable. The material was in need of a redux, but this modern adaptation strays so far from not just the story of the original, but the appeal of it too. The original’s bewildering escalation and primal violence is what made it an effective exploration of what we do when our lives are threatened by forces we cannot control. There are moments in which the 2023 series brushes against that same visceral propulsion, but it’s far more interested in deconstructing consequences in the aftermath. Feels a bit like putting the cart before the horse.
The first three episodes of Fatal Attraction will premiere April 30 exclusively on Paramount+, with new episodes airing every Sunday. The final two episodes will premiere together on May 28.