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The recent run of small-screen mystery spoofs is, itself, slightly mysterious given that few genres have a more precarious bar to measure success.
Comedy is, of course, subjective and precarious all on its own, but when it comes to long-form mystery, a bad solution or resolution is an uncomfortably easy way to undo even the most adored of build-ups.
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Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building was a treat because of how successful it was with both genre elements, delivering laughs and, ultimately, a whodunit that kept viewers guessing. Apple TV+’s upcoming The Afterparty doesn’t succeed quite as well with its unfolding puzzle, but its central structural twist — each episode unfolds in a different style — is clever enough to mostly cover for my lack of investment in suspects and motivations.
Netflix’s The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window — henceforth to be referred to as The Woman or Woman — has the bad fortune of being the third in a trend and the worse fortune of being generally bad, but I’m a generous critic and I’ll give it the credit it deserves: The opening minutes of the eighth and final Woman episode are actually hilarious and answer the show’s vague questions far better than warranted by the previous seven episodes.
The rest of the finale isn’t as good, but there’s an amusing cameo in the closing minutes that sets up a second season I have no interest in watching, because let’s be clear: Other than the start of the finale, Woman is never mysterious in the slightest and only fitfully funny.
Created by Rachel Ramras, Hugh Davidson and Larry Dorf, Woman takes well-deserved aim at the Agoraphobic Karen subgenre focused on female shut-ins of privilege whose paranoid attempts to mete out justice are thwarted by institutional indifference or outright misogyny. See The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window for more recent examples, or go back to classics like The Lady Vanishes or Gaslight or Bunny Lake Is Missing. Do those things instead of watching this show.
Kristen Bell, who as the star of one of the funniest ongoing mysteries ever created probably should have recognized where this one falls short, plays Anna, an artist still grieving the death of her daughter and the demise of her marriage to forensic psychologist Douglas (Michael Ealy, wasted). Anna spends her days drinking wine from mammoth glasses, interacting only with her friend/art dealer (Mary Holland, wasted) and simple-minded mailbox repair man Buell (Cameron Britton, largely wasted).
Then one day, handsome single dad Neil (Tom Riley, wasted) and adorable moppet Emma (Samsara Yett, slightly less wasted) move in across the street and Anna fixates on Neil’s hunkiness and Emma’s similarities to her own daughter, pouring renewed energy into making casseroles and watching the new neighbors. Then Anna thinks she witnesses a murder, causing her to attract first curiosity and then suspicion from Detective Lane (Christina Anthony, wasted). Anna decides to take the law into her own hands, an initiative that’s somewhat hampered by her challenges leaving the house. Anna, you see, is afraid… of the rain.
For a sense of how calcified the Agoraphobic Karen mystery subgenre is, one need look no further than how exhaustingly Joe Wright had to work to bring energy to The Woman in the Window. For maybe a half-hour, director Michael Lehmann is able to do something similar if more overtly comic in this Netflix series, layering in the post-Hitchcockian flourishes — the Dutch angles, fast-cutting flashbacks, shots from unusual perspectives that enhance the claustrophobia of a contained setting.
There are a couple of chuckles in the premiere that come exclusively from thriller aesthetics, but Lehmann tires of the affectations and Woman quickly becomes visually inconsistent, matching the rest of the comedy in the series. There are running jokes here that are as broad as anything in Police Squad. There are jokes that attempt genre subversion on the most superficial of levels. There are little droll toss-offs.
Again, there were things I chuckled at, like the changing epitaphs on Anna’s daughter’s tombstone (and the particular circumstances surrounding her death), or varying mockery of overwritten thriller voiceover, or the simple presence of a handyman who has made a multi-year project out of installing a new mailbox, or the role of casserole in the series. But nothing escalates or builds, and many of the running gags are just abandoned.
Then there are episodes that completely forget that the series is a comedy, episodes that could only work if the show’s central mystery were capable of sustaining interest in earnest, which it surely is not. Instead, with nearly four hours to play with, Woman just regurgitates the exact tropes from previous genre entries, without any evident interest in using the extra time to shake up the formula or comment on the general popularity of the genre or the interchangeable pieces that make an omnibus title like The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window possible. What does the genre say about institutional sexism? What does it say about loneliness, particularly female loneliness, in an ever-more-connected world? What’s the point of any of this?
You can sense that somebody might have imagined this as a one-woman show for Bell, which would at least be an explanation for the fact that in eight episodes, there isn’t a single supporting character with any sort of voice or personality to speak of. And for her part, Bell is fine. She steers into Anna’s mania and gives quality line readings to some flimsy punchlines. Veronica Mars fans know that Bell would be even better with sharper comedy and actual grounded pathos, but that’s not her fault.
Woman is a brief cautionary tale, but a cautionary tale nonetheless. You never want to be the third in a trend — The Afterparty and Only Murders are superior on basically every level — or attempt to do a genre that requires accomplishing two things exceptionally well if you can’t quite figure out how to accomplish either.
But those first 10 minutes of the finale? I laughed.