Creator Marc Cherry never met a domestic murder he didn’t love to exploit. With his clever new CBS All Access series “Why Women Kill,” the veteran TV producer once again examines what it means to be a woman – especially one who is marginalized, wronged, or taken for granted – alongside an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek danger. The limited series feels like the sister of “Desperate Housewives,” his groundbreaking mystery comedy-drama, in that it revels in the domestic problems, secrets, and crimes among a group of women using a gimmick. Instead of having the story told from the point of view of the deceased, however, “Why Women Kill” plays with time, having thematically similar stories play out over different decades.
Taking place in the same Pasadena mansion, the series begins in 1963 with charming homemaker Beth-Ann (Ginnifer Goodwin), who discovers that her husband is having an affair. In 1984, fabulous socialite Simone (Lucy Liu) has a similar epiphany, except her husband is into men. And finally, in 2019, high-powered lawyer Taylor (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is in a happy open marriage, until a lover shakes up the delicate marital balance.
“Why Women Kill” is a visual treat ranging from the almost Technicolor palette used for the ’60s to evoke a Douglas Sirk-ian melodrama to the ultra-fabulous excesses of Liu’s Alexis Carrington-inspired duds and environs. Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer”) directs the first two installments provided to critics for review, and he utilizes clever and delightful transitions to indicate switches between decades.
The performances are equally enjoyable, with Goodwin’s Beth-Ann evoking the most pathos, while Liu makes an eight-course meal (with wine pairings) of her character’s unselfconscious superficiality. The ubiquitous Howell-Baptiste is solid as always, although her usual British accent is missed. The erring husbands (Sam Jaegar, Jack Davenport, Reid Scott) are also all played with energetic aplomb, each bouncing off the energies of their onscreen spouses.
Beyond these appealing trappings, however, is the concept of how time plays a part in the proceedings. It’s not just a matter of support garments or shoulder pads differentiating the storylines, but the way that women in society are allowed or encouraged to be empowered in that time period. The domestic role that Beth-Ann plays means that her first instinct upon learning of her husband’s infidelity is far different from Simone’s reaction.
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Since each woman’s circumstances are different, however, it’s not really clear if actions and consequences are a direct result of the woman’s lot in life, the actual details of the infidelity, or the woman’s personality. But “Why Women Kill” isn’t a profound exercise in feminism through history; rather it’s more of playtime with the concepts. And that’s perfectly OK and why the nitpicky aspects of the storytelling can be forgiven when all the visual details on the screen are so well loved and presented.
The common bond is clear, though, from the first episode when Beth-Ann’s docile servitude is called into question or Taylor must execute a decisive takedown of a sexist contractor who is attempting to cut corners: woman have always and still are having to deal with the imperiousness of men who don’t realize their privilege.
The (Marc) Cherry on top of this three-part story is of course murder, as alluded to in the title and the hilariously lurid comic book-inspired main titles. The big twist, however, is that the killer and the death in each decade are not the expected one, i.e. it’s not the wife offing her perfidious hubby. That adds an extra level of curiosity as viewers watch closely for clues to predict exactly how each murder goes down.
With only the first two episodes to go on, it’s difficult to get a handle on where the series is going. Thus far, the ’60s plotline appears to be the most emotional, the ’80s the most humorous, and the contemporary the most confusing. It remains to be seen if the end result of all this intrigue will be satisfying, but for now, the series’ arch tone and visual splendor are enough to stick around for the ride.
Watch the trailer for “Why Women Kill” below:
“Why Women Kill” premieres Thursday, Aug. 15 with new episodes streaming weekly on CBS All Access.