One only has to hear the word salad that is Netflix’s new series, “The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window” to understand what it’s poking fun at: movies and books focused on wine moms/alcoholic women (the line is so blurry in this genre) who stumble onto a mystery, aren’t believed, and must become their own citizen detective. The Lifetime television network is synonymous with these types of stories. And it is the television channel for women that feels like the predominant inspiration for this Kristen Bell-starring series.
Bell plays Anna Whitaker, a woman who’s endured the tragic loss of her daughter and the destruction of her marriage in one fell swoop. She spends her days drinking, a lot, and generally living in her bathrobe until a man named Neil (Tom Riley) and his precocious young daughter move in across the street. Anna is taken with Neil, but feels that his flight attendant girlfriend Lisa (Shelley Hennig) isn’t who she says she is. When Anna witness Lisa’s murder — across the street, in the window — Anna must convince someone of what she saw and try not to end up the same way.
The series isn’t based on any particular novel but it’s never entirely clear whether this is meant to be perceived as an out-and-out spoof of the women in peril/detective features (a la “The Woman in the Window,” “The Girl on a Train,” etc.). The series feels more akin to the 2015 Will Ferrell/Kristen Wiig feature, “A Deadly Adoption,” itself meant to be a send-up of Lifetime movies. Like that feature, the humor of “The Woman in the House” is too broad to feel specific to this particular genre and plays things too straight to ever feel like it’s winking at anything, or even that the audience should find it comedic.
The moments meant to inspire laughs are clearly telegraphed, particularly in the cavalier way Anna recounts the story of her daughter’s death. Suffice it to say it involves Take Your Daughter to Work Day and a man named Massacre Mike. Other moments, like a potential criminal and Anna going on about the type of bread she’s meant to text her husband to let him know not to come home also is funny in its absurdity, but it’s a one-off moment.
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Long the domain of male creatives like the Zucker brothers of “Airplane” fame, there’s certainly a lot that could be poked fun at with a series like this, but the creators never go hard enough. As a character, Anna has all the tropes of women in this world: the drinking, the tragic past. But there’s never any critique of why these women are popular. Sure, the mystery adds excitement to Anna’s life, but is that enough to make this a popular genre with a series of movies and books? It feels like someone just read these books and assumed baking casseroles was the throughline in them all. There’s certainly plenty to question, like if Anna isn’t painting and spends all her day drinking, how can she afford her beautiful house? How does she afford wine for that matter?
Bell draws on all the characters she’s made famous for this. She’s a little bit Veronica Mars with her detecting, a little “Gossip Girl” with the narration. She captures the thin characterization that is Anna Whitaker — that of a sweet mess — and makes you want to spend time with her for 20 minutes an episode. She conveys the trauma of Anna’s life, her loneliness, and considering how straight the movie plays everything Bell is on par with other actresses who have played these roles, like Emily Blunt. She carries what feels like a rather limited cast. Probably because of the pandemic, Anna’s street is relegated to about 4 people, with other cast members being introduced via flashback. It creates a surreal, dream-like feeling that works for the series, but does leave Bell to hold everything on her shoulders.
The rest of the supporting cast is solid though some choices you’d expect to be played up far more than they are. “Mindhunter” breakout star Cameron Britton is a completely chameleon in this series as handyman Buell, who has been working on the Whitaker’s mailbox for years. Britton gets a chance to be comedic, but considering his past role it’s unclear if the series wants us to draw on that or not, particularly as the series comes to its conclusion. And justice for Janina Gavankar, who gets a significant cameo in the series that she’s game for but if you factor in her character to this type of genre, how is she not in it more? The scene stealer, however, is Samsara Leela Yett, as Neil’s daughter Emma. She’s so damn cute and adorable and her moments in the end make watching the entire series worth it.
There’s little to be found in “The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window” that you can’t find in the countless movies that already litter Netflix about women solving crimes. Bell is a strong lead, but if the series wants to be a send-up the humor needs to be more consistent. If it wants to play it straight, eschew humor entirely. Make a decision before crossing the street.
“The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window” premieres Friday, January 28 on Netflix.