“Fatal Attraction” is a story about hubris. Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson), a high-powered LA County prosecutor, lives a life of means. He’s inherited the de facto family business, he has a loving wife and daughter, and he can escape precarious legal situations with a well-placed phone call or two. Then, a woman enters his life who he can’t ignore: Alex Forrest (Lizzy Caplan), a member of the Victim Services team who ends up in the same courthouse hallways Dan patrols on a daily basis.
You don’t need to have seen a single movie from the 1980s to know that “Fatal Attraction” is also the story of an affair, one that plays out roughly the way it does in the film on which the Paramount+ series is based. Innocent-enough interactions quickly add up to Dan and Alex in bed together. Dan tries to end things and pretend their romantic few days never happened. Alex stages increasingly larger and more dangerous attempts to get his attention. There are obligatory nods in the eight-episode remake to its two-hour predecessor: a handwritten note, a first conversation at a bar, a few days of breezy city adventures with a dog in tow, some creative uses of home improvement products. There are also a handful of head-fakes with pieces of the movie’s original iconography — both locations and objects — presumably meant to keep any viewer on their toes.
Still more, there are bigger, conscious decisions to veer away from the film designed to make “Fatal Attraction” something that can stand on its own, even if they don’t end up being all that consequential. The move from Manhattan to Los Angeles is largely incidental, aside from a sunlit beach day getaway. Alex working in the same DA’s office makes this more explicitly an affair between co-workers, and that largely ends up more as a convenience to bring in more of Dan’s colleagues to the aftermath.
Yet, some changes do lay the groundwork for something of more substance, a show that can grapple with this central premise in a way that a film from 1987 might not have had room for. This new “Fatal Attraction” frames their brief relationship as an active one rather than a passive, incidental misstep that ballooned out of control. The opening episode, written by showrunner and “Dirty John” creator Alexandra Cunningham, posits Dan as a man who is familiar with being presented with poor choices and choosing them freely. In starting from the end and working back to it from the beginning, the opening of the series sees Dan facing real consequences. Rather than retreating to the tidy twinkle of an ironic family portrait, this “Fatal Attraction” not only sees Alex’s murder as a wrongful death, but one that Dan is responsible for.
Opening up the series on a parole hearing, Dan spends the rest of the season trying to clear his name. 2008 and 2023 blur together from scene to scene, with the length and styling of Jackson’s hair sometimes the only clue separating meetings 15 years apart. The show finds some tenuous, mildly interesting thematic connections between past and present, and those jumps aren’t incoherent. They do mess with the overall momentum of the show, though, sanding off the edges for a deliberate, meandering murder mystery instead of a propulsive thriller.
The structure places Dan and Alex as two ripples flowing out from the center of the story. Roughly, the first half situates Dan’s life, putting his decision to have an affair with Alex in the context of a life filled with those other ill-advised choices. (Jackson is really shrewd at gradually turning the dial from charming family man to law-driven cynic.) Though the season flips the perspective early on, it’s not really until the later chapters that we really get to see the other side of the equation.
This new “Fatal Attraction” is not intent on making Alex the secret hero of this story. She’s not even really the hero of her own story, shown as a product of a lifetime of manipulations and misunderstandings, driven to the point where she had no choice but to deflect all of them onto her weekend fling with a married man. “Fatal Attraction” gives her all the shortcut signifiers of anxiety and depression — dropped-out sound, ringing ears, time-lapse dazes — but does little else to afford her a lifeline.
For someone who so recently proved in “Fleishman is in Trouble” that she’s capable of adding so much to a character grappling with the decisions and disappointments of her own past, Caplan rarely gets a similar opportunity here. Instead, any of “Fatal Attraction’s” attempts to put Alex’s choices into perspective are limp and fleeting, especially compared to the full tapestry of the Gallagher family. That Caplan holds her own without anything comparable is a testament to what she’s able to add that remains unspoken. The fact that she remains largely incidental to the story outside of her provocations and her death ends up being a roundabout indictment of both the source material (presumably intentional) and the show itself (presumably not).
Dan’s wife, Beth (Amanda Peet), and daughter, Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels), create an opportunity to examine the collateral family trauma he drags both of them into. While Dan is searching for a new trial, Ellen is busy being confronted with Jung-heavy echoes of her father’s choices in those of the people around her at college. In both past and present, Peet does an admirable job of crafting a specific version of Beth, free of the “scorned wife” mold. Neither Gallagher shows many signs of being haunted by the events of 15 years prior. It’s something that saps some urgency from the show overall, but does give the 2023 sections a weird, unexpected sense of peace.
The one undeniable, wise addition to the show is Dan’s fixer friend Mike, played to perfection by the inimitable Toby Huss. It’s through him that “Fatal Attraction” picks up a giant dose of personality (he’s one of the few who could really make Goldfish-related dialogue sing), tinged with a trace of acceptable sleaze that the show largely (and, to various extents, wisely) excises from this update. Part father figure, part confidant, part much-needed kick in the ass, Mike is the requisite counterbalance for Dan. He also embodies something that Alex’s half lacks, another sign that — for all the destructive things she does over the course of this story — the deck is stacked against her in any version.
If part of the appeal of a TV series version of “Fatal Attraction” is looking at what you find when there’s no distinct beginning and no definitive end to what happened between Dan and Alex, what’s left here still ends up a collection of fragmented ideas that work in pieces but not together. The longer it goes on, the new developments and revelations don’t so much reframe what came before as much as they nearly make it irrelevant. “Fatal Attraction” suffers from the same paradox that plagues so many of these projects that come out of the “reimagined as a limited series” pipeline: It’s somehow both thin and overstuffed at the same time.
That comes, in part, from the time shift, put in the culturally neutral dead zone of the late 2000s, where drab remnants of the ’90s still kick around among the court’s wealthiest wardrobes and the idea of a phone camera is still in its relative infancy. During and after Dan and Alex’s affair, the intensity of passion and violence has to almost be taken at face value. The look of this “Fatal Attraction” is handsome to a point, but the visual engine is in service of something built to be much more palatable and much less abrasive than its spiritual predecessor. Save for one visual curveball of a hallucination midway through the season’s back half, the palette and style is roughly what a by-the-book dramatization of Dan and Alex’s story would have been had they been the subject of a hit true crime podcast themselves.
What “Fatal Attraction” does have is a grounding of that hubris. As Dan continues his attempted post-parole redemption tour, he’s met with a constant stream of people telling him to his face how much they despise him. Even to a few of those people who don’t meet him with contempt after a decade and a half, he’s a curio — a relic of an odd story they tell their buddies at happy hour, probably not far away from where Dan and Alex had their first flirty moment. Dan Gallagher is not the wronged, complicated hero. But no one else is, either. “Fatal Attraction” paints a picture where nearly everyone is at fault, and making that idea work is its own risky gamble.
The first three episodes of “Fatal Attraction” premiere April 30 on Paramount+. New episodes will be available every Sunday through May 28.