In the interests of doing other things with my free time, this review will be written in approximately thirty minutes. Timer starts…now!
Starring Kristen Bell, The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window delights in poking fun at common psychological thriller tropes, but could have gone much further with its comedy
Starring Kristen Bell, Michael Ealy, Tom Riley, Mary Holland, Cameron Britton, and Samsara Yett
“Suburban housewife discovers a crime but is repeatedly gaslit into believing that she is insane” could describe any number of the books on household shelves. It plays on the idea of the nosy neighbour, idly sipping her glass of wine while noticing everything. Her oodles of free time are afforded to her by an unfortunate past event. Perhaps a regrettable incident involving a car and one of her friend’s children, or a night of over-indulgence which she can’t quite remember. As a result, she finds herself scarred. A glass of wine shall take the edge off. BUT WAS THAT A NOISE UPSTAIRS? It couldn’t be. Husband left months ago, unable to understand her persistent ennui. Did she leave that glass out? She doesn’t remember doing so. But she is the only one who lives there. So it must have been her. Mustn’t it?
No. It wasn’t her. It was mysterious figure. Mysterious figure is either from her past and is specifically trying to fuck with her, or she’s merely a victim of geographical circumstance. It varies. Regardless, everybody thinks housewife is crazy, but she isn’t crazy, and it’s almost like fictional detectives are terrible at their jobs or something like that.
While true that not all psychological thrillers are the same, there are certainly recurring elements between them. Within most of them, there always seems to be a blurring between imagination and reality. In many successful novels and films – think The Girl on the Train or The Ice Twins – this can be done incredibly well, but that doesn’t stop making fun of them from being absurdly easy.
For The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window, the central, untrustworthy female figure is Anna, played by Kristen Bell. She spends her days whiling away the hours with the aid of pills and a glass of red wine. In this case, it’s a glass that can fit an entire bottle, but Anna is troubled. Anna is troubled because of the loss of her daughter after an unfortunate incident involving a “bring your daughter to work” day and a cannibalistic serial killer. A traumatic event that, to this day, has left her with a crippling phobia of rain. A traumatic event that causes her to see things – namely, her daughter.
Those around her cannot understand her. Why isn’t she moving on yet? Sure, her daughter was eaten and her husband has left her, but why shouldn’t she go back out dating once more? Why is she not involving herself in the standard activities of her quaint suburb? Why is she so tricky to have a conversation with?
Why, after flirting with the newly moved in neighbour across the road, Neil (Tom Riley) does she claim to have seen his girlfriend, Lisa (Shelley Hennig) clutching her bleeding throat? Why is there no sign of the body once she’s phoned the police? And why is there a trail of death that seems to have followed Neil and his daughter Emma (Samsara Yett)? Is what Anna’s discovering even real? Did she eliminate Lisa so that she could live a perfect life with Neil and Emma?
Both The Woman‘s chief blessing but also a critical pratfall is that it genuinely sounds like it could be a captivating bestseller due to be continually peddled through the windows of local Waterstones worldwide. Structurally, it features all of the trappings of psychological fiction, even down to the ominous opening narration. For those fans of psychological thrillers, there is plenty to enjoy here and many chucklesome moments, but very few of which are laugh out loud.
Where The Woman is slightly confused is that it almost does not push its comedic envelope too far. As a mystery it actually works as itself, and many of the jokes could easily be missed as it is played very straight. The acting rarely tips over the line into melodrama and the plot, while sometimes silly, is confusingly dressed up for the drama. While this is doubtless a directorial choice in order to poke fun at these types of film, it almost doesn’t go far enough into including the audience in the joke.
One cannot help but feel that some more wry self-awareness would not have gone amiss, similar in vein to many SNL parody sketches, which would make the storytelling less grounded but would make it more clear just what precisely the audience is watching. While most viewers will probably be aware that The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window is a comedy purely as a result of its title, this hasn’t stopped confusion from abounding on the internet. Some have levied criticism for an overegged title and have questioned whether or not it is meant to be a serious mystery. While elements of comedy are clear to see for those familiar with the genre and looking out for them, it does not always make its humour apparent, making for a television series which, while entertaining, is an awful in-between space of an engaging thriller but also lightly amusing.
For those with the patience to stick it out, the show builds to a delightfully silly conclusion which makes the journey worthwhile, and for those who are familiar with the tropes that The Woman is riffing on there is plenty to appreciate. A large part of its appeal comes from Kristen Bell’s committed portrayal of Anna. Present in every scene, she holds the show together and never fails to be anything other than captivating. Ultimately, The Woman should have trusted itself to give a lot more in sending up what it was satirising as what has been produced is neither a surreal caricature nor a taut thriller, but rather a particularly serious comedy.
The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window is streaming now on Netflix