On an especially bleak day last December, I made my mom laugh. (This is my job: middle brother helps her with her finances, baby bro handles all technical and medical matters . . . I crack the jokes.) I said, “Oh, Mom, you’re always complaining that there’s nothing to watch on TV, but I just heard about a new series premiering on Netflix at the end of January called The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window.”
My mother’s laugh was sustained, partly because we had suffered together through numerous modern thrillers with unreliable narrators, sneaky husbands, and every kind of bad neighbor one could imagine and then some. I had also grumbled my way through Netflix’ own adaptation of the A.J. Finn version of same called The Woman in the Window, which in and of itself played like a parody of the genre. Still, it was meant to be taken seriously, not like the highly enjoyable Only Murders in the Building, which I watched on Hulu and, you might remember, thoroughly enjoyed.
I should have known after watching Only Murders that more mystery/comedy hybrids would be coming down the pike. But this new one sounded funny, if for the title alone. Plus, it stars Kristen Bell (who also executive produces), whom I have adored since Veronica Mars and who seems to kill it even when tasked with iffy material. And as an added bonus, the series would be directed by Michael Lehmann, with whom I happened to go to high school. Michael’s sister Barbara was a good friend of mine, an excellent actress and writer who left us way too soon. It was always a kick to know that her quiet, good-looking younger brother who I used to see hanging out on the lawn with his girlfriend would turn out to direct Heathers, the ultimate anti-high school black comedy, and lots and lots of television, including episodes of the late great True Blood.
The Woman in the House . . . premiered two weeks ago today, and I binge-watched the eight short episodes over a few days. And then a new series dropped the other day: Murderville stars Will Arnett (who also executive produces) as Homicide detective Terry Seattle, who each episode tackles a homicide with the aid of a new trainee partner. The double trick here is that 1) the partner switches each time and is played by a celebrity guest star who is essentially playing themselves, and 2) the actor/partner does not have a script and must improvise their role throughout the episode. As of today, I have watched half of the six episodes, and they featured comedian/TV host Conan O’Brien, former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn “Beast Mode “Lynch, and actor Kumail Nanjiani. (The final three are Annie Murphy, best known for Schitts Creek, Sharon Stone, and Ken Jeong.) Based on my experience with both of these series, I can safely say this: sometimes hybrids work remarkably well on all levels, and sometimes they’re just a bit . . . off.
The Woman in the House . . . is an outright parody of all those books (and their film adaptations) with which we have been inundated over the past several years. A successful parody is a challenging project: it has to check all the boxes when it comes to the elements of whatever it’s making fun of, and then it has to achieve the right tone of exaggeration to get us to laugh. I read a number of interviews with the creators, including Bell, and they all said that if there was only ridicule without some semblance of a good modern mystery, the audience would feel cheated. These tales require a highly flawed heroine with a horrendous past that leads to a horrendous present, a present-day mystery that contains multiple levels of complexity and provides a twist at the end of every chapter/commercial break, and above all else, a constant sense of uncertainty by the reader/audience over what’s going on and who to trust. (I’ve just described every Harlan Coben novel ever written.)
Bell said that they wanted to take the craziness of these real stories and honor them, even as they raised the level of crazy by 50% to achieve a humorous note. Thus, the creators Rachel Ramras, Hugh Davidson and Larry Dorf used plots from The Woman in the Window and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl in the Train as a template for their story of Anna (Bell) a woman traumatized by the tragic loss of her eight-year-old daughter, which ended her marriage to a forensic psychiatrist (Michael Ealy) who profiles serial killers for the FBI, as well as her burgeoning career as a painter. Now she lives on anti-psychotic drugs, which she swallows down with one brimming glassful of wine after another, receives calls from a mysterious therapist, and stares out her living room window. (Sound familiar?)
This is how Anna makes the acquaintance of her new neighbor across the street, a handsome British guy named Neil (Tom Riley) who has an adorable little girl named Emma (Samsara Yett). Anna and Neil are initially bound together by grief, as he recently lost his wife in a tragic accident. And then things get complicated and suspicious and Anna sees what she thinks is a murder in Neil’s window but she can’t do anything about it because she suffers from ombrophobia, a fear of the rain, and it always seems to be raining at the most inopportune moments.
Of course, this is all the plot I can tell you, most of which you can cull from the teasers playing on Netflix. Seeing as this is a hybrid of mystery and comedy, the two questions that come up, in order of importance I guess, are: is it funny? And is the mystery any good? The answer to the first question is . . . kinda sometimes but not enough. The reason for that probably has a lot to do with the second question because the writers try real hard – perhaps too hard – to hand us a successful rendition of this template. There are twists galore, and the end of each episode seems to send us in a wholly different direction. The whole series is beautifully filmed to provide us with the maximum effects one expects from a story of this type. And, as the one thing I would expect from this show, Kristen Bell is really wonderful in it. It almost wouldn’t matter if she were making a comedy or an actual Finn/Hawkins/Coben sort of movie: she does her thing really well.
The very seriousness with which Bell takes the proceedings is probably the funniest thing about the show – that and the occasional plot twist that goes too far or subtly funny visual gag. And that’s the thing: the humor is all over the place. There are some fairly subtle visual gags that land, but mostly the jokes are excessive. This may work depending on what you think is funny. I enjoyed the portrayal of Anna’s handyman Buell (Cameron Britton), who clearly has a few screws loose on more than just the mailbox he’s been trying to fix for years. I went back and forth at how funny the story was of how Anna’s daughter died. And then there’s the solution. I will tell you that I spotted this killer as soon as I met them, and the whole breakdown of their plan may work as mystery, but as comedy I had to heave a sigh about halfway through the ultra-violent final showdown.
Perhaps it’s the pacing that’s off. I often find this the case in all those Scary Movie movies, but they are definitely a series of gags tied together, while The Woman in the House . . . is attempting to weave the humor into the folds within a complex mystery plot. Maybe the whole thing could have been done in fewer episodes; as it is, the final episode is really odd as it seems to go on and on after the denouement, to the point where I figured a HUGE twist was coming. Well, there was a twist, but what it means, we will never know . . . . for now.
Murderville is an episodic show, and that works to its advantage. Of course, it always helps to have a winning premise and a great star, and Murderville has both. The premise comes from a British sitcom called Murder in Successville, which I am pleased to discover is on YouTube (in the U.S. only), so I have some fun watching in store for me. The star is Will Arnett, and he works beautifully here on several levels. Terry Seattle is a great character with a terrific backstory: he’s a detective in Homicide in the Big City whose boss, Chief Rhonda Jenkins-Seattle (a delightful Haneefah Wood), is also his soon-to-be ex-wife who happens to be dating his handsome fellow detective Darren “Daz” Phillips (Phillip Smithey). Terry had a partner once, (the picture on the wall looks like Jennifer Aniston), but she was killed, and he keeps her desk untouched as a shrine (there are half a dozen good jokes on that desk!).
Chief Rhonda keeps pairing Terry up with new trainee detectives, who all happen to be famous people, and sends them off each episode to solve a murder. It is up to the trainee to spot the clues and name the killer (in the first half of the series, the trainees are batting two for three), whereupon Chief Rhonda lets them know if they are correct and fills the audience in on the solution.
First of all, the cases: they are quite clever in a sort of Donald Sobel/Minute Mysteries sort of way. We follow Terry and his new partner as they view the scene of the crime and the body, check in with Medical Examiner Amber Kang (Lilan Bowden) for forensic evidence, and then interview three suspects. So far, the cases have been varied in the best way: the slicing in half of a magician’s assistant, the death of a rich old woman by one of her triplet sons, and the murder of a computer magnate committed at Terry’s own high school reunion. If you watch carefully, you can apply the clues presented to each of the suspects, make your elimination and come up with the guilty party. Not too easy, not too hard.
Of course, you might be distracted by the comedy, which, given the improvisational nature of the series, nails it most of the time. Part of this depends on the guest star’s willingness to enter into the spirit of the proceedings. Thus Marshawn Lynch, the only celebrity so far who is not an actor, is truly delightful for how (pardon the pun) game he is to play along. If this was only about questioning suspects, it would become dull very quickly. Instead, Arnett and the writers come up with situations that test the guest star’s comic mettle. One example from Lynch’s episode: a suspect is brought into the station for questioning, and it is discovered that the two-way mirror in the interrogation room has been removed and is awaiting replacement. Terry quickly warns Marshawn that he must play the mirror image of the (white) suspect in order to lull his suspicions. And when another detective enters the room, Terry must join in.
Arnett delights in tormenting his guests, and it’s interesting to see how they react. In the Conan O’Brien segment, a trace of hot sauce is found at the scene of the crime, making it a clue that follows our sleuths throughout the case. In a Mexican restaurant, the two men order breakfast, and Terry continually pours (real) hot sauce all over O’Brien’s eggs. O’Brien takes his cue, and hilarity ensues. Over at the Kumail Nanjiani segment, things don’t progress quite as smoothly, as Nanjiani sometimes blocks Arnett’s suggestions (an improv no-no), cracks up constantly (something all audiences love to see) and sometimes follows through brilliantly (a character walk like you’ve never seen before).
The cracking up is a blast: Arnett has barely held it together a couple of times, and one corpse had a real problem being examined. I don’t know how many seasons there will be of Murderville, if the formula will not appeal to enough viewers or grow quickly tiresome. For now, the show is a delight, and I hope it lasts for a while. Meanwhile, we can probably expect more examples of the mystery-comedy hybrid to pop up on one streaming service after another. As long as they can find the correct balance between larceny and laughs, I say – the more the