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The TV adaptation sands down the original film's dangerous edges
Fatal Attraction couldn't get made today, at least not in its original form. The 1987 blockbuster, a towering relic from an era when star-driven erotic thrillers were among Hollywood's hottest commodities, has provoked more debate than most movies released in the past 40 years. Seeing a lonely career woman stalk and threaten the married man with whom she spends one illicit weekend triggered a feminist rebuke that still sometimes lingers. In simplistic terms, her transgressions get her killed, while he's allowed to carry on with his nuclear family intact.
Alex Forrest, brought to life by Glenn Close, who famously protested the revised ending that cemented her character as a homicidal wacko, ranks high on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest movie villains, a citation that both celebrates Fatal Attraction and reduces it to its basest tropes. Still, there's no denying the film's electricity. Naturally, that means it's ripe for revival — and revision. In the new eight-episode Paramount+ series based on the Adrian Lyne hit, which itself was adapted from the 1980 British thriller Diversion, the plot is stretched out to span multiple perspectives, striving to add taste where 1987's version favored titillation.
However thorny the original Fatal Attraction may be, taste isn't always superior. For a story like this to work, you need spice. When problematic properties get reworked for our more conscientious age, that's often the first ingredient tossed aside. Here, Alex (Lizzy Caplan) and her paramour, Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson), lack the sense of steamy melodrama that animates the pair's cat-and-mouse collision. Lyne could make the most innocuous gesture feel sensual, but this Fatal Attraction carries the weight of childhood flashbacks, Jung references, and legal gibberish — hardly sexy stuff.
Much of the story has been amended. Dan is still a successful lawyer, this time in Los Angeles instead of Manhattan, with a satisfying upper-middle-class marriage. (Amanda Peet plays his wife, Beth, a contractor who runs her own business.) Alex is no longer a book editor, though. Now she's an advocate in the victim-services bureau of the district attorney's office where Dan looms large. When he's suddenly passed over for the judgeship he's been expecting, Dan's career setback becomes the scapegoat for his affair. He's thrust into an existential bind, so why not release tension with the help of an attractive new colleague? Alex isn't the only pursuer in the equation, but she's the one who turns destructive when he's not in her confines.
After the first two episodes establish Dan as its central protagonist, the series shifts to other viewpoints. Events replay through Alex's eyes, or Beth's, or even Beth's mother's (Jessica Harper). Alex seems aware of her obsessive tendencies, at times begging a former therapist to take her calls and employing coping mechanisms that don't do much. Hence why Fatal Attraction's enlightenment trips over itself. In the self-care age, where trauma-speak and destigmatized psychoanalysis are the norm, mainstream Hollywood isn't content to let volatility go unchecked. Everything Alex does gets some tidy interpretation, which sucks a lot of voltage from the show's battery. Nuance isn't as impactful when it's so cleanly spelled out for the audience. There's no terror lurking in the margins.
This Fatal Attraction was developed by Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives) and Kevin J. Hynes (Perry Mason), who previously collaborated on Dirty John and Prime Suspect. Cunningham and Hynes open the series with a present-day timeline in which Dan has been convicted of murdering Alex, and they're as interested in his protracted criminal case as they are its lead-up. That gives Toby Huss, playing a waggish investigator who supports Dan long after his skeptical colleagues have abandoned him, ample scene-stealing opportunities. But it doesn't do a whole lot for the psychosexual intensity that made the original so watchable.
Caplan, who submitted career-best work in last year's Fleishman Is in Trouble, gives Alex a dimensionality that avoids villainous exploitation. No one will shout "kill the bitch!" at the screen the way moviegoers allegedly did 36 years ago. Unfortunately, that also means the edges have been sanded off. The overconfident glint in Glenn Close's eyes spoke volumes for Alex's damaged psyche, but Caplan is hampered by scripts that don't leave much room for her own reading. Dan, whether portrayed by Jackson or Michael Douglas, is not the reason you watch Fatal Attraction, and without any air of mystery, Alex is just another TV character.
The show's ultimate problem is that it tries to do too much. It's an erotic soap opera, a legal procedural, a domestic drama about the dissolution of a marriage, and a digest about Dan and Beth's adult daughter (Alyssa Jirrels) processing her parents' history. Sometimes a dusty cultural artifact is meant to be appreciated as just that, a product of its time that anyone is free to embrace or dismiss. Instead, this one has been tidied up, making the attraction feel a lot less fatal.
Premieres: Sunday, April 30 on Paramount+
Who's in it: Joshua Jackson, Lizzy Caplan, Amanda Peet, Toby Huss, Jessica Harper, Reno Wilson, Alyssa Jirrels
Who's behind it: Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes, creators; Silver Tree (You) and Pete Chatmon (Grey's Anatomy), directors
For fans of: The Affair
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8