This article contains spoilers for The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window and The Woman in the Window.
Netflix’s The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window may be a parody of the domestic suspense genre so popular among American readers and filmgoers, but it’s not a giddy or manic one. Not for the miniseries’s creators Rachel Ramras, Hugh Davidson, and Larry Dorf the rapid-fire stream of gags deployed by movie satires like Scary Movie and Airplane. Instead, The Woman in the House proceeds sedately over the course of eight episodes, with only the occasional dash of broad comedy, like when the main character, Anna (Kristen Bell), fills her balloon goblet to the brim with red wine and slurps from it next to an enormous salad bowl overflowing with old corks. Plenty of viewers will find themselves wondering whether this is a spoof of the genre or a specimen of it.
Does it work? Mostly not, but the eighth and final episode of The Woman in the House made it worthwhile for this viewer, someone all too familiar with the domestic thriller’s conventions. The series appears to be the work of people who have read dozens of these books and the scripts based on them, looking for candidates for adaptation. Throughout the series, Anna browses through novels whose plots resemble the story she’s trapped inside, each one with a title that obliquely references an actual bestselling book. The people responsible for the show, for better and for worse, know their domestic thrillers inside out. Unfortunately, some of their best jokes will only be noticed (let alone appreciated) by other grizzled veterans.
It helps to understand what makes all these Woman/Girl thrillers tick. This particular subgenre launched with Paula Hawkins’ 2015 blockbuster novel, The Girl on the Train, and reached its apotheosis three years later with A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window, an extremely calculated exercise in what had by then become a well-established formula. In the classic premise, an isolated middle-class woman—almost always white—who feels that her life has been broken spends too much time voyeurizing people with apparently perfect lives. But one day, as she watches, she witnesses a woman murdered. When she tries to report this crime to various authority figures, ranging from the police to her therapist, no one believes her because she drinks too much, takes mood-stabilizing medication, and has a history of mental instability. Eventually, she even comes to doubt herself, but in the end, after several twists, she is proved right.
It’s no surprise that so many hits were reliably produced using this formula. It speaks to a stew of anxieties underlying middle-class femininity, from the obsession with surface appearances of domestic perfection and with the ugly secrets lurking behind such facades to a (frankly justifiable) frustration at not being believed when trying to expose those secrets. The Woman in the House could do a lot more with this subtext, but some of its subtlest jokes—such as the gradual revelation that every catastrophe visited on Anna is the fault of her clueless husband, and yet no one, not even Anna herself, blames him for it—are pleasingly sharp. They just tend to get overshadowed by dopey shtick like the recurring casserole gag, which might have been lifted from a 1960s comedy. Satire needs to be as accurate as a laser, and no woman with a house as smartly appointed as Anna’s would make a casserole with canned cream-of-mushroom soup.
Its many reference points notwithstanding,The Woman in the House essentially replicates the basic plot of The Woman in the Window, padding it out to a four-hour length with a lot of irrelevant nonsense such as Anna’s dalliance with Rex (Benjamin Levy Aguilar), the murder victim’s side piece, and her attempts to revive her painting career (although the self-help books with titles like You Too Can Be an Artist are kind of funny). Surely a 90-minute feature would have had crisper pacing and more honed jokes. There are parodies of bad movie voice-over (“To get to the bottom of something, sometimes you have to remind yourself that if you don’t risk anything, you risk everything”) and canned dialogue (“It takes a big person to admit when they’re wrong”), which are so close to the real thing that they’re barely recognizable as jokes.
But the finale is weirdly perfect, taking the silly evil-teenager twist from The Woman in the Window and going full Bad Seed by making the sociopathic killer a 9-year-old girl (Samsara Yett). There’s the hilariously prolonged opening fight scene between Anna and this pint-size villain, and a baroque Easter egg in the final scene on the airplane, in which Anna is reading a thriller titled The Woman on the Cruise, when the passenger in the seat next to hers (Glenn Close!) turns up dead in the lavatory and then vanishes entirely—the storyline of Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10, which takes place on a cruise ship. But most delicious is the endless chain of visitors to Anna’s hospital room, each one apologizing to her and telling her she was right and they were wrong. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to hear that,” she tells one of them, because this, of course, is the money shot of the Woman/Girl domestic suspense novel, the point where everyone says they’re sorry for writing the heroine off as an unstable drunk (even though she is an unstable drunk). The setup (flowers, Anna’s dumb joke about the Mack truck) repeats almost word-for-word, but, as with pornography, it doesn’t really matter how banal the prologue is as long as you get what you really, really want. It’s just too bad it takes so long to get there.