When you start being able to peg the tropes in a particular genre, then that genre is ripe for parody. Psychological thriller movies, especially the “woman in peril” kind that have kept Lifetime on the year for the last 30 years, more or less are interchangeable, which is why a new series that parodies the genre works so well. Read on for more.
Opening Shot: A woman in a robe starts making a casserole. We see her meticulously pounding out the chicken, making the sauce and pasta, etc. Then she reaches into the oven, grabs the finished product in her blue-flower dish. Then a memory dashes through her head and she drops the dish on the floor. Or it could be because she wasn’t wearing oven mitts.
The Gist: Anna Whitaker (Kristen Bell) pads around her huge house all alone, in her robe, taking pills and pouring entire bottles of wine into a massive glass. She plaintively looks out her front window while reading. It seems like her handyman Buell (Cameron Britton) is taking his sweet time repairing her mailbox. She sees someone going to school and remembers that it’s time to get her daughter ready; she shows up at school in the same robe and pajamas. One problem: her daughter is dead.
It’s been three years since Anna’s daughter Elizabeth (Appy Pratt) died, and her marriage ended. Her grief has been so deep that she put a pause on her painting, a career that was on its way to flourishing; her friend Sloane (Mary Holland) is desperate to get some new pieces from Anna for her gallery. But it’s not just grief distracting Anna; she always thinks there’s someone lurking around her house, even if it’s just a bird that’s gotten in her attic.
One day, she sees someone move in across the street; Neil Coleman (Tom Riley) and his daughter Emma (Samsara Yett). When Emma comes around selling candy, she offers to make a welcome casserole. But she drops it when she passes out when it suddenly starts pouring; it turns out that Anna has ombrophobia, a fear of rain. Neil brings her back inside and the two of them bond over their mutual losses; his wife recently died in a “tragic accident.” Judging by her wine-fueled fantasies, she certainly sees herself with him at some point.
She brings over another casserole (she seems to have an endless number of blue-flower dishes), which cements things with Neil. She goes to bed thinking she might come out of the extreme grief she’s in. But that notion might be short-lived.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The Woman In The House Across The Street From The Girl In The Window (which we’ll call The Woman In The House…), created by Rachel Ramras, Hugh Davidson and Larry Dorf and directed by Michael Lehmann, of course takes from pretty much every psychological woman-in-peril thriller you see on Lifetime, not to mention the slew of airport suspense novels-turned-films like Gone Girl, The Woman In The Window, The Girl On The Train, et al.
Our Take: When you’re parodying a particular movie or series genre, especially if you’re doing it over a series-length span, you need to not only have your actors play things as straight as possible, but you also have to not burn yourself out on the funny aspects too early. With The Girl In The Window…, the show’s creators and their writers have managed to hit the right notes in parodying the psychological thriller genre while ensuring that the thriller itself isn’t stupid.
The idea is that Anna, who is struggling with grief, drinks too much and takes too many pills, thinks she sees a murder. It may not matter whether she has or not; what’s funny is how her grief comes out in such exaggerated ways, like her fear of the rain or her forgetting things like handling hot casserole dishes barehanded. But Bell, one of the few actors who can play seriousness for laughs, strikes a good balance as Anna; her grief feels real, even if it comes out in strange ways.
In other words, there’s a real psychological thriller in this series, even if the details are a bit quirky. They subvert the genre just enough to generate some big laughs, which is the goal of a show like this. But if it went completely off the rails, people would start checking out quickly.
With Bell as the show’s steady center, the rest of the world around her can be a bit off. For heaven’s sake, how long does it take to fix a mailbox? Whether some of this stuff we’re seeing is real or a figment of Anna’s imagination, most of it hits us as funny because Bell is so solid.
Sex and Skin: Anna’s in bra and panties during her fantasy about Neil. That’s about it.
Parting Shot: As we hear Anna in voice over say she might have found someone to trust, we see Neil looking menacingly out his window to Anna’s house.
Sleeper Star: We’ll give this to the production designer who created multiple versions of the classic Corningware cornflower casserole dish. They look real, and every time we saw one shatter, we cringed, given how expensive the vintage cookware can be.
Most Pilot-y Line: None we could find.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Woman In The House Across The Street From The Girl In The Window is a smart parody of a very parody-ripe genre, but it also works well because Kristen Bell plays the main role with the right degree of seriousness.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.