I (Think) I Know What I Saw
Series Review: “The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window”
A sneaky send-up of the literary pot-boiler genre that still manages to surprise with humor and pathos, saved from silliness by star Kristen Bell.
Despite — or maybe in light of — the lugubrious title, this recent addition to the litany of tongue-in-cheek, black comedies of late offers a nice spin on what could be a formulaic ride down the rabbit hole. And that is, mainly, Heart. Plus a central performance by Kristen Bell that makes it completely binge-worthy. Netflix’s 8-part comedy/murder mystery, The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window starts off kind of vaguely, but soon pops in gear and — at 23-minute episodes — provides a satisfying blend of emotional suspense and humor, much like the copious quantities of red wine imbibed by its heroine Anna while spying on her new neighbors across the street.
Anna is a lovely woman living alone after the tragic loss of her marriage and family, a talented artist who can’t bring herself to pick up a paintbrush, let alone create the kinds of happy images on canvas for which she is known. She is paralyzed by grief, mourning her (happier) past by pouring tumblers filled to the brim with wine and perching herself in an easy chair at her living room window, aimlessly watching the world pass her by. Until the day a moving truck pulls up to the house across the street and she watches with increasing attention as a dashing man and his adorable young daughter move in, piquing her interest even more.
With her signature chicken casserole (and a seemingly endless supply of casserole dishes, at that) Anna welcomes her new neighbors, Neil and his daughter, Emma. She forms an instantaneous bond with the child and a promising sexual tension with the father, so things are beginning to look up for Anna, despite her own personal demons and the fact that wine doesn’t mix well with anti-depressives. The thing is, the single atrocity at the core of Anna’s sadness is so obliterating in its horror — and so comic in the off-hand way in which she and others allude to it — that her self-medicating wine & pills habit has manifested in convincingly real hallucinations which leave Anna to doubt her mental state. She’s also quite imaginative with a natural sleuth’s personality, which makes her utterly incapable of just leaving some mysteries unsolved.
When a newcomer shows up out of the blue, in essence challenging Anna to the promise — or at least the possibility — of a new life with Neil and Emma, Anna’s curiosity turns to obsession. And when a sudden mystery presents itself about this interloper, it takes Anna over the edge, entwining her inextricably in a true life and death plotline in which she herself may or may not be implicated in the end. Assuming she makes it that far.
Directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers; The Truth About Cats & Dogs) and created by Larry Dorf, Rachel Ramras and Hugh Davidson, The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window checks off several boxes in such a breezy way as to disguise the artful sleight of hand at its center. On a very real level, this is a perfectly legitimate murder mystery, with a few creepy characters and suspenseful set-ups that shout solid thriller. It’s also very much a comedy in the way much of the horror is either mentioned in conversational throw-away lines or so over-the-top (especially in Anna’s wild imagination) as to make them almost slapstick, albeit gruesome.
Kristen Bell’s handling of Anna as a self-doubting yet valiant narrator — unreliable though she may be — begs respect. Her winning smile and bright-eyed good humor go far to convey the decent spirit behind this character, hence the goodwill the audience feels for her. And here’s the hat trick: As many chuckles as the show is sure to elicit, still we are left with an understanding of the destructive power of Grief on the human psyche, as well as the ill effect of Pity on the grief-stricken. When society deems someone pitiable, as is the case with Anna’s neighbors, the police, and anyone who knows her story, her narrator status is made even more unreliable for her suffering. Of course, buckets of wine and drawers of pills don’t help, either.
The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window is presently streaming on Netflix.
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