In 1988, the landmark film Fatal Attraction defied Academy genre bias by racking up six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Although the erotic suspense thriller didn’t take home any of the gold it was up for, it has lived on as a major cultural touchstone, with instantly iconic exchanges of dialogue and plot beats that are seared (or, perhaps, boiled) into viewers’ minds. It even foretold its own legacy, with one unforgettable line: “I’m not going to be ignored.”
Despite all of its undeniable greatness, Fatal Attraction’s depiction of a woman struggling with mental illness was exploitative, and practically cruel. After publishing exec Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) spends a starry-eyed weekend with married lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), she becomes attached to the point of obsession when Dan won’t leave his wife for her. The film relegates Alex to stigma personified; all of her increasingly terroristic actions toward Dan and his family reduce her to the “unhinged woman” trope, albeit a damn fascinating one, thanks to Close’s marvelous performance. It skirts an explanation for Alex’s behavior, and it certainly doesn’t touch on any professional diagnosis, suggesting that all of Dan’s retaliatory moves against her are completely justified.
These issues have only become more troubling in hindsight, as movies have tried to distance themselves from these thorny illustrations seen in psychological thrillers of the past. But look around you: We’re drowning in a sea of remakes. (Another wave crested just last week.) It was only a matter of time before the door left ajar by Fatal Attraction’s unscrupulous treatment of mental illness was kicked open by someone brave—or overzealous—enough to think they can correct all of its mistakes at once.
Enter Fatal Attraction, the Paramount+ miniseries of the same name, a reexamination that needlessly attempts to stretch this story across eight interminable hours, while patting itself on the back the entire way. The series (which premieres April 30) spends so much time trying to right old wrongs, it forgets to match any of the eroticism in the original film. Then it goes one baffling step further by boldly bungling its own raison d’etre. While it initially strives to give Alex Forrest an accurate portrayal of mental illness, the show eventually muddles her story even worse, flattening the character into a caricature that falters from the jump.
If your curiosity remains piqued by its slight deviation from an existing intellectual property, it is, mercifully, not difficult to find your way back into this take on Fatal Attraction. The players are essentially the same. Dan and Alex are still tangled in a workplace web—now played by Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan, respectively—and Dan’s wife, Beth (Amanda Peet), and daughter, Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels as an adult, and Vivien Lyra Blair as a child), remain in the story, to heighten its emotional stakes. Dan and Alex are now colleagues in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s offices, where he is a prosecutor and she is a Victim Services advocate.
This time around, the story jumps between two timelines. The first is set when Dan and Alex meet and have an affair, and the second starts when Dan is released from a 15-year prison stint after being convicted of Alex’s murder. In its opening moments, Fatal Attraction irritatingly shirks the suspense of the original film by showing all of its cards upfront, telling us that Alex will, once again, die by its end—and, presumably, who did it. But the show’s writers at least make a tepid effort to deviate from expectations, suggesting that Alex’s murder may not have been so cut and dry.
From here, we’re tasked with bouncing between the timelines, with Jackson’s hairstyle serving as our sole indicator as to which is which. (His mop is just slightly messier in the present day.) Fatal Attraction tries to be both a law procedural and lusty chiller at once, but it wastes so much time establishing its split that the show can’t manage to create a gripping take on the story in either timeline.
Fatal Attraction throws apathetic reveals in the form of plot exposition at the wall over and over, figuring that one might stick if it’s heavy-handed enough to make a dent. Half of an entire episode will often be spent filling in the last episode’s previously unseen backstory, this time from another character’s perspective; this gets old by the fifth time this humdrum trick is repeated. The only time this marginally works is when we’re treated to a glimpse at how Alex has craftily seduced Dan, which doesn’t appear until the third episode, well after their relationship has been established. These are exciting ways to detail just how cunning Alex is, and how far she’s willing to take her obsession, but later serve as lazy ways to close the narrative loop.
While Jackson and Caplan are both game for matching the violent heights of the original characters, the weight of holding up to two indelible performances only highlights when both actors look totally lost in the show’s needlessly complicated narrative. Caplan, in particular, shines while she bats her prey about, but Fatal Attraction leaves her offscreen for far too much of its runtime. Exploring Alex Forrest’s motives is why this show exists, and it becomes increasingly irritating that the showrunners and writers think that viewers have been clamoring for a deeper look at Dan Gallagher’s side of things. Show me one person who watched the original Fatal Attraction and thought, “I’d love to see how that affected Dan’s family,” and I’ll show you a liar.
Fatal Attraction takes its rare opportunity to expand upon a character as infamous as Alex—the subject of countless essays, whose existence jumpstarted a legitimate conversation surrounding the depiction of mental illness—and paints this new iteration in clumsy, broad strokes. In the penultimate episode, the show tries to shoehorn a ridiculous flashback to Alex’s childhood and young adult life into what little time is left in the series. This would be absurd enough as it is, with such overacted and rash third-act character developments, if it weren’t also taking place bafflingly late in the game. The series’ attempt at telling Alex’s story in a more considerate way is ultimately the same as if they never told it at all.
Fatal Attraction thinks that the acknowledgment of mental health equates to some big, definitive statement. By its final stretch, it’s mind-boggling how this show was not simply executed as a prequel. Who else had Alex dallied with before she met Dan, and how did her upbringing contribute to that? Answers to those questions could add to the character’s thinly sketched arc, shading her in to give her some semblance of a real person. But why go with the plainest, most interesting answer, when there is remake material to be regurgitated, dressed up with faux intellectualism and Jungian buzzwords instead of bothering to treat its characters with the respect they deserve?
“This is a soulless, styleless, and mostly sexless miniseries.”
By its close, Fatal Attraction throws the mild work it did to enhance this story into the trash, setting it ablaze with an ending that is no better or kinder to those dealing with mental illness than the original film. This is a soulless, styleless, and mostly sexless miniseries that does nothing besides spend eight hours posturing.
Looking back at the original film, it’s endlessly interesting to study its legacy. Fatal Attraction is a fantastic movie, but it’s also highly problematic and terribly dated. That’s part of what makes it so great, because it wasn’t perfect. By simply existing, Fatal Attraction encouraged writers to look at genre development with nuance and care, instead of resigning women to sheer, outrageous craziness. It may not have been instantaneous or conclusive, but it was effective. It’s impossible to see how 2023’s Fatal Attraction could foster any such discussion about mental health. Instead, it serves as an example to point to when looking at what not to do with a character whose controversial history has been maligned once already.