TV Review: 'Fatal Attraction' series elevates original with time and nuance
Premiering at Canneseries, the binge-worthy adaptation of the classic film benefits from compelling performances by Lizzy Caplan, Joshua Jackson and Amanda Peet.
The highest-grossing film of 1987 worldwide, the original “Fatal Attraction” film served as a cautionary tale against casual infidelity, showing how even a seemingly innocuous fling can upend someone’s entire life. Back then, lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) has a steamy weekend hookup with publishing exec Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), which derails in the most horrific way imaginable when she becomes obsessed with him, putting his entire family in jeopardy.
In a TV landscape overrun with prequels, sequels and reboots, the source material for Paramount Plus’ new “Fatal Attraction” series proves surprisingly fertile. The show provides plenty of time for the story to expand past paranoia, into the more interesting question of why Alex Forrest became so obsessive in the first place — not to mention why Dan, apparently a happy family man, tumbled from fidelity so easily. It helps that the 2023 version contains many inspired twists: a relocation of coasts (L.A. replaces New York) and a change of occupational venue. Dan (Joshua Jackson) is now an assistant district attorney, which puts him in an extremely problematic position when he’s accused of Alex’s murder. Alex (Lizzy Caplan) is a victim advocate in his office, a surprisingly effective position for one who harbours so much trauma herself. Even more valuable: While the original film has been called out for being anti-feminist, as Alex is a high-powered professional woman who unravels over a man while Dan gets off basically scot-free, this more even-handed version provides backstory, contributing factors and the ensuing consequences on both sides.
Like the original, the new “Fatal Attraction” benefits greatly from its cast. Jackson masters another role featuring varying timelines and infidelity following his impressive years-long turn in Showtime’s “The Affair.” Like that series, “Fatal Attraction” is centred around a murder mystery — this one seems loosely inspired by the film’s original ending. In that version, Alex Forrest, inspired by her beloved “Madame Butterfly,” dies by suicide and frames Dan for her murder (In the final film, of course, Dan’s wife Beth is the one to save her family by killing Alex.) In this version, Dan is recently paroled after being convicted for Alex’s murder, while frequent flashbacks flesh out the pair’s affair and catastrophic fallout 15 years prior. Jackson expertly sways between the full-of-himself, grandiose, before-the-fall Dan and the humbled, shadowy version of himself post-prison. Like Anne Archer before her, Amanda Peet makes the most of what could be a thankless role — the wronged wife. In both timelines, Beth attempts to do the right thing even as her world falls apart — focusing on her daughter most of all.
The series uses the modern-day Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels) to bolster the foundation of the “Fatal Attraction” legacy. Dan and Beth’s daughter is now in college, where she’s writing a thesis on Carl Jung and his mistress/colleague Toni Wolff’s four categorizations of the feminine psyche. Alex, we soon deduce, is the highly intuitive and emotional Medial (Beth is the Mother, obviously). And each of these, Wolff points out, also had a shadow side, a Jungian concept Ellen brings up frequently — which makes sense for someone whose father was both a devoted family man and an accused murderer.
The shadow concept also offers more depth to the exploration of what made Alex Forrest the way she was. Taking on another iconic villain origin story (after Annie Wilkes in the Stephen King-based series “Castle Rock” in 2019), Caplan has the breadth to bring that trauma to the forefront. Alex’s obsession makes a lot more sense when we see that Dan isn’t the first person she’s become fixated on, or what in her past (her own family relationships, her own therapy sessions) would indicate that her focus on him would be her ultimate undoing. Caplan not only effectively telegraphs Alex’s pain, but she’s also able to paint the character in a sympathetic light even when she’s impulsively carrying out even worse misdeeds than in the cinematic version — and that Alex, as we all know, was a bunny-boiler.
There are numerous callbacks to the original film, some overt, some so subtle you could miss them entirely — like a brief conversation about the number of crimes committed in bathtubs. These nods have the effect of paying homage, rather than leeching off the original; for example, there is a bunny, but it belongs to Alex’s sympathetic neighbour. And if you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the line “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan” is just as chilling now as it was in 1987.
Dan steadfastly maintains that he’s innocent of Alex’s murder, but is he telling the truth? And if Dan didn’t kill her, then who possibly could have? Or did Alex’s original 1987 intent come to pass? The puzzle at the centre of this “Fatal Attraction” makes for captivating, binge-worthy viewing, despite the fact the pacing can get clunky, sometimes we are reduced to figuring out what year we’re in merely based on Jackson’s hairstyle and wardrobe. But when all else fails, the performances of the main players fill the gaps. The chemistry between Caplan and Jackson is so hypnotic, it’s easy to see why Alex was able to convince herself their relationship was real. (It’s also a shame that their scenes together become less frequent as Alex and Dan go from lovers to adversaries.) Toby Huss is a welcome lighthearted addition as Mikey, Dan’s only former colleague who believes he’s telling the truth, as the pair gamely tries to solve a 15-year-old murder to finally prove his innocence. Because we know what Alex Forrest is capable of, the tension stealthily increases across the series as she becomes more unhinged and more revelations peel back the layers of her enigmatic history.