A comedy mystery should, ideally, be both comic and mysterious.
Unfortunately, the new Netflix series “The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window” drops one of its most successful jokes in its title — and doesn’t have much to recommend it as a whodunit, either. A parody of book-club thrillers like “The Girl on the Train” and “The Woman in the Window,” this series stars Kristen Bell as a grieving mother who has descended into substance abuse and who becomes obsessed with a crime she believes she’s seen. The tricky thing about this plot is that it’s effectively indistinguishable from what might be featured in one of the books or movies the show’s lampooning, and so needs to be jazzed up either with great gags or sharp execution to keep us watching.
Neither is true. This series’ title and certain early moments — as when Bell drops the cork from her wine bottle into a massive pile of them — suggest that this series will have a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker level of relentless comic ingenuity. Instead, though, “The Woman in the House…” often defaults to a fairly straightforward spin on the genre it’s supposedly mocking, with occasional, flaccid sight gags. (In fairness, there’s a line toward the series’ end that made me laugh out loud… but only after several episodes’ worth of bland, dry material.)
The mystery plot and the few jokes sit uneasily together. If the show were raucous and constantly pulsing with humor, we’d be laughing through violence, grief, and death; if it were revealing the genre’s excesses by playing it totally straight, that could work, too. The occasional jokes tend simply to make one crave either levity or seriousness of purpose. To wit: Bell’s character visits her daughter, who died at age 9, in the cemetery, and the camera lingers on her headstone, reading “There’s no ‘I’ in heaven.” Not only is this barely coherent as a joke, but it’d need to be a great deal funnier to get the viewer to laugh about the death of a young child.
In the absence of strong comic writing, a lot of the work of signaling that this is, in fact, subverting the tropes of its genre is outsourced to Bell, who has the tricky job of acting in a role and making clear she’s above it. She does this well enough, but it’s frustrating that that’s the assignment. More than anything, “The Woman in the House…” suggests a grim kind of vertical integration on the part of Netflix. Last year, the streamer released the feature film “The Woman in the Window”; this year, they put out the series lampooning it.
“The Woman in the House…” has precious little to say about movies like “The Woman in the Window” other than that they exist. (Again: “There’s no ‘I’ in heaven.”) That’s not enough to justify sitting through a show that’s more than twice as long as “The Woman in the Window” — and one that, refusing to dare with a truly provocative joke or an inventive spin on the genre, takes far fewer risks. Compared to the loopy “Woman in the Window” or “Girl on the Train,” both films that in many ways can be taken as their own parodies, this show is just kind of dull. The greatest trick “The Woman in the House…” pulls may be revealing how inventive the movies it’s mocking really are.
“The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window” premieres Friday, Jan. 28 on Netflix.