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The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve already seen Netflix’s latest series. Its title reads like it’s been spat out by a generator fed the most popular releases of the past five years. (“Woman; preposition; noun” seems to be the algorithmic secret for a hit.) If not the title, then it’ll be the far-fetched storyline you recognise. The Woman… is emblematic of Netflix thrillers – it’s gripping, silly and so full of bathos by the end that it casts an absurd light on every scene that preceded it. Only this time, that’s the entire point. It’s a parody.
These types of thrillers live in ubiquity on Netflix. The limited series Stay Close – currently on its 28th day in the platform’s top 10 most-streamed shows and films – is its sixth adaptation from mystery author Harlan Coben since 2018. In 2020 alone, the service took four of Coben’s novels to screen. Six more are said to be in the works. Bizarre infertility romp Behind Her Eyes and the high-budget voyeur flop The Woman in the Window are other notable examples. Reviews of most of the above have been mediocre (if not straight-up terrible), yet the streaming giant seems unperturbed in its mission to make as many variations on them as humanly possible.
The Woman… is the latest in that deluge. The series mocks a particular subgenre, one born from the ashes of films like Rear Window. Specifically, bestselling novels such as The Woman in the Window, The Girl on the Train, The Dame on a Plane, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lady in the Lake (can you guess the one I made up?). This type of thriller exists in its own universe, and stories that belong to it are governed by certain rules. Here, the mixing of wine and opiates isn’t fatal. People in notoriously underpaid jobs can afford gorgeous, Architectural Digest-ready homes. Neighbours not only strip in front of windows but linger there in various stages of undress for onlookers to gawk at.
Episodes of The Woman… are stuffed wall-to-wall with ham-fisted parodies of their genre’s recent predecessors. Kristen Bell plays Anna, our unreliable narrator. Following a devastating experience some months before, Anna has become ombrophobic, meaning she is scared of the rain. She washes down prescription pills with cartoonishly large glasses of merlot, which she cradles lovingly like a swaddled baby. Anna is casually reading a novel titled The Woman Across the Lake when new neighbours move in across the street: a handsome British widower, his young daughter and a shifty-looking, soon-to-be dead girlfriend. Dun dun dun.
With The Woman…, Netflix wants to have its cake and eat it, too. “We’re in on the joke!” the streamer screams at us with every clumsy reference and schlocky line of dialogue. (As is customary for Netflix thrillers, Anna speaks solely in metaphors such as “people have layers like a casserole”). All the while, the series serves up the same formulaic story that Netflix otherwise banks on. Sure, it’s wearing the guise of parody, but beneath those self-aware frills and self-referential pleats is the same tired corpse.
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- Stay Close review: There are as many clichés as characters in Netflix’s new thriller
Promoting the series, Bell said “there’s so much formula to [this genre] that we thought it was about time someone poked fun at it”. But there’s something ironic about the fact Netflix is doing the poking. The streamer-cum-producer is perhaps the most prolific maker of the thrillers The Woman… is lampooning. The barrage hasn’t sprung from nowhere, though, and there’s a reason why the company churns them out at the pace that it does.
Firstly, it’s a numbers game. One way to keep 222 million customers happy (or at least satisfied enough not to cancel their subscription) is by providing new content, which Netflix is increasingly doing by way of its originals. But quality control becomes tricky when you’re pumping out so much. “A Netflix original” used to be a guarantee of greatness (think back to the early days of House of Cards and BoJack Horseman). Now it means something more tepid and easily digestible – and nowhere is that truer than in the case of the streamer’s thrillers.
Often, though, you’ll click on a “Netflix thriller” seeking out that part-predictable, part-exhilarating hit only to discover something actually awful. Take The Woman in the Window. Even high-end production value and an all-star cast – Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore and Jennifer Jason Leigh have 13 Oscar nominations and two wins between them – couldn’t rescue this credibility-straining mystery. Instead, the film (again, an adaptation of a hit novel) felt something like a simulacrum. It looks and sounds like a thriller but it’s lacking any of the psychological depth or actual thrill of one. All it offers is hairpin turns that’ll give you whiplash.
Behind Her Eyes is another that embodies this type, the kind that sinks its hooks into you with the promise of an explanation to the ridiculousness unfolding on screen. The series – another adaptation – was Netflix’s big limited series hit last year, mostly because people couldn’t stop talking about how ludicrous the ending was. The recently released Brazen – a critically slated adaptation of Brazen Virtue by Nora Roberts, in which Alyssa Milano plays a bestselling crime author out to catch her sister’s killer – is only the latest offering from Netflix that feels more suitable to Channel 5 daytime TV.
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The Woman... is representative of a “Netflix thriller” in that sense, too. It is neither good nor bad enough to suffer the hassle of scrolling for something else. At the end of the day – or season – ironically lousy writing is still lousy writing. The parody premise is wrung out by episode three. But I knew that’d be the case going in. Netflix knew that when they greenlit it. Isn’t that the whole point? “It’s good enough” is the maxim on which the service often seems to function – that is when it can’t cash in on its increasingly popular “so bad, it’s good” motto.
Look at Emily in Paris. While it’s not a thriller – though a case could be made that Emily is a pathological narcissist – the rom-com series is a prime example of Netflix’s cleverness. Season one was universally roasted. It was also the streamer’s most popular comedy series of 2020, drawing bigger audiences than the far-more-beloved Sex Education and Schitt’s Creek. A tweet by the comedian Philip Henry summed up the dynamic the show fostered with its viewers: “1) Emily in Paris is one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen. 2) I finished it in one sitting.” Think of it as high-level trolling. Netflix takes terrible reviews, angry viewers, damning headlines and spins them into success.
Thrillers are a natural fit for an approach like Netflix’s, one which champions both mediocre content and extreme reactions. Your average thriller follows a formulaic structure: if you keep going, pushing past the implausibility and nonsense, you’ll be rewarded with an answer. No one, though, said the answer was going to be satisfying. In fact, Netflix bets on the fact that it won’t be. You’ll then feel so strongly about it that you’ll fire off an angry tweet. Your followers will be intrigued, might watch it for themselves, and the cycle goes on ad nauseam.
The streaming giant isn’t giving us anything we haven’t asked for – implicitly, at least. We won’t confess to wanting another strained, middle-ground thriller, but Netflix knows what’s in our heart of hearts. Or rather our most-watched list. The Woman in the Window might have a 26 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes but it spent 11 days in Netflix’s top three. People loathed the ending of Behind Her Eyes, but it coasted for 26 days in the Top 10. And now The Woman… is likely to do huge numbers, too. All the while viewers like me will grumble about how bad it is. No, these aren’t the thrillers we want – but they’re the thrillers we deserve.
‘The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window’ is available to watch on Netflix