How do you solve a problem like Alex Forrest? The character, made (in)famous by Glenn Close in Adrian Lyne’s classic 1987 film Fatal Attraction, is clearly a problem. For who and why is the central tension at the heart of the film, yes, but more so in this fleshed-out reimagined television series where Lizzy Caplan (Fleishman Is In Trouble, Masters Of Sex) takes on Close’s iconic role of a scorned mistress turned crazed and violent stalker. Adapting that lightning rod of an ’80s erotic thriller for a 2020s audience is no easy feat, especially once you decide to forgo the contracted suspense a brisk two-hour run time affords you and settle on a lengthy eight-episode run. And while there’s plenty to admire in how Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes have approached the material, this Fatal Attraction, which premieres April 30 on Paramount+, feels hampered by its own structural conceit, turning the film’s original bombshell ending into its own narrative engine. (Speaking of that conceit, be warned that spoilers follow.)
It’s 2023, and Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson), a famed-and-later-disgraced DA in the Los Angeles area is hoping to get paroled 15 years after he was found guilty of murdering Alex Forrest (Caplan). They’d had an affair, that much is clear—and he’s now, belatedly, it seems, taking responsibility for what he was found guilty of. (Not a day goes by without him thinking about her, he admits.) Yet, once he’s out and trying to piece his life back together—including by meeting the young daughter he left behind—it’s clear that Dan has only one goal: prove once and for all that he didn’t kill Alex.
The series, then, begins with a whodunnit structure that then allows us enough of a frame to flash back to when an affable and charming (if slightly privileged and cocky) Dan first met a young woman working at Victim Services after she caught his eye one morning. The first few episodes of Paramount+’s steamy drama all focus mostly on Dan—how his upcoming promotion may bring him the prestige and career advancement he’s long coveted, how his future move out of his current home is set to tee him up for a perhaps unwelcome change of pace, and how that dashing curly-haired young woman seems to stay on his mind even when he’s focused on trying to nail prosecutions for murders in which the body may not ever show up. His is a story of how influence and affluence have set him up to succeed and get everything he’s always wanted. That is, until he doesn’t.
His eventual affair with Alex, we’re led to believe, is partly prompted by a failed promotion and a feeling of what we would rightly call a midlife crisis. Yet Dan is, we’re told over and over again, a good man. A righteous man. This is why so many of his colleagues are mildly weary of him; he’s too much of a golden boy. Here’s where Jackson’s casting seems perfect. While Caplan is handed the more difficult role (Alex needs to be a graspable cipher, a knowing enigma that begs to be solved), Jackson plays to his boyish charm; his Dan is a likable cad whose charm is always at risk of irking you were he not so earnest and sincere. In the present, this is what makes any attempts at clearing his name all the trickier. So few people are willing to help him. Sure, his fixer (Toby Huss) is still up for it. But for others, his eventual conviction felt like vindication: finally, some accountability for the kind of seemingly nice straight white guys who feel they can get away with anything—including murder.
The twinned and intertwined storytelling, which shuttles between these two timelines and offers constant narrative rewinds of its key moments, means Fatal Attraction isn’t (solely) inching toward what we know will be a bloody climax but is intent, instead, on grappling with the many thorny ethical issues it invites. Mostly because, in addition to moving us back and forth in time, the show constantly shifts points of view: Not only do we follow Dan as he navigates his affair, for instance, but we then get to witness what it felt like from Alex’s perspective—and later still from that of Dan’s wife Beth (Amanda Peet) at the time and even his daughter Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels) in the present as she struggles with reuniting with a father she hasn’t seen for 15 years.
In fact, Ellen’s entire timeline, which includes her therapy sessions as well as her psychoanalytic studies, end up serving as the intellectual framework of the entire show: “What people think of other people is only a projection of themselves,” she says, earnestly at one point, distilling the kind of overly literate dialogue that litters the series. Ellen’s droll, intellectual, and pointedly self-aware perspective gives audiences a chance to think about Jungian and Freudian ideas about desire and identity, about shadow beings and unknowable female archetypes, that complement the conversations around compassion and cynicism within the justice system that Dan and Alex have in between their meet-cute escapades. Here’s Fatal Attraction (1987) filtered through an at times painfully (and almost paralyzingly) self-reflective lens—as if the series were aware that its central setup (a murdered mistress) couldn’t possibly be uncritically presented lest it be misread as the stuff of puerile thrillers.
There is an attempt, with every new episode, to complicate the audience’s expected understanding of what took place between Alex and Dan—and what may have contributed to her tragic death. It’s not just that the show fleshes out Alex’s mental-health issues or that it really wants to examine the question of how far anyone would go for a loved one, careful to neither pathologize nor excuse unprompted violence, not to mention emotionally manipulative behavior. It’s that it sets itself up as wanting to do all of the above in service of what’s nevertheless an erotic thriller.
The questions it poses over and over again (Was this ultimately an affair gone wrong or was this an orchestrated entrapment gone right? Was this merely a crime of passion or a premeditated act? Did she have it coming? Could he be anything but guilty?) are both central and immaterial, especially as the series trudges toward a final episode whose reveal feels like both an all-too-clever reinvention of Lyne’s original film and yet a mostly unsatisfying neutering of the movie’s jaw-dropping ending. In this Fatal Attraction, Alex Forrest may not be (so) problematic, but that only makes her even more of a narrative and storytelling problem than the show and Caplan together can adeptly handle.
Fatal Attraction premieres April 30 on Paramount+.