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Marc Cherry is the Mark Zuckerberg of complicated, high-camp women: He gives us the product we think we want, but in the end, it still only feels like a facsimile of the real thing.
When sudsy mystery Desperate Housewives debuted in 2004, it filled the stiletto-shaped void left by Sex and the City and inadvertently gave birth to an entire reality TV genre that made Bravo a household name. It was a fun and audacious nighttime soap that helped reinvigorate then-flailing ABC (along with Grey’s Anatomy and Lost), but the flavor of the show — five seemingly flawless upper-middle-class women and their infinite web of lies — indeed feels 15 years in the past. Then again, so does Cherry’s newest project, Why Women Kill.
Air date: Aug 15, 2019
The CBS All Access series asks, “What if The Hours were a murder-comedy?” Spanning three paralleling timelines — 1963, 1984 and 2019 — the show introduces us to three storylines involving the various owners of a tony Pasadena mansion and all their salacious problems. In the 1960s, we meet meek Beth Ann (Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin), a frowsy housewife married to cheating control-freak Rob (Parenthood‘s Sam Jaeger.) In the 1980s, we’re introduced to Simone (Lucy Liu), an extravagant socialite who discovers her husband is gay. Finally, in 2019, we get to know slimy screenwriter Eli (Scott Reid, Veep) and his man-eating attorney wife Taylor (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, The Good Place), a modern couple in an open marriage who flirt with the idea of bringing another woman into their arrangement. The viewer is led to believe these three wives will eventually be driven to murder.
We’re supposed to marvel at the changing roles of women over time, but it’s hard to get there, intellectually, when none of the three leads feels like a semblance of a real person. Instead, Why Women Kill comes off as an ungainly fantasy of women’s emotional lives, where the threat of infidelity could be the only fuel of marital unhappiness. (There are clearly underlying cracks in these unions — Rob’s mid-century misogyny, Simone’s obsession with wealth, Eli and Taylor’s boundary issues — yet boring-old adultery leads the way here.) Even the title itself is a monolith, casting “women” as some exotic, ferocious and unknowable entity.
Why Women Kill sells itself on its aesthetic more than its narrative, the kind of show halfheartedly described as “fun” when it’s actually not fun, but merely quirky. Starting with the comic book-style opening credits that see various cartoon women bubbling into a murderous wrath, the series wants you to believe it’s bold and ballsy, but its chirpy ghoulishness is more cringe-y than delightful. In one sequence, Beth Ann surprises her husband in the shower in a bid to revive their sex life, but he ends up crashing through glass shower doors onto a bed of shards while she looks on with an innocent little “Oops” face. It’s the kind of big, stale act-breaking moment you immediately imagine being calibrated inside a writers room.
Of the three timelines, the 1980s works the best, perhaps mainly for the gaudy jewel-toned costumes and bedazzled set design. Flinty-voiced Liu effortlessly embodies the haughty cattiness of the Dynasty/Dallas era as Simone navigates her husband’s newly exposed sexual orientation, her daughter’s lavish upcoming wedding and the advances of her best friend’s 18-year-old son (Leo Howard) in a rigid upper-class social sphere. Throughout the two episodes available to critics, I wondered if Liu’s sculpted cheekbones would do any of the killing promised in the title.
The charming Goodwin, however, seems like she’s on another show entirely. She’s been directed into oblivion here, Beth Ann a wounded ginger frump forced through too many broad and contrived moments, like accidentally getting naked just in time for her husband’s boss to spy her through a window. I recognize Beth Ann is a dynamic character who will grow away from being a subservient hausfrau smiling through the rage, but while we’re meant to empathize with her plight most of all, I found her nearly as frustrating as her immutable husband.
Ultimately, the cliched characterizations weaken Why Women Kill far more than its antic hijinks. In the ’60s, we suffer through the Noo Yawk accents of “Italians next door” Sheila (Alicia Coppola) and Leo (Adam Ferrara). And yet, even these buffoonish archetypes aren’t nearly as grating as woke millennials Eli and Taylor, a pair practically tripping over themselves to appears as non-judgmentally non-monogamous as possible, even while it’s destroying their marriage. Thus, it’s no surprise the show’s only two open feminists — Sheila and Taylor — end up being stereotypical shrews. (When Eli suggests pizza for dinner, Taylor retorts, “My mom used to love pizza! What did you think of her body?” He resigns himself to salad after that.) Just because a show says it’s about women doesn’t mean it has anything interesting to say about feminism.
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Lucy Liu, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Reid Scott, Sam Jaeger, Jack Davenport, Leo Howard, Alexandra Daddario, Sadie Calvano, Alicia Coppola, Adam Ferrara
Executive producers: Marc Cherry, Brian Grazer, Francie Calfo, Michael Hanel, Mindy Schultheis
Premieres: Thursday (CBS All Access)
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