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Fatal Attraction Works As Entertainment, Fails as Social Commentary

The new Paramount+ series “Fatal Attraction” captured my attention. It made me worry about its rather unlikeable characters, and I wanted to know what would happen next, even though it’s all right there in the title, not to mention outlined in the famed 1987 version.

Part of its success as a piece of entertainment is clearly due to its strong casting. Lizzy Caplan seems born to step into Glenn Close’s shoes as Alex Forrest, the perfect mix of vulnerable and volatile, sexy and repulsive. Likewise, Joshua Jackson as cheating husband Dan Gallagher is a strong choice. Since his “Dawson's Creek” days, he’s walked the line between sympathetic and sleazy, and his experience does him well here, inviting us to relate—but only so much—to his entitled character. And rounding out the love triangle is Amanda Peet as Beth Gallagher. She, too has a balancing act to pull off—here between traditional domesticity and a steelier strength—and does it well even if her character sometimes seems like more of a symbol of a happy home than an actual person.

“Fatal Attraction” works as pulpy entertainment but grates with its retrograde gender dynamics. The creators have bumped the story into modern times, a mistake because it feels so dated. We begin by seeing Gallagher working at the Los Angeles District Attorney's office. He’s a golden boy, up for a judgeship, earlier in his career than is typical, thanks to him being good at his job and playing by the rules. Flashforward, and he’s getting released from prison, having served time for the murder of Alex Forrest, a crime he insists he didn’t commit. 

We quickly see that Dan Gallagher has a happy marriage, sex included, but when he doesn’t get his promotion, he spins out and sleeps around. He does this, the show argues, in part because his colleagues appear to cheat on their wives openly and without shame. In reality, only 20% of men cheat (and 13% of women do). But not in “Fatal Attraction.” Here, cheating is part of the spoils of their masculinity, men’s veritable birthright. So while the show clearly marks Dan’s infidelity as a mistake, it also normalizes it—sleeping around is just a thing men do. 

For her part, Caplan’s Alex gets a pretty strong mental health arc. We see her in therapy, taking pills, trying to figure out her past trauma. We see her as a child with two emotionally abusive parents and learn, over the course of the series, how those fraught relationships bleed into her current-day understanding of herself and the world. But again, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators of one, as we hear every time there’s another mass shooting in America. This consistent refrain is another way “Fatal Attraction” feels dated, relying on an old understanding of how the world works to make its modernized tale work.

Of course, Alex is both a victim and a perpetrator. She commits crimes big and small, some from the film and some newly invented ones. It’s worth mentioning here that men are the vast majority of stalkers (87%) and women are the vast majority of victims (78%). The FBI also reports that men commit violent crimes at much higher rates, making up 74% of the perpetrators.

I bring up these numbers to highlight how unusual a tale like “Fatal Attraction” is. There’s nothing wrong with film and TV focusing on the extraordinary—storytellers can and should go there. But there is something wrong with shows and movies normalizing these outliers, creating a madhouse version of reality and pretending we all live there.

“Fatal Attraction,” both the film and this new iteration, fall into that trap, essentially arguing that anyone (or any man) could face the consequences Gallagher does for cheating. We’re all familiar with the hysterical woman trope, and Alex is a potent example. When contrasted with Beth in the film, it seems like women are largely irrational wombs, waiting to be loved or spurned, turned either into fulfilled mothers/wives or driven crazy by the want for that role. In this universe, mistresses like Alex deserve to be killed—it’s the logical thing to do, the righteous response. Alex is murdered, and while much of this “Fatal Attraction” pivots around who really did it, the show’s genuine interest is in setting up more and more justification for her killing. And that is grotesque. It was in 1987, and it is today.

Some may argue this show gives us a few more female characters, showing some range of female possibilities outside the love triangle. That’s true, but it’s not much; we only see glimpses of other women. And the central conflict remains wife or mistress, wedded and bedded or screwed and spurned. It’s also true that Gallagher faces consequences for his actions this time. But the women of “Fatal Attraction” exist only in relation to the man; one deserves to be killed for her trying to claim him.

And the show adds an extra layer to this nonsense in the Gallaghers’ daughter (Alyssa Jirrels). She was a child when the affair occurred but is an undergrad studying psychology in the show’s current-day timeline. As such, we hear her explaining a theory of feminine types, arguing that women like Alex aren’t rare. As if there are all sorts of deranged women out there, willing and able to commit extreme violence—the type that unsuspecting men can only be met with lethal force if they are to uphold the social order. But that is dangerously untrue as it helps normalize violence against women in the real world, where the statistics show a pattern very different from the setup of “Fatal Attraction.”

This series perpetuates a damaging myth and one that doesn’t need an eight-part, hour-long prestige retelling. No matter how strong the casting, how compelling the plot, and how coveted the original IP, “Fatal Attraction” remains entertaining enough but rotten at its core.

Whole series was screened for review. "Fatal Attraction" premieres on Paramount+ on Sunday, April 30.

Cristina Escobar

Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co, a digital publication uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media.

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