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This heavy-handed 'Fatal Attraction' reboot is weighed down by clunky detours

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This Sunday, the Paramount+ streaming service presents the first three episodes of its new eight-episode drama "Fatal Attraction." It's a reworking and expansion of the 1987 Adrian Lyne film, an erotic thriller that's still talked about and argued about all these decades later. In the original film, Michael Douglas played a married man who had a heated sexual encounter with a mentally unstable woman played by Glenn Close, only to have her begin harassing him and his family, ultimately ending with her death. This new version stars Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: There are two obvious reasons to mount a new version of "Fatal Attraction" based on the novel by James Dearden. One is that the Adrian Lyne film became such a major hit that as intellectual property properties go, it's a title and a premise that's very familiar and easily marketable. The movie also has been the subject of such heated debate, a debate which has grown as the years have gone by, that it's ripe for a new, perhaps less sexist and misogynist interpretation. Whether this new version delivers a substantially different interpretation is something I won't reveal here because it's part of the suspense. But this new eight-part TV version from Paramount+ does just fine on the marketing, and the casting is a big part of that. Joshua Jackson, a sympathetic presence on screen ever since "Dawson's Creek," plays Dan Gallagher. Amanda Peet plays his wife, Beth. And Lizzy Caplan plays Alex Forrest, the woman who stalks Dan after he cuts off their brief affair. Caplan already has done spellbinding work playing complicated characters in the TV series "Masters Of Sex" and, more recently, "Fleishman Is In Trouble." And she does it again here, sometimes in spite of her material.

By expanding the narrative to eight hours, these TV adaptors, Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes, end up diluting their own focus. The story is now told in two primary timelines - in present day, when Dan is released from prison after serving 15 years for convicted murder, and back in 2008, when he first meets and begins interacting with Alex. And in addition to those twin timelines, there are various viewpoints. Primarily, we see things from Dan's perspective. But sometimes we see things from Alex's point of view, or Dan's wife, Beth, or even other characters, including Dan and Beth's now grown daughter, Ellen, played by Alyssa Jirrels. It's all a bit like "Rashomon," with scenes revisited to add a different context, but it's also a bit heavy-handed. In this retelling, there isn't a lot of subtext, just a lot of text, very obvious text, like a lot of quotations from psychologist Carl Jung and scenes that are laid out too clunkily to feel at all normal. Here's an early scene, for example, with Dan and Alex at the beach. It's a scene that's supposed to show their instant and easy emotional connection by swapping lists of things they dislike. But it all feels so forced. Their chemistry isn't at all obvious, much less convincing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FATAL ATTRACTION")

LIZZY CAPLAN: (As Alex) Also, I always forget that there's a lot of wind at the beach. Yeah, I'm not really a fan of that.

JOSHUA JACKSON: (As Dan) Of wind? Really?

CAPLAN: (As Alex) Really.

JACKSON: (As Dan) What are some other things you pretend to like?

CAPLAN: (As Alex) Live music. My neighbors.

JACKSON: (As Dan, laughter)

CAPLAN: (As Alex) Museums. In fact, I might have to go a few steps further and just say art.

JACKSON: (As Dan) Hats on anyone - just so stupid. Why?

CAPLAN: (As Alex, laughter)

JACKSON: (As Dan) Traveling.

CAPLAN: (As Alex) Oh, the worst.

JACKSON: (As Dan) Anything that I need to develop a taste for, and the holidays.

CAPLAN: (As Alex) Feedback, any kind of feedback.

BIANCULLI: Well, my feedback is that the makers of this new "Fatal Attraction" could have done without including such tired, obvious scenes, and without bringing psychology to the forefront, and adding subplots about whether Dan actually did the crime for which he was imprisoned, or how and if his daughter will accept him back in her life. The only subplot that works effectively, really, features Toby Huss, who plays Dan's friend, Mike, and a persistent supporter and investigator on Dan's behalf. His performance and Caplan's will carry you through "Fatal Attraction" when otherwise you might be tempted to drift away. But stay for Caplan as Alex, who, once she becomes a woman scorned, gets to dive into her role with a fury - literally, as when she places a phone call to Dan from a bar after he's a no-show again.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FATAL ATTRACTION")

CAPLAN: (As Alex) Hi. It's me again. They have this new special, this robiola cheese with roasted tomatoes. You know, for me to order not meatballs, it must be pretty good. But I don't know how much longer it'll be on the menu. So this is your heads up, because I haven't seen you here in a while. It's starting to make me feel like maybe I misunderstood something, except I really don't think that I did. I think you might have, though. And so I want to help. I want to help you be the man that I know that you are for your sake and for everybody else's. But in order to do that, I can't let you pretend like I don't exist, because I do exist. And I'm not going to be ignored, Dan.

BIANCULLI: That call lets you know what to expect from the rest of this new "Fatal Attraction." That was enough to keep me watching even through all the clunky detours. But whether or not that entices you to tune in and stay with Paramount+'s "Fatal Attraction," well, that's your call.

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interview with Judy Blume, or with Virginia Sole-Smith, author of "Fat Talk: Parenting In The Age Of Diet Culture" - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And if you want to read about what's happening behind the scenes at FRESH AIR and get some good stories and suggestions from our producers, subscribe to our newsletter. You'll find a link at freshair.npr.org. I'm always happy to read it Saturday mornings when it arrives in my email.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASTOR PIAZZOLLA SONG, "TANGUEDIA III")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASTOR PIAZZOLLA SONG, "TANGUEDIA III") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.