on Fatal Attraction, created by Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes

Cheat with the wrong woman, and you may find a bunny boiling in your kitchen. Such is the enduring legacy of 1987’s Fatal Attraction and fount of the shorthand for modern infidelity’s consequences. The 2023 television series of the same name doesn’t feature a jilted woman killing her rapacious, married lover’s family pet, however. It reframes the titillating tale through contemporary discourses about accountability—but makes a new kind of mess.

In the eighties, terrorized men darted from movie theaters, according to Glenn Close, who portrayed the unstable Alex Forrest in the cultural phenomenon that received six Academy Award nominations. These men would tell her their marriages were saved. The New Yorker’s film critic, Pauline Kael, deemed Alex “loco,” but by deconstructing unfaithfulness and exploring its foundational elements, such as volitional deception and manipulation, the new rendering, which stars Lizzy Caplan, rightly excoriates Alex’s lover, Dan Gallagher. In addition to shifting the vernacular for a woman behaving “crazy” so it meets feminism’s demands that provocation be part of the inquiry, we see what both indulging and disassociating from risk have to do with unmet needs in childhood. And the movie’s bunny-boiling scene—a paradigmatic example of another era’s take on women’s seduction threatening the American Dream—isn’t found in the Paramount+ reimagining. We’re presented with Dan (played by Joshua Jackson) undoubtedly choosing to wreck his own dream and home.

“[Alex] meant nothing,” Dan stammers at a parole hearing, and thus the series quickly finds its footing when it’s made clear that dismissing Alex and violating her emotional safety by feigning care was integral to his undoing. He’s incarcerated for murdering her, derided by his professional community, and estranged from his wife (Amanda Peet) and daughter (Vivien Lyra Blair/Alyssa Jirrels). Unlike the film, the series reveals that to his detriment and everyone else’s, Dan is without tools to understand his lifelong conditioning to use whatever and whomever he wishes; the depiction of his genuine surprise when held accountable for such behavior illuminates an important shift in the American conversation about how we issue summary punishment for malignantly entitled men.

What’s wrong with Dan? We never learn this in the film. Originally portrayed by Michael Douglas, Dan, an attorney, wore crisp white shirts and was just, simply, playing around—nothing appeared to be wrong with him. In contrast, the series backtracks fifteen years to reveal that his father, a well-respected judge, was emotionally abusive, and when Dan’s ego is assaulted by an unseized judgeship, we see he’s frustrated by his lack of power. Unaware that his low self-worth masquerades as arrogance, he asks a jury if a man on trial could “understand the nature and quality of his act, and, at the time of committing it, could he distinguish between right and wrong.” He later drives drunk, crashes, and walks away fine and anonymous with the help of a fixer (Toby Huss). This flagrancy welcomes Alex’s desperate maneuvering for his love. But it’s not enough love for her. And so power and love provoke each other in dueling sociosexual orientations, and if this attraction is fatal, the retelling ensures we know it’s because both lovers are taken to be sick. It seems Fatal Attraction doesn’t necessarily aim to stigmatize certain forms of neurodivergence; it starts off sensical as well as relevant by placing trauma in conversation with trauma. 

At first, there’s a measured polish to how Alex moves through the world that fulfills the trope of masterful jezebel possessing tricks that dazzle and destroy. This reiterates the film’s position that Dan never had a chance (except he does and always did). Ecstatic from the hot chemistry she feels with Dan, Alex clings to what she perceives may finally be real love after a lifetime of existing outside a loving nuclear family. For her, American heteronormative traditionalism is the ultimate validation, and believing in its possibility helped her survive parental abuse and abandonment. Knowing this about the character initially helps audiences emend the “crazy” label; trauma has left this person vulnerable and perceptibly unstable. We learn her psychiatric care had been sporadic throughout her life, and barriers now limit her access to it when she needs it the most. The series elucidates societal expectations of women of a certain age as well as frustrating and dangerous deficiencies within the American mental health care system that betray women like Alex—but then an intrusive, sinister score undoes most of the work it set out to do to adjust the perception of this woman. Are we supposed to fear her or sympathize with her? (We can do both: for example, Monster, which starred Oscar-winning Charlize Theron as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, doesn’t wring excitement from a story about a victim of lifelong sexual abuse turned murderous misandrist. Rather, writer-director Patty Jenkins explores a specific kind of suffering for a woman, and the sympathy we feel for Wuornos is grounded in the undeniable redemption we all seek for a specific kind of world we wish didn’t exist but does. It’s a risk to emotionally and intellectually negotiate with viewers this way, to make inseparable horror and recourse, but Jenkins does it with respect for her viewers and her subject.)

In the 1987 Fatal Attraction, Alex kills Dan’s daughter’s pet bunny, but here she murders his mother-in-law (Jessica Harper). He and the fixer discuss handling the crisis by contacting the FBI: “I want to tell them everything,” says Dan. “You don’t know what everything is yet” is the response, and then they stand in a shadowy room silently considering “yet.” Alex, in need of serious help, destroys a vehicle, lights a restaurant and house afire, and kidnaps his daughter. To end this affair and keep it buried, Dan knocks around and chokes Alex when days prior he was laughing and sleeping with her, and in this reversal, we understand how easily we can mistake the other person in need of serious help as the man in a crisp white shirt who is simply playing around.

How men like Dan move through the world is culturally scrutinized more than any other time in history. We interrogate the homewrecker paradigm and openly label the Dans who harm women with dishonest intentions. We also call out ghosting, which circumvents the emotional inconvenience of rejecting someone but ultimately confuses if not wounds the ghosted (the film’s classic “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan” makes a cameo). While passion is antithetical to self-consciousness, we’ve seen what’s messy about commixing attraction and betrayal play out in art via tropes that place vengeance at the center of resolution, as though lovers losing their minds is what’s most interesting about the illicit. And that’s offered here, indelicately juxtaposed with important questions, such as, How could we more vigorously challenge the societal structures that contribute to people behaving as though others are disposable? When are we going to uncomplicate seeking professional help? Dan needs to be sitting on a therapist’s couch somewhere too. Instead, as the solipsistic landscape of his inner world remains unmapped because it’s been normalized his entire life, he’s serving time for murder. Upon his release, he and the fixer set out to prove his innocence. There’s no humbling him, though; he reconnects with his family but shows zero appreciation for their pain. The show debuted during a remarkable time: while America confesses it has a pervasive and invasive problem with men’s loneliness, diminished relational skills, and discomfort with mutability, Fatal Attraction makes some sort of statement about men being complicit in perpetuating the notion that to not objectify a woman is emasculating. Clay (Michael Cassidy), Alex’s ex who’s familiar with her disordered childhood, admonishes Dan for exploiting her. To be sure, Alex is a killer and Dan is possibly not, but the scene illustrates a progressive call for men to take other men to task for failing to respect women and the intricacies of intimacy. 

Fatal Attraction does harness feminist tenets and vocabulary to exhibit moral laxity engineering serious ramifications, and it succeeds in reflecting a society that better recognizes and discusses accumulated and gendered power. It fails, however, to maintain this intended through line of conscientiousness. By episode five (out of eight), the aforementioned intrusive, sinister score accompanies Alex spilling bottles of psych meds into a bathroom sink, wild-eyed, sobbing, shrieking . . . we saw this stereotype decades ago. There’s a disappointing detexturizing of Alex, a flattening despite her histrionics that suffuses the final episodes, as though the show’s thesis was suddenly altered to accommodate a viewer who requested eighties melodrama. Observing no appreciable arc to Alex’s characterization today, Kael would probably say just bring on the boiling bunny already. 

The story of Fatal Attraction has been positioned for additional, thoughtful commentary for several years, but the melodrama is performative feminism. Exploring dicey sociopolitics, behaviorism, and animus serves to decode age-old bad behavior here, and it all could work if a woman’s at-first carefully explicated origin story weren’t ultimately (and needlessly) sensationalized. It’s the sex that’s supposed to promise cheap thrills, not trauma. 


Fatal Attraction. Created by Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes. Paramount+ Television, 2023.


Felice Arenas wrote Netflix synopses for a decade and covered cinema and music for HuffPost before earning her MFA from New York University, where she taught creative writing and was a Global Research Initiatives Fellow. She teaches editing at Berkeley. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Hub, Harvard Review, Stanford’s Mantis, and more. Born and raised in Chicago, she has lived in Los Angeles, New York, Brooklyn, and Shanghai.