The concept of gaslighting is not a recent term, the word originated from a 1938 play (and subsequent film adaptation of the same name six years later) in which a man slowly manipulates his wife into thinking she’s going mad. The term has become a sort of buzzword in the last decade as its usage has soared, now sometimes even being used mistakenly in wrong situations. While the colloquialism comes from the literal usage of a gas light to promote the protagonist’s confusion, it now has a more recognized definition that includes manipulation of information to make a victim question their sanity.
Gaslighting has become a popular part of books and films over the past decade, the mystery genre squeezing every bit of life out of the plot device. What’s more interesting is that this is mostly used against female characters in stories (or, at least, that’s what’s very popular right now). Recent films like 2016’s The Girl on the Train (based on the book of the same name) and 2018’s Unsane use this against their female protagonist to discredit the character across the narrative, usually only to find out that they have been obfuscating information, but not necessarily entirely wrong. It’s only fitting that someone would eventually make fun of this.
Enter Netflix’s new limited series, The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window. A long-winded title, sure, but the name itself suggests a skewering satire. Tailor-made for fans like similar titles to last year’s The Woman in the Window (a Netflix release, no less) and fans of mysteries that center around the mental unraveling and gaslighting of a female protagonist, The Woman in the House tells a story that balances complicated themes with satirical prowess.
Kristen Bell plays Anna, an artist who spends her days drinking wine and taking baths while pondering existentialisms (thinking to herself things like “when your past is so present, how can there be a future?”). Anna is a woman who makes too many casseroles, dropping most of them, and stands up blind dates due to the deep depression she suffers from after the loss of her daughter. Bell plays Anna thoughtfully, evoking perfect comedic timing while also delivering contemplative lines about the loss her character has suffered.
The series shines in these moments, bringing in popular mystery tropes that are either subverted or blended with satirical moments to create a newer approach to the old tropes. It isn’t just Bell, either – Mary Holland and Tom Reilly bring their own depth and humor to their roles, Holland playing Anna’s perpetually-worried-about-her friend and Reilly playing Anna’s newest neighbor that moves in across the street with his daughter. Bell does shine in her role, though, creating a character riddled in grief that finally feels ready to attempt to move on before seeing something sinister that she thinks is real.
There is mystery upon mystery in the show, different questions being asked as the narrative swiftly passes by (the entire thing is a very bingeable 196 minutes). Made to be paired with a glass of wine, the series challenges the audience to solve the mystery while Anna attempts to figure out what’s real and what isn’t. The series uses visual gags as well as carefully crafted dialogue to insert an intravenous line of humor into the show, bringing much-needed levity to an otherwise dark story. The sight gags are used for big laughs in the show, whether it be something subtle as filling up a wine glass to the brim or as over-the-top as Anna flicking a wine bottle’s cork into a bowl overflowing with corks. Bell leads the wonderful cast, each person bringing their own comedic sensibilities to their roles. This is especially true for Mary Holland, who gives yet another supporting performance that begs the question: why isn’t Mary Holland in everything?
It does take a couple of episodes to get into the real mystery, but it isn’t to the show’s detriment. The first episode of the series serves its purpose, allowing the audience into Anna’s life and mind. This familiarizes the audience with Anna, making it even easier to question her reality when she does. The Woman in the House does a good job of creating an atmosphere around Anna that identifies her as a lonely woman who seemingly just wants to do some good in the world. While asking questions, the show gives enough answers to keep viewers on the edge of their seats as the stakes get higher and higher.
At the end of the second episode, the big mystery begins. Anna is drinking a large pour of wine and looking out her window at a neighbor’s house – as one does – when she sees something violent and horrifying… or does she? The next six episodes are spent finding out the truth: did Anna see a violent crime across the street, or are the police right in saying that nothing actually happened? Is it just a combination of medication and alcohol, or was Anna right?
With twists and turns that will have you guessing until the very end, The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window brings a familiar concept and switches the narrative. The entire cast handles the material in great form, but it’s Bell’s lead performance that anchors the show. Bell does what she’s best at, giving a great performance that could only come from such a talented actress. The writing is original, subverting and adding to old tropes and bringing new life into them. This new limited series will have you going for a glass of wine or calling your therapist.
The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window premieres globally on Netflix January 28.
Photo: Colleen E. Hayes/Netflix