When is a rabbit an Easter egg? When it hops onscreen in “Fatal Attraction,” the oddly tranquil new series inspired by the infamous, bunny-boiling 1987 film of the same title.
It’s not a major spoiler to report that this little white cutie avoids the stockpot. Gentle homage to the tawdry, garishly effective original — one of the primary reasons no one calls their productions “erotic thrillers” anymore — is the rule. No one is drowned in a bathtub, but there is a joking reference to the inadvisability of having a tub in the house.
Nearly everything about this new “Fatal Attraction,” whose eight-episode season premieres Sunday on Paramount+, has been toned down, often to the point of torpor. The only thing that retains the original’s raciness is the new version of the echt-’80s title font — the “Fatal” still looks like a signature scrawled on a bar tab between bumps of cocaine.
Major surgery was inevitable for source material that turned a single, sexually active woman into a horror-movie monster who threatened the sanctity of a suburban family. If that weren’t sufficiently toxic by 2020s standards, the film also cleverly framed the woman’s psychosis as feminism run amok, generating sympathy for the poor upper-middle-class, white male sap who stumbled into an affair with her.
So Alexandra Cunningham (“Dirty John,” “Desperate Housewives”) and Kevin J. Hynes (“Perry Mason”), working with the film’s writer, James Dearden, have reimagined “Fatal Attraction” in myriad ways, none of which are erotic and few of which are thrilling. From the moment Dan Gallagher — played by a disheveled, halting Joshua Jackson, subbing in for the sleek Michael Douglas of the film — kicks off the series by shuffling into a parole hearing, the show feels as if it’s shouldering a responsibility, weighed down by the need to apologize for Hollywood’s past misconduct.
Dan is up for parole because in this new universe, he has served 15 years for the murder of his stalker, Alex Forrest (Lizzy Caplan). Responding not just to shifting mores but also to the demands of serial storytelling — the show runs close to a full eight hours — Cunningham and Hynes have turned “Fatal Attraction” into a murder mystery, as Dan, a former Los Angeles prosecutor, tries to figure out who really killed Alex while awkwardly reconciling with his ex-wife, Beth (Amanda Peet), and daughter, Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels).
The mystery plays out in leisurely L.A.-noir style, introducing clouds of suspects as the show jumps back and forth in time and stretches out its thin narrative by replaying entire episodes from different points of view. The temporal shifts also serve to educate both Dan and the audience about the noxious privilege and entitlement that precipitated his downfall. (This portion of the show benefits greatly from the presence of Toby Huss as Mike, Dan’s best friend and a former cop who was collateral damage in Dan’s debacle.)
But apparently converting “Fatal Attraction” into a reasonably diverting crime drama wasn’t enough to remove the stain of the original. So the series also offers an elaborate psychodramatic narrative embellishment — a sort of study guide — expressed in frequent discussions of the work of Carl Jung and his collaborator Toni Wolff. Ellen, in the present, is a psychology student, and we also hear recitations of the fairy tales she delights in as a child. The allegorical, slightly metafictional notions are rammed home: a character who gives Ellen a book of tales is called “an actual fairy godmother”; a pet dog is named Ziggy, short for Sigmund.
Ellen’s research leads her to reassess the behavior of her father’s murdered nemesis, and the greatest labor this “Fatal Attraction” takes on is its effort to turn Alex into an understandable, even sympathetic, character. Dan is a chastened version of the narcissistic jerk Douglas played in the film, but the vivid hysteria of Glenn Close’s Oscar-nominated performance as Alex is mostly replaced in Caplan’s version by a jumpy vulnerability, and Alex now gets a back story to explain her sociopathic obsessiveness.
This virtue-signaling therapy noir manages, in its peculiarly studious way, to meld the racy ’80s and the censorious ’20s, and it’s not exactly hard to watch. It is competently made and nice to look at, it has a knockoff version of a languorous Southern California vibe, and Caplan and Jackson are both engaging. (Jackson gets extra credit — he has to compensate for hideous haircuts in both the past and present time lines.) They get good support from a large cast that includes Huss, Toks Olagundoye as one of Dan’s former co-workers, Vivien Lyra Blair as the young Ellen and the scream queen Dee Wallace as the owner of the rabbit.
What’s missing is the metabolism, the transgressive energy and — at least in the context of its time — the glossy sexiness that the director Adrian Lyne brought to the film. The thing you wonder as you watch the series isn’t why they made the changes they did, but why they bothered making the show at all. Wasn’t there other intellectual property in the Paramount vaults that would have made the jump more easily? (It worked for “Top Gun,” after all.)
And what’s noticeable is that despite all the modifications, Cunningham and Hynes didn’t change the basic emotional and psychological architecture: The crucial moments are still Alex’s bursts of antisocial behavior and Dan’s violent reaction to them, and the story is still strung on those slasher-film tentpoles. (If you’ve seen the original, you’ll know exactly when a particular pair of eyes is going to pop open, even though the moment is campy and completely out of character with the rest of the series.) They did their best to scrub the misogyny out of “Fatal Attraction,” but at the end of the day it’s still about the fear of a crazy lady.