Ginnifer Goodwin’s yearning smile — it’s less an expression of emotion than a genial mask, deployed as she surveys the new Pasadena, California, mansion that her husband Rob (Sam Jaeger) has bought seemingly without her input. It tugs at the edges of her mouth when a vivacious neighbor wonders aloud why Rob treats Beth Ann (Goodwin) more like a maid than a wife, clicking his finger against his mug as a signal for her to get up and bring him coffee. This smile, with its dynamic suggestion of tender loneliness unspoken, is the secret weapon of Why Women Kill.
Created by Marc Cherry of Desperate Housewives fame, Why Women Kill trapezes through three wildly different time periods to tell a frothy tale of what happens when women have had enough and their anger spills out into the world around them. In 1963, Beth Ann is a prim, unendingly loyal housewife who discovers, thanks to her neighbor Sheila (Alicia Coppola), that her husband is cheating on her with a perky, blonde waitress, despite the loss of their daughter that binds them together. In 1984, Simone (Lucy Liu) is a rich, frivolous art-gallery owner who throws parties and shops with all the garish extravagance you’d expect of that decade, and whose perfect life is disrupted when she learns her third husband, Karl (Jack Davenport), is gay and has been cheating on her. And in the current day, Taylor (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is the most level-headed and secure of the trio, a powerful lawyer in an open marriage whose stability is threatened when it becomes clear that the woman she’s seeing on the side is more than a fling.
If all of these wildly different tones, moods, and time periods sound like they don’t quite add up to a cohesive story, that’s because they don’t, although the show fares far better in this week’s second episode than in its rocky pilot. There’s still room for the series to grow into itself, but in the first two episodes provided to critics, Why Women Kill exhibits a frustrating broadness where precision is necessary to balance all the competing story lines and gracefully tap into the heart of the matter: women’s anger, not just how it’s formed and experienced, but how it makes itself apparent in the world.
Why Women Kill is akin to an overly complicated craft cocktail, boasting an intriguing brightness, namely in the form of Goodwin’s performance, but lacking balance in its competing flavors. It’s full of baffling tonal and narrative decisions that undermine what does work about the show — a handful of the performances, the over-the-top, nearly camp production design, the costuming — and undercuts its dramatic potential with broad, nearly slapstick humor that distances us from the characters rather than illuminating who they are.
This is most evident in Beth Ann’s story line, which feels the most cohesive and intriguing despite the well-worn material. After learning of her husband’s affair, Beth Ann transmutes her sorrow into a single goal: fixing her marriage, which in her mind means changing herself. Beth Ann throws herself into the task of making herself more desirable to her husband, going shopping for Barbie-pink shoes and a magnificent dress and changing her hair for the first time in years. Rob notices none of it. So she tries to fix the unspoken fissures in their marriage by enlivening their sex life in an awkward scene that ends with Rob falling through the glass shower door and landing in the hospital. Rather than allowing viewers to sit with Beth Ann’s sorrow and untangle the bramble of her compulsion to put her husband before her own emotional well-being, her story is reduced to a note of low-level humor for the sake of injecting some shock value. But even with these prickling tonal issues, Goodwin’s performance is like a gravitational force, making certain scenes work better than they have the right to.
Less successful are the 1984 and 2019 story lines, but for very different reasons. The battle between Karl and Simone after she confronts him about his infidelity is done no favors by Liu’s performance, which is as garish as Simone’s glittering skirt suits with shoulder pads. Admittedly, there are moments when it works, like when, after we’re led to believe that Karl’s downed a bottle of pills, she yells, “You think you’re going to get out of this by dying? Fuck you!” before switching to a cheery disposition to call an ambulance with the distant kindness of someone making a dinner reservation. But there isn’t much to the character beyond this kind of humor, and it’s hard to tell if we’re meant to feel for Simone or laugh at her. Unfortunately, the first opportunity we’re given for insight into Simone’s character swerves into the series’s worst story-line development to this point: Simone sleeping with the young-as-hell son of one of her friends, something that’s framed as empowering rather than predatory.
Even more confusing is where the 2019 story line — which lacks the visual boldness and humor of the other segments, often feeling like it’s cut from another show entirely — fits into everything. Here, it’s not the performances that are the problem, it’s the perspective. The first two episodes of Why Women Kill both begin with men talking, which in and of itself is a strange choice in a show that positions itself as a purveyor of female catharsis. In the 2019 segment it is Eli who is lied to and manipulated by his wife, rather than the other way around, and it’s his character whose perspective and yearnings are most fleshed out. Howell-Baptiste imbues Taylor with an appealing spikiness, but the narrative is still cloudy about who she is and what she wants out of her life and marriage. To make matters worse, a threesome in the second episode focuses on Eli’s desire, and the way the camera ogles Alexandra Daddario’s Jade, the other woman in a relationship with Taylor, led me to wonder if this show is as much for women as it is being marketed as.
It’s here that the show stumbles over its greatest obstacle to getting this high-wire act right: its lack of a solid voice. Is this supposed to be a balance of dark comedy with true emotional stakes? Is this meant to be confection you aren’t supposed to take too seriously? And if this is really about granting entertaining catharsis, shouldn’t we understand these women more as human beings rather than stock archetypes? Like Beth Ann’s smile masks her festering unhappiness, so, too, does Why Women Kill’s broad humor distract from the fact that it has yet to figure out something meaningful to say.