Marc Cherry has made a career out of writing about and creating series for women—from his earliest days writing Golden Girls episodes, to crafting the scandal-filled world of Desperate Housewives, to the tight bonds that united Devious Maids. In Cherry’s latest series, Why Women Kill, he’s still writing about women, but this time, his greatest error is tactical: His three leads are stuck in different timelines from each other, leaving them unable to take advantage of the female camaraderie so vital to Cherry’s other series.
Still, it’s a clever setup: The three storylines take place in the same Pasadena house (mansion), but in separate decades: 1963, 1984, and 2019. To help the 50-years-later viewer feel more at home in the mid-20th century, the 1963 husband (Sam Jaeger) is named Rob, so that his wife Beth Ann (Ginnifer Godwin)’s first line is “Oh, Rob,” straight out of The Dick Van Dyke Show. And her hair is the same shade of red as Lucy’s on I Love Lucy. Unfortunately, that’s where those similarities end, as Rob and Beth Ann are too placid to be exceedingly entertaining. And we’ve already seen the tightly-wound-domestic-goddess-turned-potentially-homicidal before in Cherry’s work: There are definite shades of Desperate Housewives’ Bree in outwardly perfect Beth Ann, though the latter is much nicer.
The next time zone fares the best of the three: Lucy Liu is at her campy best as Simone, a shoulder-pad-wearing, jewels-drenched diva who discovers a devastating secret about her husband. She then starts flirting with a much younger man from the neighborhood and yes, we’ve seen that, too, in Desperate Housewives’ very first episode. But at least Liu, paired with the terminally dashing Jack Davenport, is having fun with the part, firing off one-liners like Bette Davis in All About Eve and sporting Day-Glo Lycra at aerobics class like a lost GLOW cast member. And Simone and her friends are all delightfully catty, with an exchange like this being typical: “Don’t I have the nicest husband?” “I don’t know—Ed died and left me six million. That was pretty nice.”
The 2019 plot gets props for feeling current, as Taylor (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Eli (Reid Scott) attempt to make their polyamorous marriage work even as Taylor’s extremely attractive hookup, Jade (Alexandra Daddario), moves into the house. What happens when emotions creep into extramarital escapades, as Eli puts it, messing with “the sacred institution known as open marriage”? It’s somewhat uncharted and intriguing territory for even a streaming network drama. And the streaming part enables WWK to get away with provocative things that would likely not fly on a regular CBS show, like a group shot of people in bed, extremely suggestive shower scenes, and the gratuitous use of the word “fuck.” As Beth Ann’s neighbor Sheila (Alicia Coppola) counsels her in 1963, “Sex is how women gain power over men—and there is nothing humiliating about that.”
No-nonsense Sheila is a highlight of the series, an example of the women-supporting-women theme that has been Cherry’s hallmark. Unfortunately, she’s a rarity: Simone can’t count on any of her gossiping tribe, and Taylor is sleeping with Jade, which definitely complicates things. WWK tries valiantly to unite the three separate stories via careful editing, parallel plot points (all three timelines featuring a shower at the same time, for example), and most importantly, the Pasadena manse all these couples (or “throuples”) call home. It’s a credit to the set designer that the same house can nail the pristine domestic pinnacle of 1963, the opulent purple extravagance of 1984, and the rustic chic of 2019. But limiting so many scenes to the same set makes these plots seem even more insular, and ultimately isolated, contributing to a feeling of detachment from these characters. Mary-Alice’s voice-over could get annoying at times on Desperate Housewives, but here a universal omniscient narrator might have been a welcome uniting force. Plus there are plot points that don’t add up: How can a new neighbor possibly identify a man who’s been having an affair with a diner waitress if they’ve only just met? How was one of the wives’ friends able to procure compromising photo-booth photos of her spouse?
If you can get past those speed bumps, there’s still a lot to explore here. Not only in the changing attitudes toward sexuality, which get markedly looser as the decades pass, but even in the states of domesticity and how they can affect male-female relationships. Rob starts the series enthusiastically praising his wife for how well she takes care of him, even sewing on a button for him. Fifty-odd years later, some of Eli’s attraction to Jade is based in that same domesticity, as she makes his house seem more like a home—and also sews buttons, which he says brings out his “inner caveman.”
Besides exploring these concepts over decades, the murder part of the series is an extremely attractive hook to hang 10 episodes on, as—in classic Cherry fashion—the mystery of who dies at the end and by whose hand is poured on so thick, the viewer may be drawn into the show’s unfurling episodes just to see how everything turns out. At the 2019 Television Critics Association summer press tour, Cherry stated, alongside his cast onstage, that there will be “three deaths at the end of the series, and they will all be committed by women. But it’s not necessarily the three women on this stage. The victims are not necessarily the men on this stage, and interesting enough, not one person will be killed because of infidelity. Infidelity is just the starting point for these journeys of self‑discovery.”
Cherry also promised that Why Women Kill will “bring it all together in the final episode in a really glorious, surprising way... because we find a really fascinating way to connect these three characters. But I don’t want to spoil that because it’s delicious.” Again, sounds promising enough to spend the waning weeks of the summer with this slick, shiny female-focused soap opera. But it’s too bad that apparently we have to wait until the end of the season for these characters to connect. It’s obvious from the start of the series that they really could have benefited from each other.