Friday, April 21, 2023

Dead Ringers, on Prime

Yes, it is another reboot gender-switcheroo, but in this case, Stewart and Cyril Marcus probably would not object, even if they could. They were the late identical twin gynecologists, whose mysterious deaths inspired the novel that was later adapted by David Cronenberg as Dead Ringers. Weirdly, this series remake-reboot-re-conception is more disturbingly graphic than Cronenberg’s film—way more. A lot is different, but at least they still have the crimson red surgical smocks in showrunner-writer Alice Birch’s six-part Dead Ringers, which premieres today on Prime.

Beverly and Elliot are still sort of strangely unisex names, since the latter has reportedly become more popular for girls in recent years. Regardless, the Mantle twins remain physically identical, but psychologically weird in very different ways. Beverly thinks she is the shy one, but her passive aggression is also quite manipulative. In contrast, Elliot’s foul-mouthed aggression comes right at people. She sees herself as Beverly’s protector and sometimes procurer, helping her shy sister lure lovers, with the understanding they will be quickly disposed of.

Much to Elliot’s surprise, Genevieve (presumably named as a hat-tip to Genevieve Bujold, who co-starred in Cronenberg’s film) is different. Once Elliot handles their first “date,” Beverly starts swooning for her new lover, even considering a long-term commitment with her. The resulting strain on their sibling relationship is exacerbated by the stress of opening their state-of-the-art birthing center, with capital supplied by Rebecca Parker, a truly toxic pharma heiress, who plays the part of philanthropist, but it really just working her own angles.

As issues arise at the new center, the shoot-from-the-hip Elliot grows increasingly unstable. Heck, maybe she even kills a homeless woman, but to be fair, she was even more obnoxious than Elliot. Regardless, Birch and the writers and directors play a lot of games with the twins’ perceptions of reality that undermine the main narrative rather than enhance it.

However, there is a good chance most viewers will not get that far. Frankly, the first episode almost entirely consists of harrowing birth complications and crude sexual conversations that make it an uncomfortably repetitive viewing experience to endure.

This should go without saying, but doctors should not sleep with their patients. Even if you gloss over the Beverly-Genevieve relationship, there is a lot of virtue signaling on behalf women’s health in Birch’s
Dead Ringers that basically deconstructs on closer viewing. The Mantles are constantly talking about making their birth center feel safe and welcoming to pregnant women, but every examination room and operating theater seems to have observation windows any passer-by can open. Seriously, what is that all about?

Yet, there are flashes of inspired writing in the series, particularly two scenes, in which a mystery woman and a disgraced journalist both strip off Elliot’s façade and utterly expose her tortured psyche. Unfortunately, that quality is fleeting. Soon, the series repeats the same melodrama, driven by Elliot’s potty mouth, Beverly’s neurotic twitching, and their test tube horror shows. This story would be better executed in feature length, as indeed it was, by Cronenberg.

Yes, Rachel Weisz is frighteningly committed in the dual role of the Mantles, creating two very distinct, deeply troubled personas. However, they are both so much, it is hard to believe either could function or be accepted professionally in the real world. (In contrast, Jeremy Irons’ before-Mantles at least projected the appearance of learned competence.) Jennifer Ehle’s ice-cold snark as Parker is highly amusing, but way too abrasive to be credible in a serious dramatic context.

Weisz is putting on a show, but she needed a more focused framework. She and the series also needed more of Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, whose sly humor as Silas Jordan, the journalist of dubious repute, adds a grounding reality check to his scenes that the rest of series lacks. Right, big surprise, I’m identifying with the cynical writer, but he truly is the smartest, most realistic character on the screen.

Honestly, not every IP needs to be remade and of those that make the cut, not all need to be gender-swapped. In this case, it seems self-defeating, since the Mantles are so irresponsible, unethical, and self-centered, they would perversely make a good case for putting the “patriarchy” back in charge of medicine. More to the point, this take needed more smarts to go with all the yuck. Not recommended,
Dead Ringers starts streaming today (4/21) on Prime.