Dead Ringers (premiering Apr. 21 on Prime Video) accomplishes less in six hours than what David Cronenberg’s 1988 feature film did in two—an example of subtraction by addition that’s indicative of modern streaming services’ approach to expansive adaptation. Handsomely mounted, well-performed, and modestly engaging, it puts forth great effort and care to achieve inferior redundancy. Or, to state the issue more plainly via a quote from one of its characters, “Why are we doing this again?”
The answers are as obvious as they are dispiriting. First, just as Cronenberg’s thriller provided Jeremy Irons with the chance to play yin-yang twins Elliot and Beverly Mantle, so does Alice Birch’s six-part mini-series grant Rachel Weisz that same opportunity. This time, however, Dead Ringers has the benefit of enhanced digital effects that make the proceedings’ central duplicative stunt less impressive than Cronenberg’s cine-sleight of hand from three decades earlier.
More pressingly, though, it affords Prime Video (and everyone involved) established—and thus easily marketable—material that requires only invention through distension. And distended it is, as swollen as the pregnant women whom gynecologists Elliot and Beverly treat at their hospital, when they’re not also tending to women with fertility issues that they believe could be better served at their own as-yet-unrealized private clinic.
Again based on Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s book Twins (which fictionalized the true-life tale of Stewart and Cyril Marcus), Dead Ringers gender-flips its protagonists and, in a departure from Irons’ twins, has them actually deliver babies—the dreariest twist possible, if one that’s not wholly out of place. For those familiar with Cronenberg’s celebrated body-horror gem, the main attraction will be seeing all the ways in which Birch has changed things around. Those fans should prepare for disappointment, given that at just about every turn, the series’ novelties are either superfluous, substandard, groan-worthy, or all three at once.
In this modernization, Beverly has been recast as a lesbian, Elliot makes a snarky comment about someone being “woke,” and the origins of women’s medicine are posited as explicitly racist (and misogynistic) in nature. But because Cronenberg’s film is, in its own idiosyncratic way, perfect, there’s no reason for Birch’s Dead Ringers to make any of these alterations except that it has to do something to justify its own existence. By now, this is a common problem with streaming do-overs, and it renders much of this saga a case study in messing with a good thing out of seeming necessity rather than inspiration.
Set in a present-day Manhattan that’s nonetheless imagined in vague ’80s terms—courtesy of everyone’s fashion sense and décor, as well as the absence of cell phones—Dead Ringers concerns gyno-superstar sisters Elliot and Beverly, the former bestowed with outgoing, charming, reckless sexual charisma and the latter her muted, serious, conservative doppelgänger. They’re conjoined not corporeally but in heart and soul, perfect complements that are only whole when together.
That dynamic is destabilized by the appearance of actress Genevieve (Britne Oldford), whom Elliot seduces for Beverly (per their duplicitous identity-swapping routine), only to then see Beverly fall in love with the star, thereby threatening the siblings’ union. Beverly and Genevieve’s romance additionally gets in the way of Elliot’s years-long attempt to artificially impregnate her sister—a thread whose quasi-incestuous quality is reflected in Elliot’s masculine name and an opening scene during which they caustically respond to a man who wants to see them have sex with each other.
At the same time, the twins are on a mission to secure funding for their dream-project clinic from Rebecca (Jennifer Ehle), a billionaire Big Pharma cretin—her clan is responsible for the opioid crisis—who functions as a vehicle for the show to score sharp (if easy) points against the upper-crust elite, as well as to accentuate the moral gray area that Beverly fears and Elliot embraces.
Elliot believes she can create babies (and enhance youth by delaying menopause) through illegal Frankensteinian genetics, and thus she takes to Rebecca’s unprincipled ethos. This puts her at odds with colleague Tom (Michael Chernus) and Beverly, although only in ways that prove tediously temporary, as the series indulges in a lot of back-and-forths that do little to propel it to its finish line.
Elliot and Beverly contend with a visit from their parents—contributing to the action’s flimsy undercurrent about disaffected motherhood—and spend time with an ambitious reporter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) and a creepy Southern-gentleman colleague (Michael McKeon). All the while, Elliot fumes, freaks out, and eventually goes off the substance-abuse deep end, because of her jealous bitterness over Beverly shacking up with Genevieve.
The sisters’ relationship remains co-dependent to the extreme. But despite Elliot’s profane and X-rated blather and some sporadically squirm-inducing sights of natural and C-section childbirth, very little of the material plays as body horror. As a result, its bedrock concerns about separation, division, and conception feel toothless and stretched thin; the series wastes hours on detours and dilemmas that could have been discarded without any appreciable loss.
Like Irons before her, Weisz is a marvel in Dead Ringers, embodying Elliot and Beverly as fully distinct—and yet fundamentally connected—individuals engaged in a psychosexual tug-of-war with themselves and each other. Nonetheless, the actress’ performance can’t save the show from its litany of gratuitous diversions, be it Elliot’s crazy confrontation with a homeless woman; Beverly’s attendance at a support group, where she talks about her sister’s death; or the strange behavior of the siblings’ maid, Greta (Poppy Liu).
In light of all the thematic statements made throughout Dead Ringers, a lot of its plot comes across as unnecessary filler. It’s not helped by a prestige-TV aesthetic—all pristine, muted-color glossiness—that’s a far cry from Cronenberg’s clinical chilliness.
Proficiently directed by Sean Durkin, Karyn Kusama, Lauren Wolkstein, and Karena Evans, Dead Ringers neither lives up to its ancestor nor stands on its own as a uniquely demented work. Failing to do anything invigorating with its newly feminized POV, it squanders Weisz’s sterling turn and, in the process, its shot at transforming familiar flesh into something new.
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