“I like dark subjects,” meddling neighbor Margaux Castavet (Carole Bouquet) tells Guy Woodhouse (Patrick J. Adams) in part two of NBC’s Rosemary’s Baby. “I’d rather shiver than laugh.” Adapted from Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, the network’s new miniseries may well send a frisson of discomfort down your spine, though not for the reasons you’d expect. If you have even the faintest memory of Roman Polanski’s claustrophobic 1968 film, this sluggish remake will chill you to the bone. It’s ghastly, and not in the way horror should be.
What little interest the miniseries holds is of the sociological variety: One imagines future generations studying it for clues as to our current obsession with film-to-television adaptations, remakes, reboots, prequels, and sequels. The economic rationale for this heavy reliance on preexisting material is obvious. As long as the same old song costs less and earns more, media conglomerates will keep going back to the well. But understanding what cultural purpose a remake serves, particularly when it’s as lifeless as this one, proves more elusive. By shoehorning the eccentricities of Rosemary’s Baby into the straight-shooting prerequisites of ratings success, NBC commits a grievous error. Middlebrow may work for comedy, but horror operates most effectively up in the clouds of psychological distress or down in the muck of pulp and gore.
With an almost defiant blandness (it somehow manages to make Paris as charmless as a strip mall), Rosemary’s Baby attempts to please everyone, and is therefore likely to please no one. Indeed, whether it’s necessary (or possible) to consider the miniseries without reference to Polanski’s harrowing classic quickly becomes a moot point. Even on its own terms, NBC’s Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Agnieszka Holland from a script by Scott Abbott, offers virtually nothing by way of excitement, save for two grisly set pieces, each coded from a mile away, that promise only fleeting shocks.
As you may have gathered, though, familiarity breeds contempt, and it’s by comparison with the tightly wound second entry in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” that the miniseries appears such a daft idea. Structurally, stretching a tense two-hour narrative to three—four if you include commercial breaks—is unfathomable, particularly since the plot remains essentially the same. Neither streamlining the original nor expanding its universe, Holland and Abbott largely fill the additional time with Rosemary (Zoe Saldana) grimacing, Rosemary crying, Rosemary wandering haggardly around her apartment as though searching for the reason NBC decided to produce this remake in the first place.
The aesthetics are equally senseless. Against the original film’s disorienting, topsy-turvy compositions and stuffy, tattered production design, the miniseries resembles an Ikea catalogue, airy and sterile. The style, or lack thereof, works against the tale of psychological terrors to the point that the whole thing feels like a rebuke. (I had the good fortune to take a college course with Polanski’s director of photography, the late William A. Fraker, and I can say with some assurance that he’d be horrified by the miniseries.) As Rosemary and Guy gain entree into a world of prestige and wealth, aided by Margaux and her husband, Roman (Jason Isaacs), Rosemary’s Baby shows both too little and too much. The form of the miniseries scarcely alludes to any character’s inner life, except when it does so with some dreadfully obvious visual metaphor. In the early going, for instance, Rosemary experiences an erotic vision of Satanic sex at the Castavet manse and woozily braces herself against a wall. The painting behind her depicts—quelle surprise—a baby. Spoiler alert!
It’s this sort of ham-handedness that removes any remaining dregs of suspense from the proceedings, and by the time Guy laments to Roman that he “think[s] like a writer, but can’t actually write,” the line assumes a certain poignancy. In fact, the sole redeeming quality of Rosemary’s Baby may be this subconscious running commentary on its own pointlessness. One only wishes Holland and Abbott had made the Faustian deal that leads Guy to publish a brilliant novel and become a department chair at the Sorbonne, or heeded Roman’s tacit warning near the end of part one. “I wish I had that kind of power,” he says to Rosemary of his role in Guy’s meteoric rise. “Inspiration’s a mystery.” Unfortunately for us, it’s a mystery that Rosemary’s Baby fails to solve.