I will admit that when I sat down to watch Bonnie and Clyde — not the great 1967 Arthur Penn film, but the new two-part miniseries that was apparently so ambitious as to necessitate the collaboration of Lifetime, History, and A&E — it was largely because I was curious to see if it could possibly be as misogynistic as many reviews made it out to be. Erin McCann, at the Guardian, sums up the general reaction: “There are feminist outlines to this Bonnie Parker, who compares herself to Amelia Earhart and makes sure the local reporters know she’s in the game every bit as much as Clyde. But she is crippled by writers who seem to have gained their understanding of feminism from frat houses and men’s rights forums on the darkest corners of the internet.”
And yet, as I watched the first half of Bonnie and Clyde play out, it became clear to me that misogyny isn’t even the half of what “cripples” Bonnie’s character in particular or the project as a whole — it’s the sheer incompetence of the miniseries’ writers, director, and, in some cases, actors, on a level that’s increasingly rare among major TV productions. Yes, the moment when Holliday-Grainger-in-a-beret accosts a female reporter to insist that her participation in an armed bank robbery is a feminist triumph on par with Earhart’s aviation career is exceedingly bizarre. Certainly, it’s a puzzling (and historically flimsy) choice for this remake to distinguish itself from Penn’s paradigm-shifting film by casting Parker as the driving force behind the couple’s infamous crime spree. To dwell on that, though, is to miss the point a bit.
In fact, the miniseries’ gender trouble is hardly limited to Bonnie. If her character is a malicious misrepresentation of feminism (personally, I’d argue that it’s a representation too stupid to be entirely intentional), then its male characters are a seemingly pointless cautionary tale about emasculation. We see our hero’s father carrying a baby and cooking dinner in a scene that is clearly meant to help explain why Clyde grows up to let a pretty girl lead him into damnation. Later, we watch as Clyde is raped in prison, a plot point that’s both sexist and homophobic in that it only serves the purpose of reinforcing already established ideas about his weakness. And just in case you were in danger of taking it too seriously, it’s juxtaposed with a flowery bit of creative writing by Bonnie that could make you puke.
But we can’t view these moments in isolation; they represent only a few of the many decisions that elevate Bonnie and Clyde past everyday badness into the realm of the gloriously, entertainingly terrible. It announces its awfulness right in the opening credits, when an egregiously miscast Emile Hirsch’s Clyde Barrow whispers, “I’ve always loved you, Bonnie,” as though from beyond the grave. This is what I like to think of as Lifetime’s impact on Bonnie and Clyde, the aspect that feels like it’s been ripped from any old romance novel. It’s only a little while later that nine-year-old Clyde has a vision of Bonnie, a fully grown seductress in an angelic white dress, the first in a series of melodramatically rendered prophetic illusions that haunt him throughout his life. And when the notorious bandits finally do fall in love, it’s presented in a way so hacky it’s actually revelatory: a slow-motion dance scene in which time seems to stop in deference to these two doomed lovers.
What really give Bonnie and Clyde camp-classic potential, though, are Bonnie’s “fits.” It has to be difficult for even the best actors to portray a panic attack — and poor Grainger is, unfortunately, not Oscar material to begin with. Over and over again, we see her seize up and heave and shake as though there’s someone above her pulling invisible strings. Perhaps especially for those of us familiar enough with chronic anxiety to realize it rarely plays out quite this dramatically, these moments are rib-achingly funny. Even more hilarious is the eye-poppingly schlocky flashback that follows her first fit, of four-year-old Bonnie hamming it up with a musical number at her father’s funeral. This is “NO MORE WIRE HANGERS”-level stuff.
Sure, the gender politics are abhorrent (albeit too broadly drawn to take seriously) and there are many long, boring stretches of plotlessness that seem designed to qualify what should have been a two-hour made-for-TV-movie for that much more sophisticated designation: miniseries. But Bonnie and Clyde also appears to be an increasingly rare work of entirely earnest camp — and the kind of thing that everyone who wasted time on the intentionally bad Sharknado should consider carving out time to enjoy.