Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episodes of the week for March 17 through 23 are “La Maison du Bon Rêve” and “Teeth,” the first two episodes of Hulu’s The Act.
The chief storytelling advantage that TV has over most other narrative forms is time. Its stories can unfold over years, in something approaching real time, and it effectively controls how you experience that passage of time, even if you’re marathoning an entire series over the course of a week or three. A movie is always finite, and you control how fast you read a novel. But a long-running TV show can almost feel like inviting a new friend into your life for a while, then watching as they grow and change.
But time has also become something of an enemy of TV in the streaming era. Throw a dart at your Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon home screen and you’ll find a series that ran for 10 episodes but should have only been six, or a series that ran for six episodes but should have been a two-hour movie. While there are still plenty of shows that use all of their time well, in this wild new TV world they seem fewer and farther between.
For a while, I wondered if Hulu’s The Act was another series with too much time and not enough story to tell. The true-crime limited series, which is adapting Michelle Dean’s 2016 BuzzFeed article about the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard (Dean is co-creator with Channel Zero’s Nick Antosca), will unspool over eight episodes. I’ve seen five of those episodes, and though I’ll be discussing only the first two in this article, I’ll warn you that by episodes four and five, it’s easy to worry that the show is running out of story.
And yet at the same time, The Act’s languorous rhythms become a perverse attraction. It opens the front door to a house where a very toxic relationship is unfolding, then asks you to step in and sit for a while. Whether you accept that invitation is up to you.
Hulu: Home of the binge series as dare
The series The Act most reminds me of is The Handmaid’s Tale, not just because both series are on Hulu but because both series have ultra-intimate focuses that all but dare you to sit and watch them in a marathon session. How much misery in Gilead can you put up with? For me, a couple of hours at a time, but I know people who binged the entire series so far over a long, horrifying weekend. The Act may prove a similar endurance challenge.
At the core of the series is a warped and deeply broken mother-daughter relationship. Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette) deeply loves her daughter, Gypsy Rose (Joey King), but Gypsy is very, very sick, and Dee Dee has sacrificed or abandoned everything about herself that isn’t caring for Gypsy’s every need.
Yet if you were to open Dee Dee’s medicine cabinet and examine the pill bottles containing the medication she dispenses to Gypsy to treat the girl’s many ailments, you’d start to suspect something’s not right. Some of the bottles are labeled “Sleepy Baby,” and even a child as sick as Gypsy is wouldn’t require row after row after row after row of pills.
What’s more, Gypsy is beginning to question the things her mother has told her. If she’s allergic to sugar, as Dee Dee insists, then why can she eat whipped cream? And why is she confined to a wheelchair if she is able to walk so easily?
To its credit, The Act doesn’t hide that Gypsy isn’t actually sick and that Dee Dee is creating these ailments for reasons impossible to explain, as anyone who’s familiar with the original BuzzFeed story — or with HBO’s true-crime documentary about Dee Dee and Gypsy, Mommy Dead and Dearest — will recall.
Whether or not they know the basics of the Blanchards’ real-life tale, fans of HBO’s Sharp Objects and the Mischa Barton scene in The Sixth Sense will recognize that it’s Dee Dee, and not Gypsy, who is afflicted — with the psychological disorder Munchausen syndrome by proxy, wherein a caretaker ensures that someone in their care remains sick and vulnerable, when they would otherwise be able to care for themselves. And Gypsy could very much care for herself.
What’s more, the series doesn’t hide that something terrible happens to Dee Dee in its first two hours, opening with neighbors alerting authorities to the Blanchard house, where Dee Dee’s corpse turns out to be lying facedown in her bed. Something horrible unfolded here, and as the show flashes between the police investigation of the murder and a point a few years prior when Dee Dee and Gypsy befriend some new neighbors, it begins to close that noose a little more tightly.
But as with The Handmaid’s Tale, the question you might find yourself asking while watching The Act is whether you really want to be in that house, watching as Dee Dee uses what control she has over Gypsy to keep the girl from living her own life. King, who is terrific, speaks in a high-pitched near-squeal, so Gypsy constantly seems vulnerable, allowing Dee Dee to better obfuscate everything about her daughter, from Gypsy’s physical well-being to even her age.
And Arquette, who knows a thing or two about playing women driven by some unexplained dark urge within themselves (having played such a character just a few months ago in Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora) is so good at nailing the moment during every doctor’s visit, during every stopover at a friend’s house, during every social encounter, in which Dee Dee flips the power dynamic on a dime and demands that Gypsy re-surrender to her control before others catch on to what’s happening.
The direction of The Act’s first two episodes (by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre) only underlines this suffocation. Most shots are chosen to isolate Gypsy and Dee Dee both from the rest of the world and from each other, within their own home.
In particular, I love a shot late in episode one when Dee Dee is talking to some neighbors at a party, and in the background, out of focus, we can see Gypsy raising a can of Coke to her lips. When Dee Dee snaps to and stops Gypsy from taking a sip, thus preserving her deceptions about Gypsy’s supposed “sugar allergy,” the camera’s focus also snaps so that we, too, can see Gypsy clear as day.
The shot forces viewers to see the world the way Dee Dee does. The only way she can keep the life she loves — with her daughter by her side, in a surprisingly large home built by a charity, in a world where everyone is ready to celebrate Gypsy just for being as sick as she is but somehow still alive — is to maintain laser-sharp focus on where her daughter is and what her daughter is doing at all times, to make Gypsy a prisoner of the woman who’s supposed to love her most.
But do you want to go into that sprawling home, to sit with these people in this broken relationship? And how long do we have to live there before fascination turns to fetishization of suffering?
The Act is infused with a slow-drip poison that’s both thematically appropriate and incredibly hard to watch
It’s so easy to cross the line from being a dark story filled with despair so that we might better understand the parts of ourselves that could lead us to do awful things (or better understand how we might cope with others doing awful things to us), and being a dark story that wallows in despair in a way that becomes sordid and unappetizing — especially because that line will be different for every single viewer.
Across five episodes, The Act never quite went too far for me, as it kept finding new angles on its very difficult-to-watch story. But I’ve talked to other critics who just couldn’t stomach spending so much time watching a mother slowly suffocate her daughter’s spirit. The show makes occasional efforts to create other characters outside of the Blanchards, like AnnaSophia Robb and Chloë Sevigny as neighbors who suspect something’s up with the family but can never quite prove it, but the show’s core is watching Arquette and King act out this magnificently toxic horror story.
So The Act feels rather like chewing slowly on a piece of poisoned taffy, hoping to release the venom so incrementally that you avoid ever succumbing to it. But, of course, poison is poison, and no matter how careful you are not to let it enter your system too rapidly, you’ll still have to find a way to purge it in the end. The poison of The Act is thematically appropriate for Dee Dee and Gypsy’s relationship, both literally and metaphorically. But it’s still poison.
The Act carries with it everything that has become slightly mawkish and unwholesome about true crime in an era when we’re inundated with it — particularly the fact that all of the events it chronicles happened to real people, that a real girl was made ill by a real mother, that the mother was stabbed many times in the back, but we’re now meant to consume it as entertainment. But it stops short of becoming, say, Lifetime’s recent, overly melodramatic version of this same story (which really was a two-hour movie) through sheer commitment to craft.
And yet these events really did happen, to real people, and no matter how beautifully constructed The Act is, it’s hard not to feel like it exists to be gawked at. Through almost every choice it makes, The Act makes you understand what was going through Dee Dee’s head in the last years of her life, and what was going through Gypsy’s, too.
As someone fascinated by Munchausen by proxy, by the delusions the human brain can construct to do harm to those who love us, I’m fascinated by how The Act lives inside Dee Dee’s and Gypsy’s brains. But maybe you don’t want to look at another crime scene. Maybe you would rather look at anything else.
The Act’s first two episodes are streaming on Hulu. Future episodes will release on Wednesdays.