TV Review: ‘The Act’ Features Two Stellar Performances

Some crime stories have to be read to be believed. “The Act” brings to life the story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard. This deadly mother-daughter story was catapulted to prominence with the Buzzfeed article “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered” by Michelle Dean, who created the show with Nick Antosca. That article title better describes the show, which comes off like a dark fable, a la Brothers Grimm. These competing wants are expertly dramatized in Hulu’s latest original series by leads Patricia Arquette and Joey King. While the actors bring to life the nuances of this complex relationship, the show often overplays its hand. It loves the oddities of the case so much it wants us to remark how weird it is, rather than have us identify or understand either Gypsy or Dee Dee.

The show begins as Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette) and Gypsy Rose (Joey King) move to Springfield, Missouri to their new, pink, accessible home, built by Habitat for Humanity. They have just escaped Hurricane Katrina and are ready for a fresh start. Gypsy Rose suffers from a laundry list of diseases, including chromosomal defects, muscular dystrophy, deadly allergies, epilepsy, asthma, and more. Dee Dee serves as her caregiver and warden. She insists Gypsy Rose must use a feeding tube only for food, must stay away from sugar, and has the mind of a 7-year-old. However, as Gypsy Rose grows up, she realizes she has the ability to walk, to eat sugar and that many of her illnesses didn’t exist. Her Mother had imparted Munchausen Syndrome on her. Gypsy Rose wants to reclaim her life and autonomy. Unfortunately, this leads to a grisly “Act.”

One of the more interesting motifs present in “The Act” is how media informs and simplifies narratives. A Disney devotee, Gypsy builds her moral compass around the Mouse House’s oeuvre. While this could come off overtly simplistic (and sometimes veers into that territory), Joey King provides more layers in her performance. She slowly shows how Gypsy switches from sweet to deadly while keeping her basic philosophies intact. This is incredibly useful as the character spans quite a lot of ground in terms of age and the amount of knowledge she has on her condition.

Later in the show, we get many references to the “princess being rescued from her castle and defeating the wicked stepmother” basic plot. This could come off as heavy-handed, if not for how the show defines Gypsy. Her framework for morality is shaped exclusively by these tales that she and Dee Dee play over and over. As Dee Dee infantilizes Gypsy, she fails to develop more complex ways of looking at the world. When she wants a way out, she conceives of her plan through the means of stories she’s worshipped since childhood.

The role of Dee Dee Blanchard could easily have become a cartoon villain. In some ways, Patricia Arquette leans into those specific elements. Much like her other lauded limited series role this year, “Escape from Dannemora,” Arquette delights in what makes Dee Dee horrible. She develops a voice that combines an out-of-breath G-rated grandmother, baby-talking caregiver, and a swampy miscreant. As outlandish as it sounds, all three of those descriptions adequately describe Dee Dee.

Much like her character in “Escape to Dannemora,” Arquette excels because she treats her characters wants and desires as seriously as they see them. At her core, Dee Dee feels she’s been given a raw deal in life. This intensifies as Gypsy gets older and Dee Dee experiences her own, very real, health problems. Dee Dee barks requests, hurl insults and even ties Gypsy up from time to time. However, Arquette understands where Dee Dee lashes out from. Even her central scheme to lie about Gypsy’s diseases comes from her own misguided view of herself as a Robin Hood figure. She robs from the generous to give to her view of what her life should be like. Perhaps Dee Dee watched Disney’s “Robin Hood” a few too many times.

There are nuances to the characters and performances themselves. Yet, the guiding storytelling voices behind the camera could have also taken note. In order to grab one’s attention early, it frequently feels the need to telegraph details of the titular act early on, even when it’s not relevant to the storytelling. Frequent flash forwards in time only undermine some of the nuanced layering King and Arquette are doing. For example, King’s performance asserts that Gypsy was a sweet girl whose knowledge of her mother’s actions drives us towards a horrific act. However, the show often visually, or through edits, tells us that we should’ve suspected something was up all along. Presenting the events in more chronological order could have given us more of a chance to share the headspace of this toxic mother-daughter relationship without fixating on the gruesome end.

Overall, the show captures the level of fascination that was present in the Buzzfeed article. In that sense, it serves as a great piece of additional insight into the events that transpired. However, what makes the show special are the performances which try and capture the head-spaces of these two women. It’s the same spark that makes “Heavenly Creatures” such an engaging watch. However, in that film, director Peter Jackson brings the girls’ fantasies to life and keeps us in their headspace. The less time we spend on the Greek chorus of Missouri neighbors the better. Not only does it take us away from our main players in the act. Additionally, it reminds us we should know what’s happening is crazy. I’d rather the show try and connect with the central characters, however dark they be, rather than gawk along with the show.

The first two episodes of “The Act” premiere on Hulu on Wednesday, March 20. The remaining six episodes will air every Wednesday thereafter. Only the first five episodes were made available for review. 

GRADE: (★★)

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