tv review

The Act Explores a True-life Tragedy in Wrenching Detail

Photo: CZ Post/Hulu

The tragic, disturbing saga of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard has already been the subject of a massive BuzzFeed long read and two documentaries, including one, Mommie Dead and Dearest, that aired on HBO. By now plenty of people know the bizarre details surrounding this uniquely dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.

But even if you know how their whole story of abuse, fraud, and murder plays out, The Act, a new Hulu limited series co-created by Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean, author of that previously mentioned BuzzFeed piece, still delivers extremely compelling television. The fact that Dee Dee Blanchard was killed in her home in 2015 is made clear right from the beginning of the first episode. Fairly quickly thereafter, flashbacks imply that Dee Dee’s care for her seemingly frail, wheelchair-bound daughter, Gypsy, may not have been as doting and selfless as it appeared. But The Act takes its time to reveal the depth and extent of the lies Dee Dee told, how Gypsy’s frustration with her mother would eventually escalate, and what may have been motivating both of them. The Act understands that the why in this tale, to the extent that we can know it, is as important as the what.

The Act is fascinating for a number of reasons, but a chief one is the performances of its two leads, Patricia Arquette and Joey King. An eight-episode series about two people who are codependent to the point of causing each other physical harm simply wouldn’t work if we didn’t believe the depth of their love and mutual reliance. Arquette and King are completely convincing in that regard. They’re also playing women who are Characters with a capital C, yet both of them resist the temptation to tear their teeth into the scenery. Their performances are disciplined and exceptional.

As Dee Dee, a Louisiana native, Arquette speaks with a gentle, born-on-the-bayou lilt that makes her “mother of the year” backstory all the more believable. But Dee Dee is also suspicious, controlling, and prone to extreme panic when she thinks Gypsy is doing something seemingly innocuous, like drinking a Coke, that could adversely affect her health. (“Too much sugar,” she routinely scolds her child.) Arquette captures all of Dee Dee’s emotional settings and  has such a gift for finding and displaying her humanity that you feel a little sorry for her, even when she does things that are utterly monstrous. (See, for example, forcing her daughter to continue using a feeding tube for years when she doesn’t need one.) Arquette intuitively taps into Dee Dee’s insecurity and a need to be needed that runs so deep, she tethers her daughter to her side in order to satisfy it.

King is even more of a revelation, to the point that those who have seen her in other projects, like Netflix’s The Kissing Booth or Fargo, might not even recognize her. With her shaved head, a look Dee Dee forces Gypsy to maintain, and her wide eyes magnified by a huge pair of glasses, King not only looks the part, she completely sinks into it. Speaking in Gypsy’s famously high-pitched voice, King channels the bubbly, childlike innocence that persuades others to believe that Gypsy is younger than her actual age. Every time she smiles, King’s eyes light up as if she’s just wished upon a star and had her dreams come true. She’s such a doll that you can understand, a little, why Dee Dee would want to baby her. But King also makes it abundantly clear that Gypsy is really suffering. In the second episode, after she has all her teeth extracted at her mother’s behest, she looks at her battered gums in the mirror and sobs, in physical pain and from the sting of what her mother has allowed a dentist to do to her. Your heart aches for her, even as Gypsy gets bolder in her acts of rebellion and a sense of foreboding begins to settle over the series.

The mix of melodrama and sometimes grisly details gives The Act the vibe of an old-fashioned thriller. If it had been made into a movie a few decades ago, it might have starred Bette Davis and been called Whatever Happened to Baby Gypsy? But whenever the series feels like it might get too over-the-top or tip too close into grand Guignol territory, it reins itself in and plants its feet back on earth. It also takes some clever visual risks, splashing text messages sent and received by Gypsy across the screen while overlaying elements of the scene on top of them so that some of the words are obscured. This is done especially masterfully in the fifth episode, directed by Steven Piet, in a way that suggests that everything that’s about to happen is such a foregone, unavoidable conclusion that you know what the messages Gypsy exchanges with her boyfriend, Nick (Calum Worthy of American Vandal), will say without even fully reading them.

There are some moments that don’t work quite as well as they could. On a couple of occasions, the conversations between the Blanchards’ neighbors, Mel (Chloë Sevigny), Mel’s daughter Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb), and Shelly (Denitra Isler) on the night of the murder seem a little overwritten and convenient. (Shelly just happens to remember that Dee Dee once called her in the middle of the night to ask about a man who knew Gypsy during an episode that flashes back to Gypsy’s encounters with a guy she met at a Comic-Con-esque convention.) Hulu provided five out of the eight episodes, and from seeing only those, I also wasn’t sure if the series might be belaboring things by stretching the story out over so many hour-long chapters.

I do know that The Act is one more disturbing work of television that shines a light on abuse and/or terrible parenting in what has been a recent string of such shows. The Act isn’t even the first show in the past year to focus on Munchausen syndrome by proxy unfolding in the state of Missouri. The thoroughly fictional Sharp Objects got there first.

The idea that all these childhood-wrecking narratives are connected comes across in wrenching, though likely unintentional fashion when Dee Dee plays a tune that she refers to as her and Gypsy’s song: “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson Five. Watching them bond over a song that demands they “make a pact” has a double meaning. The fact that it’s being sung by Michael Jackson, a man who, according to Leaving Neverland, abused children and who also loved Disney fairy tales as much as Gypsy does, adds yet another layer. It’s a moment that will give you the chills. That won’t be the first or the last time that happens while watching The Act.

The Act Explores a True-life Tragedy in Wrenching Detail