“Seeing is deceiving.”
This is the essence of The Act, a Hulu original telling the engrossing story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Dee Dee. Their reputation as a sweet but sickly child and devoted mother were shattered with Dee Dee’s sudden murdered.
The show’s logline reads: “An anthology series that tells startling, stranger-than-fiction true crime stories, including a girl trying to escape her overprotective and abusive mother.”
Hard to watch, hard not to watch
The Act invites you to become a voyeur in the Blanchard home as a troublesome story unfolds. From the opening scene, the unusual mother-daughter relationship between Gypsy and Dee Dee stands front and centre. By the end of the first episode, it is clearly a toxic one.
The series opens by painting an engrossing picture of the Blanchards through a camera interview in their new home. After losing their previous home to Hurricane Katrina, the pair express their gratitude to Habitat for Humanity.
“Well Gypsy and I have always loved fairy tales. But you know, I really didn’t believe in happy endings in the real world, not until now. It’s almost like we’re in a Disney movie!” Dee Dee says while holding Gypsy’s hand and playing to the camera. The scene says a lot about the mother-daughter dynamic; it’s hard not to cringe at Gypsy’s baby pink butterfly hat, Dee Dee speaking for Gypsy, or Gypsy seeking her mother’s validation the moment the camera switches off.
The first episode succeeds in illustrating the disconnect between the Blanchards’ outward image and what goes on behind closed doors. The constant tug of war presented by these contradictions makes it difficult to turn away—even for a split second.
Performances are crucial for the show
The Act episode 1 proves that character dynamics, particularly between mother and daughter, are the crucial this story. The show would fall flat if it weren’t for the exceptional talent bringing these roles to life.
Patricia Arquette (Boardwalk Empire, Boyhood) is undeniably convincing as Dee Dee. She plays it perfectly as she infuses mundane motherly duties with a relentless toggling between doting and controlling. Dee Dee patiently shaves Gypsy’s head, administers medication in sync with her watch alarm, and tucks Gypsy into bed. She also tube-feeds her with food smoothies, even on pizza night. Although there are many red flags, such as her wall-sized closet of prescription meds, Dee Dee convincingly shows the neighbourhood that she’s a loving (albeit overbearing) mother.
Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean co-wrote the first season of The Act based on Dean’s original BuzzFeed story, ‘Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered’. Those who read it (or watched HBO’s Sharp Objects) will know that Dee Dee is affected by Munchausen syndrome by proxy. It is a psychological need to be a caretaker for someone who is vulnerable and dependent. Usually, dependents are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.
While Joey King (The Kissing Booth) slips effortlessly into Gypsy’s shoes, her episode 1 performance assures her character will not be one-dimensional. Gypsy’ spends her days colouring with crayons and watching Care Bears as Dee Dee shuffles around the house. But when Dee Dee isn’t looking, Gypsy Googles “kissing boyfriends” and expertly clears her browser history. Gypsy is generally subservient to her mother’s “love” but she also starts to question her circumstances and make her own judgments about Dee Dee.
Lies unravel binge-worthily fast
Another force driving the first episode is the unraveling of the world Dee Dee has worked tirelessly to build. Dee Dee’s every action seems calculated to create a certain image. But after meeting their neighbours Mel (Chloë Sevigny), a young mother who believes in tough love, and Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb), an outgoing and independent teen, Gypsy gets new ideas. By the end of the episode, Gypsy discovers that the sugar allergy she’s grown up with has been a total lie.
The Act also flashes between two storylines—these past events and a present police investigation. In the latter, a call from concerned neighbours leads authorities to find Dee Dee’s dead body face down in her bed. Her murder adds weight to the lies that unravel before Gypsy’s eyes and entices viewers to binge-watch of the series. The investigation also weaves a ticking clock into the narrative.
Is The Act worth watching?
All in all, the first episode of The Act delivers a promising start. While some scenes may a struggle to watch, one could argue that this very quality makes it a truthful portrayal of the source material.
If you find true crime stories fascinating, this is definitely a series to tune into.
When does it air?
The Act aired on Hulu in the US in March but now, UK fans will get a chance to catch up on the series. The Act will air on Starzplay on June 14th. Starzplay is available in the UK exclusively on Amazon as a Prime Channel and on Virgin Media as an add-on.
Find out more about plot, cast, and what happened in real life here, or check out the trailer below.