'Shut Eye': TV Review

David Bukach/Hulu
Jeffrey Donovan and KaDee Strickland of 'Shut Eye'
10 episodes could feel like a long con.
12/7/2016

Hulu's new fortune teller/psychic/con man drama has fine performances from Jeffrey Donovan and KaDee Strickland, but no real identity.

Con men are storytellers and performers.

TV showrunning and acting are, at their heart, a long con on the audience in which, if all parties do their jobs properly, everybody on one side gets wildly rich over many years, everybody on the other side gets consistently entertained, and nobody walks away feeling betrayed.

It's no wonder that TV shows about con men or reformed con men have been a lucrative genre for years, with venerable hits like Psych and Leverage and The Mentalist going alongside critical favorites like Better Call Saul or The Riches.

Hulu's new drama Shut Eye doesn't instantly feel destined for either of those two best case scenarios, as through four episodes it's still struggling to establish a consistent tone or to settle on the hook of its premise.

Jeffrey Donovan, who played something of a con man in Burn Notice, stars as Charlie, whose backstory includes time spent as a designer of ambitious magic tricks in Las Vegas, one of many details that I assume will eventually pay off but have been, in the episodes I've seen, just a tease. Charlie is working as a psychic, gently bilking clients and paying up to slovenly, malicious Romani gangster Fonzo (Angus Sampson, who played Donovan's brother in the second season of Fargo), whose family (including Isabella Rossellini's icy matriarch Rita) controls all of the psychic and fortunetelling businesses in L.A. with an iron fist and a pointy knife. Charlie is "gaje," or a non-gypsy, and he's essentially picking up scraps, which frustrates his former Vegas stripper wife Linda (KaDee Strickland), who remember when her hubby used to be a real man.

There are lots of variably involving misadventures with a potentially lucrative whale (of the mark variety) played by Mel Harris, an amoral drug lord (David Zayas), the typical cable drama teenage bumbling from Charlie's son (Dylan Schmid) and the arrival of an unpredictable hypnotist (Emmanuelle Chriqui), but everything gets truly messed up when Charlie's advice leads to a beating at the hands of a client's ex. After suffering some sort of skull injury, Charlie is maybe hearing voices or maybe having visions or something.

"Fake psychic, real visions. That'd be a cosmic joke on God's part," a non-character tells Charlie during psychotropic experimentations encouraged by neurologist Nora White (Susan Misner), but figuring out if that's the high concept at the heart of Shut Eye is taking an unexpectedly long time.

Creator Les Bohem, whom I'll always admire for his work on the terrific, less-celebrated-than-it-should-be, Spielberg-produced miniseries Taken, attacks Shut Eye with an attention deficit so acute it's no wonder that recreational use of Adderall is both a plot point and a plot point that gets pushed aside when something differently shiny catches Bohem's eye. The pity is that he's landed on such a great backdrop! With their neon signage, most featuring a distinctive palm insignia, parlor-shop psychics, many in seemingly residential areas, are such a fascinating phenomenon, and when you throw in the influence of the Romani and start using jargon like "bujo" and "the egg curse scam," that really ought to have been enough for a series. Throwing in a subplot with a Romani cultural society bent on advancing images of their people beyond fraud and flimflam and I had a couple, "This is a good, different world for a TV show" moments, before Shut Eye too often left the unique behind for a more conventional con man story and stale cable boundary-pushing on sex and violence and exhausted-looking antiheroes. 

Each episode has a different tone. The pilot, well directed by Johan Renck (Vikings), counters narrative darkness with SoCal sunniness and humor stemming from the tackiness of this scam trade. The second and third episodes, helmed by Weeds veterans Craig Zisk and Michael Trim, veer in the direction of less effective comedy, unsure if Charlie's hallucinations are meant to be funny or disturbing or spiritual. The fourth episode, from Clark Johnson, is a tightly produced bottle episode that spins the story off in yet another new direction, but it abruptly raises the stakes around a character most people won't care about.

After several TV roles as swaggering alphas, you can tell Donovan is enjoying laying back a little on Charlie, playing a guy with an agile mind who has been forced into a submissive position and doesn't quite know what to do with himself. Later episodes will eventually let Charlie use his magic background and make him more aggressive, but then Donovan will just be playing his Burn Notice role again, though I'm sure audiences will be pleased to have Michael Westen back. For now, it's a good contrast to Sampson's sloppy, Rabelaisian take on Fonzo, a man with little taste, little restraint and no boundaries. You never fully believe that anybody would let a clown like Fonzo be in charge, but that's OK because Rossellini's Rita offers inscrutable menace.

The women really hold most of the power in Shut Eye, and Strickland takes full advantage of the swearing, nudity and shades-of-gray morality offered by the streaming world. Strickland had emotional storylines to play on Private Practice, but this is one of the juiciest parts of her career; even if Shut Eye never gels and never gains attention, she should be the show's primary beneficiary, though Misner also gets to exhibit a pleasantly sillier side that past roles haven't often provided.

Breaking with its programming precedent, Hulu will be releasing all 10 episodes of Shut Eye at once, hoping that audiences will be enticed by the promising cast and the seeds of three or four interesting shows scattered around. Most binge-friendly shows, and most cons, are wise to bait the hook faster than Shut Eye does.

Cast: Jeffrey Donovan, KaDee Strickland, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Angus Sampson, Isabella Rossellini, Susan Misner, David Zayas
Creator: Les Bohem
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)

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