'The Act': TV Review

You'll get caught in 'The Act.'
3/20/2019

Hulu's strange limited series blends true crime, fairy tale and horror, anchored by spectacular performances from Patricia Arquette and Joey King.

Patricia Arquette has an Oscar for Boyhood and an Emmy for Medium, and she's been giving reliably superb performances going back even before True Romance in 1993.

How is it possible, then, that I keep being shocked by how good Patricia Arquette is in things? There's absolutely no reason why her work in Showtime's Escape at Dannemora should have been the revelation that it was, yet that performance — still utterly grounded despite being outsized in physicality and vocal mannerisms — felt like it required a whole re-evaluation of the actress' body of work.

Now we're just months later and somehow Arquette is back with another expertly larger-than-life turn in another true-crime miniseries, and it's possible that her performance in Hulu's The Act is every bit as good and every bit as worthy of awards consideration as what she delivered in Escape at Dannemora. I think Hulu will be able to get away with campaigning Arquette in a supporting field for The Act, keeping her from competing with herself and simultaneously ceding some of the spotlight to the equally exceptional Joey King.

The Act isn't always the easiest series to watch, and after five of eight episodes I'm still not sure if this format is exactly ideal for the story, but I know that Arquette is, once again, a revelation and that King is taking a leap from promising young performer to star. That's more than enough for an endorsement.

The series is based on Michelle Dean's BuzzFeed story "Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom to Be Murdered" and begins in 2015 with the police called into a dark, cluttered house to investigate some horrible act of violence. Seven years earlier, we see Dee Dee Blanchard (Arquette) and daughter Gypsy (King) moving into the same house in rural Missouri, then new and built specially for them by Habitat for Humanity. Dee Dee and Gypsy, who lost one previous home after Hurricane Katrina, are the subject of great curiosity and sympathy because Dee Dee appears to be the dedicated caregiver for a daughter with a spectacular array of ailments. As Dee Dee explains it and as the series presents it to us, Gypsy is epileptic, has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old, needs to be fed through a tube due to allergies and a lack of salivary glands and suffers from a heart murmur, among other things. The truth is far more complicated and although it involves Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, even then it's difficult to comprehend which aspects of Dee Dee and Gypsy's relationship and co-dependence are real, which are an act and who, exactly, is fooling whom.

The slide into tragedy is spread over eight hours, though pacing is not the series' strength. There were more than a few times that I marveled that it was still going to take four or five more hours to get to the act introduced in the framing device, not that I ever found myself yearning to see the truncated film-length version that Lifetime recently aired (Love You to Death, starring Marcia Gay Harden). Instead of offering diagnostic realism, The Act is a character study in which you shouldn't expect to fully understand either subject. The Act may humanize and dimensionalize Munchausen, a favorite go-to for medical procedurals, but it doesn't explain it and there's probably disappointment to be found in looking for literal answers in a show that is more comfortable as a fairy tale or as horror.

"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," Dee Dee says in an early TV interview, with Gypsy sitting beside her in a bliss blended from drugs and, at that point in the story, love for her mother. Gypsy loves Rapunzel and one of the first things we see Dee Dee doing is shaving her daughter's head, as if the key to her escaping rests in her hair. Is Gypsy being contained for her own good or because of her mother's insecurities? It isn't always clear. What would her Prince Charming look like and can this young woman, so devoted to Disney fantasies, even imagine what a Prince Charming would be like in the real world?

Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's treatment of that real world and of the Blanchards' home, a pink palace surrounded by wheelchair access ramps that function as an encircling moat, was one of my favorite things about the series. The house is a sea of lurid pastels, piled-up stuffed animals and cutesy domestic bric-a-brac and, when the Blanchards initially move in, it's a paradise. The outside world is washed out and under-populated. As the story progresses, the Blanchard house deteriorates and grows more suffocating and the outside world, including an overlit mall and a chaotic fan convention, becomes more alive and promising. Gypsy's wheelchair, which she doesn't even need, can be either a smoothly soaring dolly or a halting impediment depending on how Clermont-Tonnerre uses it and what perspective she's capturing in the moment.

The more Dee Dee becomes a wicked witch, the more The Act progresses into something resembling horror. The realest parts of the story are actually among the most terrifying and there are many scenes that will cause intended discomfort for those with medical insecurities, whether it's the graphic depictions of feeding tube procedure or the highly amplified sound effect from a dentist's drill.

The Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? comparisons are obvious and well-earned, and it's fascinating watching Arquette steer her performance into exaggerated Joan Crawford terrain and then pull it back before going fully camp. Because Dee Dee is constantly playing a role herself, there's ample room for certain exaggerations — she's doing a Louisiana accent, but when she talks about the "bayou" or her "gumbo" recipe, it goes from soft to troweled on — to be built into the character.

Like Julia Garner and Juno Temple in Dirty John, King's giving a performance that seems outlandish until you watch even 10 seconds of the real Gypsy. Then you can concentrate on the complicated growth the actress builds in, always without answering every question you might have about how much Gypsy knows or doesn't know, how much control and manipulation she's capable of. It's a performance of daunting physicality and external detail that requires that you get past the carefully crafted helium voice and juvenile mannerisms. At times she's a child. At times she's a vixen. She breaks your heart with her halting insecurity, and the five episodes sent to critics have just reached the point where she's starting to become scary herself. Is she her mother's daughter or something worse?

I've made it this far into the review without mentioning any of the supporting characters, who are mostly composites and they feel like it. Chloe Sevigny and AnnaSophia Robb play the mother and daughter across the street, and their more traditionally contentious relationship has been crafted so calculatedly as a contrast to Dee Dee and Gypsy that they never feel like they're anything more than well-played functionaries. That's even more true of Poorna Jagannathan as a doctor who begins to get suspicious of Dee Dee's motives, except that the real story is the real story so you know her character will never amount to more than the answer to the question, "If these two were in and out of hospitals all the time, why didn't anybody realize this was fishy?"

Some of the answers could be Googled at any time, but The Act has done a good job of keeping me guessing what the story is here and how the producers want to tell it. Even with some lags in pacing, each time I thought the story was running out of juice, it found a different gear and a different genre, all anchored by King and Arquette.

Cast: Patricia Arquette, Joey King, Chloe Sevigny, AnnaSophia Robb
Creators: Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)