'Gypsy': TV Review

Watts towers above subpar material.

Netflix's Naomi Watts drama has themes of self-deception and obsession that echo 'Mulholland Drive,' only everything is really obvious and pretty dull.

A psychological thriller of erotic obsession that doesn't lack for (pop) psychology or (repetitive) obsession, but only becomes erotic in the last few episodes and thrilling in the last 15 minutes of the final episode, Netflix's Gypsy is a reasonable star vehicle for Naomi Watts and little else.

Watts plays Jean Holloway, a therapist working out of a group practice in Manhattan. By day she listens to her patients talk about family and relationship difficulties and then she goes home to seemingly perfect Connecticut and her lawyer hubby, Michael (Billy Crudup), and rambunctious daughter, Dolly (Maren Heary).

Jean has a problem. She invests too deeply in her patients' lives and crosses boundaries. If mother Claire (Brenda Vaccaro) complains about growing estrangement from her daughter, Jean goes and befriends the daughter (Brooke Bloom). Jean takes her concerns with depressed junkie Allison (Lucy Boynton) outside of the office, running afoul of Allison's dealer boyfriend. And, most troubling of all, when Sam (Karl Glusman) complains about the irresistible ex he can't quit, Jean seeks Sidney (Sophie Cookson) out and, using an assumed name and identity, begins a relationship with her that goes from tentative to steamy to scary.

This is all happening as Michael is fighting off the advances of sexy assistant Alexis (Melanie Liburd) and as Dolly's discomfort with female gender roles is causing unrest with teachers and with the other suburban moms, whose lives revolve around party planning and self-medicating.

"The more you watch someone, the more you realize we are never really who we say we are. In fact, hidden underneath, there's always a secret. We might actually be someone else," Jean muses in an opening voiceover that's far from the least cringingly obvious thought uttered on Gypsy. Created by newcomer Lisa Rubin, the show falls into that familiar fictional therapy trap of having every single conversation directly articulate something that could have either been subtext or illustrated rather than monologued. Jean is a sitting, note-taking expositional device who uses her self-awareness to tell the audience what everybody else is thinking and her self-obliviousness as a source of dramatic irony — since this alleged human lie detector is a compulsive and awful liar herself, and the series is a 10-episode journey down the rabbit hole of her own prevarications.

Incidentally, I know that last part because Sam's bewitching ex Sid works as a barista at an underground coffee shop called The Rabbit Hole that Jean goes down into in the opening minutes. Yes, Gypsy is exactly that subtle. The only thing the show doesn't spell out aggressively and frequently is its title, but after hearing Stevie Nicks sing the opening song 10 times, over a credit sequence featuring Jean's image splintered through shards of glass, you'll probably be able to figure out that it's about the desire to retreat into past identities and carrying vagabond pieces of those identities into the present.

Jean is a fine part for Watts, letting her tap into some of the same duality that was the basis for her breakout role in Mulholland Drive. For 10 hours, we know that Jean is making one mistake after another, but Jean has either no clue or no control and Watts captures that internal push-and-pull. As she also says in that opening voiceover, "There's one force more powerful than free will — our unconscious."

Yeah. We get it. It's Mulholland Drive for Dummies.

Watts doesn't play Jean as victim or villain and Gypsy doesn't judge Jean, though many viewers are probably going to think it should. Professionally, the things she's doing are wrong and the show's only real tension comes from playing the same, "Is she about to get caught in her latest lie?" beats over and over without offering an alternative perspective, allowing us to root for the cruelly manipulated patients. Instead, it's a lot of alleged suspense from the amount that Jean is drinking — a dangerous drinking game would be to attempt to match Jean's imbibing, glass of bourbon for glass of bourbon — and from her iPhone's text and voice message screens.

We're supposed to be voyeurs, with each of the series' five directors following pilot helmer Sam Taylor-Johnson's (Fifty Shades of Grey) template of shooting around corners, through objects and peeping on conversations across rooms. Even if we're aware that Jean is screwing up everybody's life, including her own, we're supposed to be complicit in her desire.

The show indeed is an attempted expression of female desire. Most of the episodes are written and directed by women (with Victoria Mahoney and Coky Giedroyc helming the last four). The male characters are all intentionally passive and nearly all forgettable. Crudup starts bland and obtuse and has to play the chump for a long time, but he eventually becomes relatable. Glusman's performance is defined by whether or not his character has a mustache, a continuity perplexity I wanted to have deeper meaning.

The show probably would work better if the female roles aside from Jean were played more richly. Sidney is referred to in such hallowed tones that Cookson could never live up to it, but her performance feels trapped unsteadily between real person and fantasy construct. Vaccaro offers one-note maternal concern, Jean's best friend and colleague Larin (Poorna Jagannathan) is a nonentity, and the Connecticut housewives blend in a way that's both intentional and makes Gypsy play like an entirely humorless East Coast version of Big Little Lies. The best of the supporting turns come from splendid-but-underused Sing Street veteran Boynton and from Blythe Danner, whose casting as Watts' concerned mother is so inspired, I wished she'd been in more than a few episodes.

Gypsy frustrates because after nine episodes of tip-toeing and narrative evasion (in contrast to its thematic ham-handedness) that I kept watching in desperate hope of some inciting incident or twist to help the show find a different gear, the finale is in an awful big hurry. Backstories are abruptly recited. Rugs are hastily pulled out from under people. Mistakes are made. Basically, the show you probably want Gypsy to be by the third or fourth episode might end up being the second season, and there's too much psychobabble to wade through to get there.

Maybe watch episodes one, seven and 10 of Gypsy. Skip the rest. You won't miss much, and you might enjoy.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Billy Crudup, Sophie Cookson, Lucy Boynton, Karl Glusman, Melanie Liburd, Poorna Jagannathan, Brenda Vaccaro
Creator: Lisa Rubin
Premieres: Friday, June 30 (Netflix)