It’s a cliché in crime stories both true and fictional that neighbors and loved ones are blindsided to learn what the people close to them were truly capable of doing. But in the case of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy Rose — the central figures of the first season of Hulu’s new true-crime anthology series The Act — it would be hard to blame anyone for missing what was really going on.
It’s impossible to discuss the series (the first two episodes premiere March 20th, with the remaining six debuting weekly; I’ve seen the first five hours) without getting into some of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose’s secret. But since the series is based on a wildly popular BuzzFeed article — its author, Michelle Dean, co-created the series with Nick Antosca — and the Blanchards’ story was also told in an HBO documentary (Mommy Dead and Dearest), I feel safe in “spoiling” some of this true tale.
Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette) is overworked single mother to Gypsy Rose (Joey King), a wheelchair-bound, bald, chronically-ill teenage girl who speaks in a squeaky voice and, according to Dee Dee, has the mental capacity of a seven-year-old. The story bounces around in time between the 2015 discovery of a body in the Blanchard home and mother and daughter’s arrival several years earlier at that house, which was built for them through Habitat for Humanity after they lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Their new neighbor Mel (Chloë Sevigny) senses something not quite right in their story, but Gypsy Rose is so clearly sick, and just as sweet, that Mel and her friends welcome them into the community. Soon, though, it becomes clear to the viewer that Gypsy Rose isn’t nearly as sick as her mother claims, and a new doctor begins to wonder if this might be a case of Munchausen by proxy, where a parent deliberately makes their child seem ill to feel needed. And that’s all well before we get to the violent events that inspire the series’ framing device.
The scripts by Dean and Antosca and the performances by the two leads do a fine job exploring the murky power dynamic between mother and child. Gypsy obviously knows that some — and maybe all — of what she and Dee Dee tell the world about her isn’t true; her reasons for playing along are complicated and tragic. But when she begins an online relationship with a troubled young man (Calum Worthy, even creepier than he was in American Vandal Season One), the abusive codependence becomes more than she can handle.
This is Arquette’s second de-glammed true-crime performance in the last few months, following her acclaimed (and probably Emmy front-running) turn as Tilly Mitchell, the prison-employee-turned-accomplice in Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora. Dee Dee is a much richer role than Tilly was — her personality and temperament are more varied, and she’s far better at manipulating people (albeit in stomach-churning ways at times) than Tilly ever hoped to be — but the performance feels less thrilling solely due to the bad timing of coming second on the calendar. Instead, the revelation here is King. She not only undergoes a severe physical metamorphosis but has to wildly shift her persona from one scene to the next, depending who’s watching and how independently minded Gypsy Rose is feeling in that moment. Both actors are terrific, but King is more likely the one people will be talking about after.
The Act, though, runs into the same problem Dannemora did: a story that’s ultimately not capable of sustaining around eight hours of television. (Mommy Dead and Dearest clocked in at fewer than 90 minutes.) There are twists and turns to the central relationship and the reason it comes to a violent end, but the story starts to feel repetitive quickly, and the lead performances (and nimble direction by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Adam Arkin and others) can only mask that for so long. After a couple of hours, I couldn’t resist reading the BuzzFeed story, after which my desire to keep watching the series took a major hit.
It’s not hard to see why Hulu might want to use this story to launch a new series, nor why Arquette and King might be drawn to these roles. But once the initial secret is revealed, there’s only so much tale to compellingly tell, and The Act lingers well past that point.