“The Act,” Reviewed: A Juicy True-Crime Drama That Deconstructs Soapy Tropes
The central setting of “The Act,” now on Hulu, is a humble home in Springfield, Missouri. It’s a bungalow with a Pepto-Bismol tint. Its owner, Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette), brings her daughter, Gypsy Rose (Joey King), into the little pink house by pushing the girl, in a wheelchair, up a ramp. Posts on the ramp’s railing evoke a white-picket fence from one angle and a fortified barrier from most others. By the end of the first episode, a yellow barricade of police tape further cordons off the building—an “American Gothic” showpiece.
Created by Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca, “The Act” adapts Dean’s 2016 true-crime story about the Blanchards into a semi-fictional exploration of emotional truths. To know that the title of the article was “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered” is not to have the plot of the series spoiled. The virtues of “The Act” are often distinct from the details of its dramatic arc. It’s more a ready-made parable of toxic parenthood or a mass-cultural case study than a thriller.
The action begins, in 2015, with a concerned neighbor climbing through a window of the little pink house and encountering a hoard of kitsch: mounds of stuffed animals, given to Gypsy by strangers who were moved by the plight of a sick child. The action shifts back, seven years earlier, to a scene of Dee Dee and Gypsy skillfully delivering their own human-interest story to a local-news camera crew, shortly after moving onto their cozy cul-de-sac, into a house built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers. Arquette’s voice is an overripe Louisiana drawl—the Blanchards’ displacement by Hurricane Katrina is a convenient excuse for their missing paperwork and an easy prod for further pity from others—and there’s a generous dash of Blanche DuBois in Dee Dee’s wanton maundering and her dependence on the kindness of strangers.
In Dee Dee’s accounting, Gypsy suffers from epilepsy, paraplegia, heart murmurs, anemia, and significant developmental delays. But Dee Dee is running a scam, and she is running a prison. The child is not as sickly as the world—and she herself—has been led to believe. Before long, the child begins to question whether she is, in fact, a child. Her eyes—framed by oversized glasses that play up her kitsch-urchin Keane-painting look—cloud with confusion, fire with resentment, and moon with desire for freedom.
“The Act” sketches its themes with a heavy hand. Or maybe it’s America itself that lacks delicacy, and the series, taking its excesses as its subject, is just responding with commensurate force. Coca-Cola, forbidden to Gypsy on the grounds of her alleged allergy to sugar, exists as a symbol of national values, of finding community in consumerism and popularity through sickly sweetness. Her favorite Disney princesses, the objects of her frequent adoration and occasional cosplay, are poisoned apples, icons of a venomous feminine ideal. Many pointed references to fairy tales, vampire fantasies, and their subtexts add up so that “The Act” simultaneously plays as a juicy domestic drama and a dry deconstruction of soapy tropes.
I’ve seen five of its eight episodes, and, though I suspect that five episodes, total, could have done the trick of conveying the story, I appreciate the stretches where the show’s slow pace heightens the suspense and tightens the screws on the horror in this story about Munchausen syndrome by proxy. “The Act” follows last year’s “Escape from Dannemora” as an excessively spacious venue for Arquette to do first-rate work. Where her earlier performance, in “Escape,” as a sallow prison employee who talks herself into aiding a jailbreak, showed how an extremely ordinary woman might make some felonious wrong turns, this one gives human dimensions to a grotesque con artist. Arquette’s Dee Dee combines vigilant motherhood, complicated victimhood, and complete monstrosity. The character will be remembered as an icon of our era of grift, alongside the antiheroes of “Fyre Fraud,” “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” and “The Apprentice.”