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hulu's the act

If it could be condensed into a single capsule, the first season of Hulu's new anthology drama The Act would already be one of the most effectively harrowing campfire tales ever told. But as a deliberately paced story about obsession, dependence, nature vs. nurture, sexual awakenings, sexual deadenings and other delights, The Act is a pill bottle filled with pure and unfettered anxiety. Every bit as engaging as it is disturbing, the true crime character study is anchored by two masterful performances from leads Patricia Arquette and Joey King.

The Act's debut season is based on a most tragic pair, matriarch Dee Dee Blanchard (Arquette) and daughter Gypsy Rose (King). To anyone still unfamiliar with those names after all of the media attention, keep it that way. But like the best true crime projects, though, knowing any or all of the details doesn't take away from just how gripping and emotionally wrought The Act can get. (Plus, some details are necessary for the remainder of this review to feature more than just awkward staring.)

Taking place largely between 2009-2015, The Act actually kicks off with the shocking aftermath of all the emotional degradation yet to be witnessed. Sequentially, however, the story starts with Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose moving into a lovely new house built for them by Habitats for Humanity. It takes roughly 0.0 seconds for viewers to pick up on the vibe that something is slowly rotting within the central relationship.

With numerous physical and mental maladies, Gypsy Rose is clearly the apple of her mother's eye, and Dee Dee takes a certain amount of pride in relaying the laundry list of issues she claims is afflicting Gypsy Rose. That list includes, but is not limited to: muscular dystrophy, asthma, brain damage and sugar allergies.

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Everyone who meets Gypsy Rose is meant to believe she has the mental prowess of a seven-year-old child, despite being twice that age. Joey King expertly reflects everyone's expectations back to them, playing the role with increasing self-discovery. When around Dee Dee and other important adults, Gypsy Rose's voice rises in pitch and she feigns ignorance, but those traits fade once she's speaking to those she considers her peers.

Such peers are few and far between, but include the Blanchard's neighbors Mel (Chloƫ Sevigny) and her daughter Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb); while I had few issues with The Act, I felt these characters were underserved, which isn't to fault the actresses. Another "friend" who pops up later is Calum Worthy's Nick, whom Gypsy Rose meets online. I'll note that Worthy's performance is blood-curdlingly awkward throughout, but it's best to leave him out of the conversation so early in the season.

Lacey quickly becomes an idol of sorts for Gypsy Rose, and AnnaSophia Robb does a solid enough job of being a level-headed teenager. Against her mother's wishes, Gypsy Rose becomes enamored with Lacey's more mature knowledge of makeup and boys.

Mel, meanwhile, is a hard-nosed single mom that feels specifically created for Chloƫ Sevigny, despite the fact that she's based on a real person. As someone who cuts through other people's bullshit with ease and regularity, Mel is not the kind of neighbor that is most ideal for a woman whose abilities to bullshit others had become her entire life.

Dee Dee would claim that mothering Gypsy Rose was her everything, however, and in that vein, she is doting to the point of pathology. Her form of protection is generally of the "You can't get hit by lightning if I choose to keep you inside, regardless of if it's raining or not" variety. If this were a far more unsullied tale, Dee Dee might be considered eccentrically affectionate, but everything here is tainted from the earliest frames.

Fresh off of her award-winning success with Showtime's Escape from Dannemora, Patricia Arquette simmers strongly throughout The Act's limited episode count. She plays Dee Dee with a particularly yearning world-weariness that might stir more empathy within viewers if not for the menacing self-exaltation guiding her actions. Sure, she can be exceedingly devoted to Gypsy Rose, but Dee Dee brings the polar opposite of a mother's love in equal doses. It's horrifying for all the right reasons, as it were.

The roller coaster of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose's relationship was previously depicted in an acclaimed HBO documentary and a less-acclaimed Lifetime movie, various news magazine series like 20/20, and several standalone news specials for Investigation Discovery. Despite all that came before, The Act stands out thanks to the creative team that set up this maudlin nightmare.

Co-showrunner and executive producer Michelle Dean is the lawyer and journalist responsible for writing the BuzzFeed article about the Blanchard family atrocities that serves as The Act's source material. Also showrunning with Dean is EP Nick Antosca, who was presumably a big influence on The Act's pent-up thriller tone. A horror novelist, Antosca was also the creator of Syfy's stellar horror series Channel Zero, and was a writer on Hannibal and Teen Wolf.

With so much attention to give to the limited number of characters in the show, The Act is not a show that relies on kinetic car chases and multi-take explosions in order to get the job done. That doesn't mean the show looks boring, however. Instead, the camera often feels like the fly on the wall that knows it shouldn't keep listening, but keeps inching closer nonetheless, hoping to catch yet another staggeringly shocking choice made by these main characters.

The tense moods and transgressions would also likely be less effective without the subtle power of composer Jeff Russo, who has also worked on shows such as Star Trek: Discovery, Legion and Power. His vocal-free efforts are complemented by a small variety of songs that add their own tonal shadings to the story. Particularly timely is the use of the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There," which pops up a couple of times but is the hook for one truly memorable scene.

Though its subject matter is as dark and damaged as any true crime story can get, The Act has no problem making viewers want to see more from Patricia Arquette's broken Dee Dee and Joey King's short-sighted Gypsy Rose. These are not the people I want as my new next door neighbors, The Act is gripping, well-told and doesn't overstay its welcome, so I'd invite it into my home at any time.

9 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed rating

One of many shows premiering in the midseason, Hulu's The Act debuted its first two episodes on Hulu on Wednesday, March 20, and will release new episodes every Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. PT.

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