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Home Is Where the Con Is in True-Crime Drama 'The Act'


Published November 18, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 18, 2020 at 10:12 a.m.

SICK FIC Arquette and King give acclaimed performances as a mother-daughter duo that conned the public — and each other. - COURTESY OF BROWNIE HARRIS/HULU
  • Courtesy Of Brownie Harris/hulu
  • SICK FIC Arquette and King give acclaimed performances as a mother-daughter duo that conned the public — and each other.

Our streaming entertainment options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. This week, I caught up with Patricia Arquette's Primetime Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning performance in "The Act," Hulu's 2019 eight-episode drama series based on the stranger-than-fiction case of the 2015 murder of Clauddine "Dee Dee" Blanchard.

The deal

When Blanchard (Arquette) moves into a pink house built for her by Habitat for Humanity in Springfield, Mo., her reputation precedes her. Everyone knows her as the selfless mom to Gypsy Rose (Joey King), a chirpy, chronically ill child who likes to dress up as Disney princesses and uses a wheelchair and a feeding tube due to ailments about which Dee Dee is a bit vague. Alone with her new neighbor (Chloë Sevigny), the mom confides that her daughter probably isn't long for this world.

But inside the pink house, in the Blanchards' wholesome world of plushies and pastel fabrics, all is not as it appears. Far from being moribund, Gypsy strolls around the house when Mom isn't watching, and she's growing up a lot faster than Dee Dee wants to admit. When Gypsy goes online, the stage is set for the violent act that the series has teased from its opening.

Will you like it?

No doubt about it, "The Act" is guilty-pleasure viewing. The source material is classic tabloid fodder, and one could certainly argue that it's tasteless to pore over the disturbing details when we will never know everyone's side of the story.

Whatever the truth may be, however, this is one of those stories that seize the public imagination for good reason. Featuring multiple crimes, perpetrators and victims, "The Act" raises all sorts of questions about where love ends and abuse begins, what it means to feel safe and what it means to be innocent.

With the help of Google, Gypsy makes an effortless transition from cosplaying as Disney princesses to cosplaying as comic-book vixens. Her mother has taught her to control how others see her, and she's learned well from her years as both an accomplice of fraud — Dee Dee took thousands of dollars in charitable donations for her "sick" daughter — and its victim.

Series creators Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean take a patient, restrained approach to the material, reimagining Lifetime movie fodder as kitchen-sink realism for the art-house crowd. (Domestic scenes in which Dee Dee feeds Gypsy, reinforcing their bond, are a recurring motif.) In the episodes involving Calum Worthy as Nick Godejohn, Gypsy's would-be Prince Charming and very inept accomplice, the show becomes a dark comedy of errors reminiscent of Gus Van Sant's To Die For.

The cast is full of talent — including Margo Martindale, who plays Dee Dee's mom in flashbacks — but the show belongs to the two principals. Arquette convinces us that Dee Dee earnestly believes that everything she does is for her daughter's benefit, even as she twists Gypsy into someone who can only equate love with obsession and harm.

King, who received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her performance, captures both Gypsy's childlike public persona and her adult darkness with chilling precision. "The Act" pokes holes in our temptation to idealize childhood, particularly in our pop culture. Like Peter Pan, Gypsy will never grow up, but her forced eternal youth has stunted her ability to make moral choices, or even rational ones.

"The Act" was originally announced as an anthology series — hence, perhaps, the oblique, catchall title. Here it evokes both the climactic murder and the sustained fraud that the Blanchards embodied; even their skeptical, seen-it-all neighbor is fooled. Rather like recent U.S. history, the show suggests that the most successful con artists are the ones who believe their own cons — and have trouble leaving the stage even when their act has run its course.

If you like this, try...

Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017; HBO Max): For the facts of the story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, or what we know of it, this HBO documentary is an indispensable companion to the "The Act."

The Imposter (2012; Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Tubi, rentable): Bart Layton's creepy true-crime documentary, about a Frenchman who impersonated a missing Texan child, tells another stranger-than-fiction story that has you wondering who was most at fault.

"Castle Rock," season 2 (2019; Hulu, rentable): The second season of this extended riff on the works of Stephen King introduces a younger Annie Wilkes from Misery (sensitively portrayed by Lizzy Caplan) and the teen she's raised as her own (Elsie Fisher). While the show as a whole is uneven, its plot line rivals "The Act" as a gripping, unhinged mother-daughter saga.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Act"