Patricia Arquette and Joey King give strong performances in an uncomfortable new series about a horrifying case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy
At the conclusion of the first episode of The Act, Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King) sits up in bed next to her mother, Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette). She slides her feet out from under the covers and skims the floor with her toes, which crack under her weight. Then she stands up and, without waking her mother, walks to the kitchen for a midnight snack.
Gypsys furtive steps are revelatory, to a point Gypsy has spent the prior 50 or so minutes of screen time in a wheelchair, seemingly beset by illnesses that keep her head bald and her frame frail. But given that the shows ominous score hints at creepiness from the first scene, that a hard-knocks neighbor (Chloe Sevigny) has already expressed skepticism about Gypsys charity case, and that Dee Dees murder was all over both the news in 2015 and the Acts first episode, Gypsys deceptive mobility isnt a surprise.
Such is the odd in-between feeling of watching The Act, Hulus five-part mini-series on the bizarre story of inseparable mother-daughter duo Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard. The Act begins at the end of their relationship, on a night in 2015 when police find Dee Dee murdered in her bed. Gypsy is nowhere to be found. Cut to six years earlier, when the Blanchards move into a pink, wheelchair-ramped Habitat for Humanity home in a quiet neighborhood even before Dee Dees death in 2015, the Blanchards were small-town celebrities in Springfield, Missouri. They were survivors of Hurricane Katrina who attended Make-A-Wish trips and charity banquets honoring Gypsys fight against leukemia, muscular dystrophy, a feeding tube and a deadly allergy to sugar, among other ailments.
Except all the medical conditions were a ruse concoctions of Dee Dees Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a disorder characterized by fabricated or induced medical conditions for attention or sympathy. Gypsy could walk and never needed a feeding tube, yet was forced to keep up the act by her mother. At 23, she snapped, and plotted Dee Dees murder at the hands of the boyfriend she met online, Nicholas Godejohn. Gypsy is now serving 10 years for second-degree murder; Godejohn was sentenced to life.
The Blanchards story of abuse and deception prompted a blockbuster BuzzFeed article by Michelle Dean (who also co-created the show with Nick Antosca) and a feature-length HBO documentary (Mommy Dead and Dearest); now, Hulu has adapted the saga into a mini-series that builds on Americas fascination with true crime, bad parenting and scams. At a time when documentaries on these genres are thriving prominent films on Elizabeth Holmes, the Fyre festival, Adnan Syed and Lorena Bobbitt have all premiered this year The Act filters Deans deep reporting on the Blanchard story through an episodic tale of manipulation, revenge and toxic love.
That layered portrait the bizarre intricacies of the Blanchard case, as portrayed by actors makes for a weird, often uncomfortable viewing experience, at least for the five episodes available for critics. The Act has its strong points: Arquette and King give searing, committed performances, even as the roles undercut them with their incredulity. Kings baby voice seems absurd, though interviews reveal that Gypsys voice is actually that childlike. The showrunners make some interesting and surprising stylistic choices, warping the size of text messages or isolating an image of Gypsys PediaSure shake to evoke her prison of medications, her terror at the hands of a figure considered harmless by everyone else, her fevered and disjointed escape to another world online.