'The Act' misses the mark of true-crime drama

Hulu series’ storytelling is clunky but saved by sensational cast and gripping premise

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The new Hulu series “The Act” dramatizes the true story and events leading up to the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard and the disappearance of her daughter Gypsy Rose in 2015.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Streaming services seem to have a thing lately for airing the stories of disturbed individuals masquerading in normal society. TV audiences like the macabre ability of truly messed up people to get away with unspeakable horrors because they seem normal — or even charming. Netflix released a documentary series on Ted Bundy shortly after its September 2018 premiere of “You,” a fictionalized account of a bookstore owner turned stalker turned murderer. Both were critically acclaimed, and part of a long line-up of television productions — fact and fiction alike — catering to this particular brand of true crime. 

Perhaps it’s simply the fact that it’s late to the game, but “The Act” — the new Hulu series which premiered March 20 — comes up short of expectations. The hasty writing and editing are at least partly to blame as well. 

“The Act” dramatizes the true story and events leading up to the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard and the disappearance of her daughter Gypsy Rose in 2015. Dee Dee Blanchard was murdered by Gypsy Rose and her boyfriend after a lifetime of abuse, where Dee Dee fabricated illnesses for her daughter to attract attention. Dee Dee claimed that her daughter had the mental age of a 7-year-old and a variety of diseases including leukemia, a severe sugar allergy and multiple sclerosis. The first two episodes of the true-crime drama depict Dee Dee forcing her daughter to eat through a feeding tube, use a wheelchair despite having full use of her muscles and ingest drugs so she would appear mentally disabled for social workers. The true story is — quite frankly — horrifying and almost nauseating to watch on screen. It’s a tragic example of both the manipulative lengths someone would go for attention and the drastic action taken to escape that kind of abuse.

However, as an artistic dramatization of their story, “The Act” doesn’t carry the same storytelling heft as some of its counterparts. The dialogue is not packed with chilling wit or dark humor like “You” and lacks the narrative suspense of “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” The editing feels clunky — the first two episodes abruptly cut between scenes in 2009 and 2015 without showing how they are immediately connected. Flashbacks can work when telling stories, but in a genre where most of the appeal is in our search to try and understand a character so deviant from human decency, “The Act” gets rid of any surprises it might otherwise have to those not familiar with the story. 

Conflicts are neutralized before they have a chance to develop in even half an episode. For example, we see Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard meet their neighbor Mel (Chloë Sevigny) within the context of a conflict — Mel is suspicious of Dee Dee and her saintly persona — but this conflict holds no weight within the narrative because the first scene of the premiere episode is set six years later, when Mel worried about Dee Dee as her friend. The shock of the community upon Dee Dee’s death is cheapened because the audience already knows that she’s a liar and an abuser. In short, “The Act” seems to get lost in its own story, focusing on making its audience consistently queasy rather than capturing the essence of what made this story so gripping when it first broke in the news. 

The redeeming qualities of “The Act” are in the phenomenal character work of its cast. Patricia Arquette and Joey King are unrecognizable, and their portrayals are genuinely creepy and gut-wrenching, respectively. The series sheds light through their character work on the complex layers of abuse present in a relationship defined by ‘Munchausen syndrome by proxy,’ where a fake disorder or illness is imposed on someone else — usually a child — by their abuser. At the heart of “The Act” is the story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, which certainly deserves to be told. 

Contemporary American TV viewers like sensationalized accounts of American weirdos. While that may be a problem in and of itself, it is hard to argue these stories aren’t engaging to tell. Audiences like the struggle of trying to understand inhuman acts. Part of this compulsion to understand, however, lies in all the factors that are unknown, and “The Act” abandons this effective strategy. If its efforts to make the audience repulsed rather than questioning or anticipatory are intentional, then “The Act” reverses many sensationalized, stylistic tropes present in similar series. Some audiences might find that refreshing. 

If it isn’t intentional, though — which is what it feels like to a first-time viewer — then “The Act” abandons its responsibility as a drama series to tell an artful story rather than simply report facts in a documentary. Instead, it relies on the engaging nature of its genre and the shock factors of the original true story alone — and that’s just lazy storytelling. 

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