Fake psychic. Real visions. When it comes to Hulu’s new original drama Shut Eye, those words are less of a potential tagline than a question for the audience to ponder: Fake psychic? Real visions? And that’s just some of the questions that arise in the first few episodes, as the focus of the new series is scattered early on among a number of concerns involving Jeffrey Donovan’s Charlie Haverford and his seemingly small-time racket as a psychic operating out of his nondescript suburban California home.
If you’ve ever felt an urge to see what goes on in one of those businesses but didn’t necessarily require (or believe in) the services of a psychic the first episode is a little like walking in and being shown behind the curtain. The series opens with a brisk, engaging montage detailing Charlie’s talents at seducing clients into parting with their hard-earned cash by way of various small-time cons and routines. There’s not a lot of detail in the assortment of tricks and scams he runs; it mostly comes down to the ineffable charm of the man doing the actual swindling. After taking some time off to play not so Minnesota nice in season 2 of FX’s Fargo, Donovan is back in leading man territory, offering a similar sort of confident performance he gave for seven seasons on USA’s Burn Notice. The only difference here is the confidence largely has to do with the con.
Shut Eye initially seems content exploring Charlie and his association with a community of small-time grifters, working out of their homes or strip malls (the show has a real but untapped interest in those homogenized retail spaces), who answer to Fonzo Marks (Angus Sampson, who played Bear, the brother to Donovan’s character on Fargo), the thuggish head of a Romani clan and his mother Rita, played by Isabella Rossellini. Like with the representation of Italian Americans in The Sopranos, Shut Eye makes a point to underline how the Romani community is often unfairly stereotyped as criminals. And like The Sopranos, Shut Eye‘s main interest in this group happens to be in the various illegalities they are involved in at one time or another. The only difference is that when David Chase was exploring these stereotypes the characters themselves were the once experiencing their detriments. As a result, the idea tends to fall by the wayside too quickly, leaving it a compelling but underdeveloped notion that will hopefully be picked up again before the season’s end.
Instead, the show is far more interested in the criminality of the Marks clan. It’s so enthusiastic it offers both Sampson and Rossellini the chance play their characters big. Fonzo is the sort of gangster character with two gears – simmering menace and boiling rage – which doesn’t allow for much in the way of tonal variety; you pretty much know what you’re going to get every time he’s in a scene. Rossellini gets a little bit more to work with, as Rita offers Charlie something to eat one minute and carves the letter “M” into his sister’s face the next. Even though Rossellini makes for a charming criminal matriarch, as written, the role doesn’t offer much in the way of a new take on the archetype. With the exception of being Isabella Rossellini, Rita could be swapped out with Ellen Barkin’s Smurf Cody from Animal Kingdom and the Marks clan would keep right on ticking.
For all the emphasis placed on the Marks and the world of small time con artists early on, Shut Eye soon reveals itself to be another series intent on seeing a middle-aged man self-actualize. Again, there are notes of The Sopranos here, but the more Shut Eye progresses, the more it seems like Charlie is headed down a path similar to Walter White. It’s a slower progression, and one that comes with a hint of the supernatural, as Charlie begins to experience those “real visions” after being attacked by the angry boyfriend of one of his clients. The knock on the head is, naturally, an eye-opening experience that puts Charlie in good with another local gangster, Eduardo Magana (Dexter‘s David Zayas) and helps him see the light as far as no longer settling for the scraps the Marks family affords him.
This is good news to his wife Linda (KaDee Strickland), who wants more out of life – hence why she’s having an affair with Emmanuelle Chriqui’s hypnotist character Gina – but it feels far removed from the narrative pleasures of exploring a unique culture and the inexplicable pull of strip mall soothsayers in 2016. It also says nothing of how the show will explore the nature of his seemingly prophetic visions full of supersaturated colors, or why he can hear conversations before they take place. The show has so much going on that the shift from Charlie living a life resigned to eking out a modest living doing small-time hustles to wanting to move up the criminal food chain upsets the balance of the narrative rather than give it the focus it needs. What once was a promising premise of spending time in the sordid world of fake psychics and understanding its criminal hierarchy turns into a familiar story of one guy’s dream to have it all.
Shut Eye has plenty to offer its audience, but it struggles early on to find exactly what the focus of the series should be. Still, Jeffrey Donovan is reason enough to watch the series (all 10 episodes are available at once) through to the end. You never know, maybe this odd little con man drama will reveal itself to have a few surprises up its sleeve.
Shut Eye season 1 is available in its entirety on Hulu.