Fresh off her Golden Globe-winning performance in Showtime’s limited series Escape At Dannemora, Patricia Arquette delivers another likely award-worthy performance in Hulu’s The Act. Like Dannemora, this series is based on real-life events and sees Arquette inhabiting the persona of an actual person, without the performance devolving into mere impersonation. This time, instead of a frustrated, libidinous worker in a correctional facility, Arquette plays Dee Dee Blanchard, the doting single mother of a chronically ill child, Gypsy Rose (Joey King). On the surface, Dee Dee is a kind, compassionate woman — if not a little too overprotective — but she’s also a woman with some very dark secrets, namely that she’s suffering from Munchausen by-proxy syndrome, and is poisoning her daughter’s body and mind in an effort to bask in the praise she receives from those close to them, and also to keep her daughter from growing up and leaving her.
If The Act weren’t based on true events — much of the series is inspired by the Buzzfeed article written by Michelle Dean, who also serves as a writer and executive producer alongside Nick Antosca (Channel Zero) on the series — its premise would very closely resemble that of HBO’s sweaty adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Parallels between the two are thin, thankfully. For one, Sharp Objects reveled in its murder mystery, setting up a zinger of an surprise ending that, for some, may have been worth the eight weeks of watching cub reporter Amy Adams swilled vodka and file the occasional story on a twisted murder in her demented hometown. The Act, by comparison, is much more concerned with the depths of Dee Dee’s deception and how her daughter’s slow realization, that she’s been duped by the one person she should be able to trust, leads her down an increasingly self-destructive path, one that eventually claims her mother as a victim.
To that end, The Act isn’t so much a murder mystery as it is fictionalized retelling of a story Antosca, Dean, and Hulu are betting will appeal to most audiences because they already know the ending. It’s too bizarre a tale not to wind up in film or in television. The only problem for this limited series, however, is that it already has, in the form of the documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest, which aired on HBO in 2017. That film delved into the seemingly outlandish case of a mother inventing a myriad of illnesses for her child and convincing not only Gypsy Rose, but a bevy of medical professionals as well that her daughter was, among other things, unable to walk and could not consume solid food. Prior to discovering her severe allergies were fictitious, Gypsy Rose ate through a feeding tube implanted in her abdomen, which this series seems particularly fascinated with early on.
Because so many of the details are already known, or easily googled (including the outcome of the two trials covering Dee Dee’s murder), The Act is faced with the question of how best to explore the case and to what degree, if at all, this was a premeditated murder or an act of self-defense on behalf of a young woman who had been horrifically victimized by her mother all her life. To accomplish this, The Act interweaves two distinct timelines: one in 2015, directly after Dee Dee’s murder, and one seven years earlier, detailing the extent of the abuse Gypsy Rose suffered at the hands of Dee Dee, and the ways, both expected and unexpected, she responded to learning the truth.
The key point of interest for the series is Dee Dee, as The Act works to deliver a better (if fictionalized) understanding of what Dee Dee was doing and why, counterbalancing her fictitious claims with that of Gypsy Rose’s slow turn against her mother. As such, it’s no surprise that the narrative relies so heavily on Arquette’s performance, which is vacillates between nuanced and overt in ways that help turn many early moment in the series into something akin to a horror film.
As with her role in Dannemora, Arquette has to navigate the challenges of portraying an actual human being while also imbuing that person with enough character to make the performance compelling beyond the peculiar, sordid details of Dee Dee’s story. Arquette is certainly up to the task, as her performance here is just as lived-in as that of Tilly Mitchell. The same is true of King’s performance as Gypsy Rose, wherein she adroitly moves between childlike guilelessness and cold-blooded duplicity with surprising believability.
If there’s one place The Act falls short, however, is that, despite there being eight episodes, the series doesn’t really convey any additional insight into the story at hand. Part of that is due to the fact that it’s been covered so extensively already, as well as the fact that the person about whom the series asks the most interesting questions is unable to provide any answers that might further the audience’s understanding of her actions or the nature of Munchausen by-proxy syndrome.
Instead, Dee Dee remains the series’ biggest question, one Antosca and Dean repeatedly underline the inscrutability of with a thread involving the Blanchard’s suspicious neighbor Mel (Chloë Sevigny) and her daughter Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb). The two are ostensibly the audience avatar here, asking the sort of questions that anyone watching likely would as well. Unfortunately, although there is closure to this story, it doesn’t come with a greater understanding of who Dee Dee Blanchard was, and why she inflicted so much pain on her own child.
The Act season 1 is currently streaming on Hulu.