TV doesn’t always have to serve a greater purpose. Plenty of shows exist just to entertain. But when you take a show like The Act, which tells the true crime story of Gypsy (Joey King) and her mother, Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette), there should be a greater purpose than mere gawking. The series needs to do more than play into the part of our psyche that’s fascinated by disturbing tales about the most depraved in our society, here a mother who makes her daughter sick.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case in The Act. Arquette and King turn in tour de force performances as the mother/ daughter pair in a hellish co-dependent relationship. Fresh off Escape at Dannemora, Arquette once again completely disappears into her role (although this time she has much better teeth). She’s downright chilling as she says lines like, “But you know what? I like you special.” And King is a revelation. With oversized glasses and a high-pitched voice, she’s at once the victim and the perpetrator. AnnaSophia Robb and Chloë Sevigny are equally great as the neighbors who might be a little bit suspicious, but truly had no idea what was going on.
Still, the series takes eight episodes (two premiere today, with one each week to follow) to tell a story that would have been better as a shorter mini-series or a made-for-TV movie. (In fact, it was the subject of the Lifetime movie Love You to Death in January). Hulu’s series offers no new insight into why Dee Dee, who has the serious and little-understood mental illness Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, acts the way she does. In the five episodes made available for review, The Act never flashes back to show how it all began. What was Dee Dee’s childhood like? When did Dee Dee begin making Gypsy sick? Gypsy’s father is mentioned, but never seen. Why did he leave his daughter with a woman who is clearly deranged? How was Dee Dee able to game the system so easily? Habitat for Humanity builds her a house. Charitable organizations give her awards. Strangers send her money.
Dee Dee infantilizes her daughter, constantly changing her age to make her younger. She tells everyone that Gypsy has the mental capacity of a seven-year-old. She relishes the attention she receives as a martyr mother who’s sacrificed her life for her daughter. “I never saved Gypsy,” she tells Gypsy in front of an adoring crowd. “Gypsy saved me. I was born to be your mom.”
At some point, Gypsy becomes complicit in the deception. She knows she can walk and does not need a wheelchair. She knows she’s not allergic to sugar. She knows she doesn’t need an epi pen. She knows she doesn’t have to eat through a feeding tube. (I’m never getting over the scene of pizza being put in a blender and fed to Gypsy). Yet she continues to go along with her mother’s deception. Is It Stockholm syndrome? Most likely. However, the series never really explores why Gypsy goes to the lengths she does in The Act.
Of course, what Dee Dee didn’t count on was the Internet, including social media and dating websites, giving her daughter access to the outside world—and to men who clearly had issues of their own. Gypsy first meets a much older man at a comic convention, and then meets Nick (Calum Worthy), a painfully awkward guy who is just waiting for the right excuse to commit violence.
What happened to Gypsy is a failure of the medical community as well. Dee Dee claims all of Gypsy’s medical records were lost in Hurricane Katrina. But only one doctor finds this suspicious, and even that makes only half-hearted attempts to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Watching five hours of unrelenting abuse is tough and disturbing. And, I have to say, kind of pointless. Watching the series becomes a bit of a slog where you are just waiting for the crime to happen so that the narrative can move forward. Unlike Sharp Objects, which revealed the mother’s chronic abuse late in the series, viewers know from the jump what’s going on here. All that’s left is to wait for the inevitable conclusion.
The Act is now streaming on Hulu.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .