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'The Act,' on Hulu, is a Tragic, Twisted, True Story
March 20, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Prepare to feel sad when you watch Hulu’s new drama The Act.

The Act, which premieres Wednesday on the streaming service, joins television’s crowded roster of dramas based on real-life crimes. Where others tend to quickly turn dark, however, The Act spends more of its first hour being sad.

Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King, top) is a teenage girl seemingly fated to live her life in a literal wheelchair and a figurative bubble.

Her mother, Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette, top), is Gypsy’s caregiver and constant companion. And when we say constant, we mean constant. She would be called a helicopter Mom except the way she sees it, Gypsy really does require full-time attention and micromanaging.  

As Dee Dee explains to her new neighbor Mel (Chloë Sevigny), Gypsy was assembled all wrong. She can’t walk, she has to be fed intravenously because she has swallowing issues, she’s allergic to things like sugar, and on and on. The emergency room is her second home.

We join the story just as Gypsy and Dee Dee have moved to Missouri. They were washed out of their Louisiana home by Hurricane Katrina, we’re told, and now they’ve been lucky enough to score a Habitat for Humanity home in a nice neighborly cul-de-sac up in the drier north.

Gypsy at first just seems grateful for everything Mom does, except soon we start to get little hints that something is off.

In one early scene, Dee Dee shaves Gypsy’s head, telling her this makes her life easier and makes her look prettier. It also, however, broadens the inevitable and already substantial gap between Gypsy and other kids her age.

Similarly, it may be sweet for Mom and daughter to watch Disney movies together. But when other girls Gypsy’s age are starting to have boyfriends, her Mom has her still talking about going out for Halloween as a character from Frozen.

This disconnect between the life Dee Dee has molded for Gypsy and the life about which Gypsy is beginning to dream intensifies when Gypsy meets Mel’s daughter Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb), who is about the same age and takes a liking to Gypsy.

The deal is clinched after Lacey mentions and then points out her boyfriend, Jake. The next time Gypsy has a moment alone at home, she grabs Dee Dee’s laptop and wistfully Googles images for “best friends” and “boyfriend kiss.”

So yes, any hint of subtlety has now disappeared. Dee Dee becomes more ominous with every scene, and soon we start to get further clues about Gypsy as well.

Meanwhile, Mel has shifted from cynical and unpleasant to rather nicely nuanced. Lacey, who’s pretty and popular enough to play the mean girl without breaking a sweat, still seems to be rather more gentle and caring.

When the show’s featured crime occurs, we think we have a sense of where everyone is positioned on the chessboard. Naturally, we don’t, which we gradually realize as The Act becomes more of a crime mystery.

Arquette is solid in an unlikeable role, King gives Gypsy multiple dimensions, and Sevigny is terrific as a character who starts out flat and expands.

The Act also gets a little less sad, albeit perhaps darker, after the first episode. At that point, we also have no idea where it will go, which is all to the good in a suspense drama.

The setup, however, doesn’t come easy.

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