It boggles the mind that prestige actors like Naomi Watts and Billy Crudup wound up in a project like Gypsy. Sure, Netflix has been on a prolific upswing lately, so it’s not hard to imagine the two receiving some sort of pitch akin to “psychological sexual domestic thriller, featuring Fifty Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson.” But wasn’t there some sort of script approval? When they read honest-to-god lines like “You seriously don’t get it, do you?” and “You’re like a different person lately!” did they not throw the script across the proverbial room and fire off testy phone calls to their respective agents? Doesn’t Crudup have enough of that sweet, sweet MasterCard cash to avoid ever having to play a thankless husband role like this? Seriously, what happened? A retrospective of Gypsy the musical would have been a better fit, with Watts as Mama and Crudup as Herbie. What we wouldn’t give for a chorus of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Instead, everything’s coming up assholes.
Perhaps Watts was influenced by her friend and fellow Australian Nicole Kidman, who racked up much-deserved praise and award speculation for her turn in a similarly themed plight of the anguished housewife in this spring’s Big Little Lies. But Gypsy’s take could be retitled Big Big Lies, lacking any of the subtlety and nuances that made the previous series such a delight. Where BLL tempered its darkness with likable performances and white, wide open spaces, Gypsy is almost completely dark and soulless and filled with no one viewers can possibly feel warmly toward, except for the show’s adorable 6-year-old.
In Gypsy, Watts is a therapist named Jean who gets so involved in her clients’ problems that she starts searching out their exes and family members and other people they discuss in therapy in real life, under the alias of “Diane.” We are given no reason for why she’s started doing this, except that her suburban Stepford life of drop-offs and school bake sales must be enough to drive anyone a little mad. She also starts drinking heavily, shoplifting in fancy Manhattan stores and scrounging through her friends’ bathrooms for pills, all the while engaging in a volatile flirtation with the alluring Sydney (Sophie Cookson), the ex of her patient Sam (Karl Glusman). (Most egregious: A dance club scene wherein Watts and Cookson might in fact be reenacting an attempt to rid a kitchen floor of cockroaches.) While some impetus for Jean’s behavior would be helpful, it’s also hard to imagine anything that could possibly explain it, she’s seemingly so anxious to unravel her sweet Connecticut homestead with her attractive but workaholic husband, Michael (Crudup), and daughter, Dolly, who is showing signs of identifying as a boy. Jean’s current extracurriculars would not only blow up her domestic life but also her professional one, certainly causing her to lose her job and livelihood. Yet the only explanation we can see for her actions is to titillate the audience into watching yet another unsavory episode. It’s like a long-form Red Shoe Diaries, without even the guiding force of a David Duchovny to lead us through.
BLL had a murder to tie it all together, and a dead body could help things out here. A Looking For Mr. Goodbar-type predator could also help raise the stakes. Instead, we get Jean delving into her dark side, usually obnoxiously portrayed by the fact that she wears a gold bird necklace when she’s taking flight. There’s a little tension: Will she be caught by her husband? Her clients? The show plays it up so smugly while revealing that Jean has sidled up to her client’s daughter, say, at the hair salon, when really it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Michael’s flirtation with his impossibly gorgeous assistant, Alexis (Melanie Liburd), seems precarious, but since everyone on screen is, without exception, horrible, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t hook up with her at some point.
Eventually, Jean goes past observing and starts infiltrating people’s lives, if not outright stalking them. It seems like at least once an episode, she will mention something about her clients’ friends and relatives in therapy that she couldn’t possibly know, and her client will say, “Why would you say that?” or “How could you know that”? And every time, Watts performs the same stammer and murmurs, “Um, because you told me,” until you’re practically screaming at the screen for someone to find her out. The clients, as well as Jean’s targets, are as confused as the viewer as to what she is hoping to get out of all this. Does she really want to help these people? Is she trying to add more meaning and excitement to her own life? More likely, this is just a pale attempt to inject a drama with some kind of tension, unconvincingly led by first-time showrunner Lisa Rubin, who could have used some better backup than Fifty Shades alums.
Because Watts and Crudup are pros, they do what they can with the material, bringing a considerable amount of Fortysomething Shades heat to episode six, for example, as the couple arranges a role-playing tryst in a hotel. But you can’t just throw drama on the screen and expect people to follow blindly: You need nuance, compelling characters, and some sort of plot—and intrigue more subtle than a hand grenade. As Watts’ Jean stumbles into awkward situation after awkward situation, like Larry David on the most painful and unfunny episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Netflix might have inadvertently created a new genre: the cringe drama.