Where Gregg Araki’s TV opus Now Apocalypse flaunts its open-endedness, The Act is a real-life-crime re-creation that, true to the form, begins near its end, with the signs of a mystery – the home of Dee Dee and her daughter Gypsy Rose Blanchard, seemingly vacated. Stretching out even this initial bit of exposition, it takes quite a while to discover the gruesome sight of Dee Dee’s corpse, murdered in her bed.
During the police investigation and the various neighbourhood speculations (Chloë Sevigny plays a hard-bitten role here) that follow on this day in 2015, we begin to flash back to where it all began: the utterly dependent relation, virtually from the moment of birth, of a seemingly very ill Gypsy (Joey King) to her intensely caring mother (Patricia Arquette).
These appearances turn out to be extremely deceptive. The situation is what one is tempted to call a textbook case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which Dee Dee convinces everyone around her – as well as, for a long time, Gypsy herself – that her daughter suffers from an endlessly compounding set of ailments.
Dee Dee has a set of murky motives for establishing this set-up, including (as another series of flashbacks shows) her terrible rapport with her own mother. The “act” part – and the elaborate fraud it entails – comes at the moment in Gypsy’s development when, although becoming aware of the truth, she reluctantly agrees to stay in her wheelchair and play the part of victim.
I evoke the image of a textbook because The Act often gives the impression of ticking off, one by one, every item in a list of diagnostic symptoms of the psychopathology it dramatises. The series is based on a BuzzFeed article by Canadian journalist Michelle Dean, who serves here as co-showrunner with Nick Antosca, and co-writer on 3 of the 8 episodes. One can easily imagine her initial, engrossing reportage expanded into a book or a feature film (the Lifetime movie Love You to Death starring Marcia Gay Harden appeared in January 2019) – but 8 hours of television? Anywhere that the makers can stretch this material, they stretch it.
Stylistically, it’s a series that goes in for a thick overlay of stylistic affectation – in its overall look, in the design of written titles, in colour scheme, in the jagged block-construction of autonomous sequences. Several of the directors used are also well-known actors: Adam Arkin for one episode, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (The Mustang, 2019) for three.
The Act is grimly compelling stuff – so determinedly sensational (gruesome bodily details – such as the feeding-hole in Gypsy’s stomach – abound) that, for some viewers, it invites the accusation of being thoroughly exploitative; while for others (me included), it offers the guilty pleasure of perversely complicit enjoyment.
But why guilty? (I don’t normally take my pleasures with guilt.) Because the series plugs into a long tradition of American film and literature in which lower class “ordinary folk” are projected as the repository of all things ugly and creepy. Dean and Antosca spare us nothing on this level – all the way to an excruciating scene of mother and daughter harshly spotlit on a stage, tunelessly warbling The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”. And when the character of Nick Godejohn (Calum Worthy), appears – a nerdy teenager who fills, via Skype, Gypsy’s burgeoning sexual imagination with sadomasochistic ritual and further dissociative splitting of identity – the achievement of grand grotesquery is complete.