To say there’s no conflict in “Gypsy” would be a slight exaggeration, but to say it’s one of the most boring thrillers on Netflix would not. Intended as an exploration of a middle-aged woman’s unrestrained desires, the new series never elevates its drama to anything thematically challenging or narratively titillating. It’s as familiar as it wants to be risqué, which is the one rule you shouldn’t break when constructing a mind game.
Lisa Rubin’s 10-episode first season tracks Naomi Watts’ Jean Halloway, a Manhattan-based therapist with a good husband, Michael (Billy Crudup), and an adorable child, Dolly (Maren Heary). She spends her days seeing patients, discussing treatment plans with her colleagues, and getting blow-outs as a relaxing treat. Her nights are spent experimenting in the kitchen, watching movies with the family, and drinking a glass of wine or two.
But she hides a dark side; a secret life; a self so deeply hidden… she’s basically the same person. Jean’s shameful adventure begins with the bold choice of ordering a glass of wine in the daytime — I know. It’s too early for wine, Jean! You’ve got to go to work! You’re supposed to order coffee from a coffee shop! But after a few days chatting with her barista-turned-bartender, Sydney (Sophie Cookson), Jean needs to show her she’s unpredictable, and what better example than a Chardonnay in the a.m.?
Sydney becomes a point of fixation for Jean, who calls calls herself Diane when flirting with the young woman who moonlights as a singer when she’s not slinging drinks. The two enter into a bit of a romance, but one so slow-moving and filled with so much empty drama it’s amazing either remains invested. Perhaps it’s because of Jean’s greater sin that she’s so infatuated with Sydney. You see, Sydney is Sam’s ex, and Sam (Karl Glusman) is Jean’s patient — hence Jean’s name change, for protection.
In this taboo dynamic, “Gypsy” comes closest to approaching a meaningful conflict. Jean isn’t a good therapist. She’s frustrated by her patients, be it their lack of progress or restraint in explaining themselves, and she employs some unorthodox methods to “help.” And yet, none of them are that extreme. Without spoiling a show that’s kind of impossible to spoil, she definitely makes a few choices that would get her suspended, if not outright fired, but they’re hardly shocking to an audience at home.
“Gypsy” has the opportunity to lean into some batshit crazy shenanigans — the kind that get people talking, online and off — but Jean holds her cards far too close to the vest. Like far too many shows on streaming platforms, this one feels like it’s expected to be binged, not designed for it. The drama is minimal and poorly constructed; the dialogue feels forced and flimsy. But Jean isn’t spicing up the hours of mundane material, either. She’s not shoving anyone in front of a train or hiding an evil twin in the Black Lodge.
…or is she? The painful narration to kick off the series makes it fairly obvious “Gypsy” is keeping secrets from the audience, and one episode ends on a revelation meant to be more gasp-inducing than it plays. It means something is coming — an explanation, shocking or otherwise. A few twists feel safe to predict, but the real problem are these blunt, unanswered promises that something is coming. It’s as if the show is constantly winking at the audience, teasing a twist that’s always one more episode away. Through six, it’s difficult to keep waiting, let alone to trust the girl who cried, “Twist!”
If you could somehow ignore these implications, one could perhaps argue that “Gypsy” is the first psycho-sexual thriller not to rely on big reveals. For one, it doesn’t treat its same sex romance as an exemption for cheating. This isn’t the story of a woman who’s discovering herself at a late age and struggles with coming out. She’s afraid of losing her husband by cheating on him, and treating her sexuality as truly fluid — as well as putting equal stakes on her choice to cheat — is commendable.
But for that interpretation to be satisfying beyond its progressive spirit, there would have to be more heart to these cardboard cut-out characters. Poor Billy Crudup, film’s reigning supporting actor MVP (“20th Century Women,” “Jackie”), gets saddled with a “good dad” role, leaving him little to do other than react to his wife’s barely alarming behavior. The couple spends time building history through tough exposition, and there are implicit accusations tossed in without the seriousness needed to make them suspenseful, but neither actor is really given a chance to strut their stuff. (That their issues regularly fall under “rich white people problems” doesn’t help.)
Within this lack of Crudup upping his Crud and Naomi Watts Naomi Watts-ing lies the most frustrating element of “Gypsy”: Finally, after a gloriously savage turn on “Twin Peaks” and a hysterical cameo in “BoJack Horseman,” Watts finally has her own show, and… there’s just not much to it. “Gypsy” isn’t as fun or as deep as one would expect from a project so dependent on its star. Over the last couple decades, Watts has proven she loves a good challenge, and the only challenging aspect of her first TV show is in watching it all the way through.
“Gypsy” Season 1 premieres Friday, June 30, exclusively on Netflix.