Patricia Arquette is out to single-handedly destroy “Sharp Objects.” Not only did the Oscar-winning actress steer Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora” to a Golden Globe that could’ve belonged to Amy Adams, but now she’s playing a mentally deranged mother who poisons her daughter in order to keep the abused teen dependent on her. Plus, Arquette’s creepy new Hulu limited series has the benefit of being true — take that, Adora.
In all seriousness, “The Act” isn’t much like “Sharp Objects,” in tone or quality. Though Gillian Flynn’s adaptation will face off against both Arquette miniseries at this year’s Emmys, the latest isn’t as meticulously edited, captured, or performed as HBO’s outstanding modern gothic mystery, and it’s not trying to be. While last year’s summer sensation was an addictive, dense slice of cherry pie — with an interwoven lattice topping purposefully shaped for its refined flavors as much as the ornate admiration it attracts — this spring’s offering is a peculiar pastry you can’t stop poking. At times, you just want to know what this thing is, but after a few hours, you’ll be surprised to find how much time you’ve spent enjoying the taste.
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As chronicled in Erin Lee Carr’s HBO documentary “Mommy Dead and Dearest” (2017), “The Act” tells the embellished true story of Gypsy Blanchard (Joey King), a young girl living with her mother in a home built for them by Habitat for Humanity. The Louisiana-born mother-daughter duo qualified for the house in Springfield, MO after losing their home and belongings in Katrina, but they earned an extra bit of attention from the media because of Gypsy’s many illnesses. Epilepsy, paraplegia, anemia, and many allergies all plague the bald, big-eyed young woman, who’s wheeled around the house by her attentive mom, Dee Dee (Arquette).
As can be expected for a housebound girl with only an overprotective mother for company, Gypsy also suffers from a bit of arrested development. Dee Dee says that’s one of her symptoms, but it quickly becomes clear the parent prefers her child to stay forever young. Gypsy wears wigs and dresses to look like Disney princesses. She doesn’t know anything about sex despite being at least 14 years old (her age is a point of debate in the narrative). She speaks in the sweet, high-pitched voice of a six-year-old who’s just figured out how to get what she wants by playing the cute card.
The role is deceptively tricky. King has to play to the extremes of Gypsy’s personality in order to emphasize just how messed up things got in that house, and to exacerbate the situation toward its morbid endpoint. The series begins with a flash-forward to cops discovering Dee Dee’s dead body in the house — how we get there (and what happens to Gypsy) is the central mystery. King has to convince the audience why this kid would take so much abuse from her mom while slowly transitioning to a more active, vengeful place. How is she capable of being coaxed into complacency for so long, and yet also capable of such extreme violence? All the while, King’s got to keep up that voice, which alternates between hilarious and exasperating.
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She’s the weirdest, most fascinating, and best part of the series. Arquette does a fine job embodying an obsessive, overly protective mother, and her physical embodiment of another decaying, dim authority figure is notably distinct from her “Escape at Dannemora” role (even if their accents do blend together at times). But even when she’s screaming, running, or bending Gypsy to her will, Dee Dee remains somewhat familiar. Gypsy isn’t, and the show smartly spends a lot more time in her twisted perspective.
Co-created by Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca (“Channel Zero”), with three episodes helmed by “The Mustang” director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, “The Act” isn’t as formally playful as it could be. Episode titles are superimposed at choice moments (sometimes deep into an episode) to underline their strangeness, and there are a lot of off-kilter close-ups wrapping around Gypsy’s bald head. The combination of subject and sequencing creates an eerie atmosphere, but pushing a bit further stylistically could have made this a campy treat instead of something caught between sincere storytelling and the bizarre true story.
Still, after five of the eight total episodes, “The Act” is a satisfying exploration of one girl’s desperate bid for independence. You feel for Gypsy even when she starts to cross lines most people don’t have to think about, and Dee Dee is far from a one-dimensional monster; she’s in pain, and this is her way of coping. Though a little more adventurousness would’ve gone a long way, the strangeness of this true story is more than enough to keep you hooked, and “The Act” is just weird enough to work.
“The Act” released its first two episodes March 20 and will release the remaining six episodes each subsequent Wednesday.