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Confusing ‘The Watcher’ Sees Ryan Murphy Aim for ‘Twin Peaks’ Quirkiness in Muddled Mystery

Netflix's "The Watcher" feels half-baked because the true scary story at its center is quickly disregarded.

The Watcher. (L to R) Naomi Watts as Nora Brannock, Bobby Cannavale as Dean Brannock in episode 101 of The Watcher. Cr. Eric Liebowitz/Netflix © 2022

“The Watcher”

ERIC LIEBOWITZ/NETFLIX

[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Watcher,” including the ending.]

If one looks at the Ryan Murphy/Netflix collaborations in total, you’d be safe saying the pair haven’t crafted a match made in heaven (massive viewing numbers for “Dahmer” notwithstanding).  Which is a shame, as “The Watcher” is probably the best series Murphy’s worked on for the streaming giant. What makes “The Watcher” soar is Murphy going back to what worked for him with the first “American Horror Story”: a haunted house film with a cadre of characters you simultaneously liked yet were irritated by. But at the end of the day it’s still a Murphy show, meaning that for every good thing, like Jennifer Coolidge’s real-estate agent from hell, there’s an element that makes you roll your eyes and sigh in exasperation, like pigtail wearing becoming a major plot point.

Let’s back up: Dean and Nora Brannock (Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts) have gone all-in on their dream home in Westfield, New Jersey. Like any good haunted house film, the stakes are high. The couple have weathered a bankruptcy and have cashed in all available funds. But almost immediately the neighbors they’re surrounded by start to creep them out. And if that’s not bad enough, a series of letters written by someone known as “the Watcher” start arriving, demanding the couple “give the house what it wants.”

What does the house “want”? That’s anyone’s guess. Murphy and long-time co-creator/collaborator Ian Brennan revel in not giving the audience many answers, probably because the real-life story the miniseries is based on didn’t have any either. Derek and Maria Broaddus, the real counterparts of Cannavale and Watts’ characters, didn’t even ever move in to their house. The pair quickly tried to dump the house before renting it out. Between them, the couple who lived in the house prior, and the renters the Broadduses rented the house to, the Watcher only sent four letters before disappearing completely.

So, of course, Murphy and crew had to expand on the original story and they do that by borrowing from the “American Horror Story” playbook by bringing in an A-list cast to kook it up, drawing on murder mysteries that aren’t associated with this one, and outright lifting from other horror movies. Dean and Nora’s neighbors are a hodgepodge of kooky characters, from Margo Martindale and Richard Kind’s crass-talking, arugula-picking snoops to Mia Farrow’s pigtailed historian who goes off on the history of the Brannocks’ trees. Every character feels like they got lost on the way to a David Lynch film, though the weirdness is likely more an attempt to make literally every one of them a potential Watcher suspect.

The Watcher. (L to R) Terry Kinney as Jasper Winslow, Mia Farrow as Pearl Winslow in episode 101 of The Watcher. Cr. Eric Liebowitz/Netflix © 2022

“The Watcher”

ERIC LIEBOWITZ/NETFLIX

Each actor assembled is definitely doing their best, even if they really only have one character trait to work with. Martindale and Kind are great, constantly calling out Cannavale’s Dean, though a twist that they might be vampires out of a QAnon conspiracy and a flippant reveal that their son might have killed some random old people to make it look like they killed themselves leave way more questions than answers. The same goes for Farrow and her Boo Radley-esque brother Jasper. Farrow is fun to see when her façade of sweetness slips, but she’s too often left screaming out windows. Side note: Can Murphy and crew please stop using mentally delayed characters to creep people out?!

Sure, half the fun in something like this is guessing which one of the neighbors might have done it, but the series relies far too much on picking a character and subsequently discovering they didn’t do it. So everyone becomes a red herring to prevent giving closure to a story that doesn’t have any. But it’s unclear why this particular element of the true story is the one Murphy chooses to use. If he was going to leave the ending ambiguous, it would have been great to resolutions to some of the other lingering questions like who killed the Brannocks’ family ferret, or why everyone is so content to believe that Dean cheated on Nora.

So with the surrounding neighborhood so wacky they feel displaced from time, that leaves the Brannocks as the audience’s source of normality, and even then they’re pretty terrible. Cannavale and Watts start out as an average, unremarkable couple, but the scripts, written predominately by Brennan, want to give Cannavale, especially, a dark undercurrent. His chronic obsession with his daughter’s sexuality almost implies an “Amityville” change in his personality, particularly once the teenage Ellie (Isabel Gravitt) starts dating security guy Dakota (Henry Hunter Hall). But, like most elements in “The Watcher,” this plotline is abandoned with absolutely no rhyme or reason, short of the Brannocks being more concerned about being called racist when they accuse Dakota of being the Watcher.

The only character that feels less like a plot device and more just a reason to include her is Jennifer Coolidge as Karen, AKA the best reason to watch “The Watcher.” Is Jennifer Coolidge just playing herself/every other character she’s done better? Yes. Is it fun as hell to watch? Also yes. Coolidge is one of many possible red herrings, maybe the reddest, in the series, but watching her be the harbinger of doom and gaslight Watts is just plain fun. Especially considering Watts plays Nora as so blandly gullible. She’s a blank canvas for rationality one minute, then decides to craft a harebrained scheme with Dean to ambush a couple at a grocery store and accuse them of being the Watcher. The two should keep their day jobs because crack detectives they ain’t.

The Watcher. (L to R) Naomi Watts as Nora Brannock, Bobby Cannavale as Dean Brannock in episode 106 of The Watcher. Cr. Courtesy Of Netflix © 2022

“The Watcher”

COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Which, they really should do considering how deep in the hole they regularly remind the audience they are! The seven-episode miniseries plays a lot on the Brannocks being financially strapped. Like any good horror couple, a key reason they don’t immediately sell the house from hell is how much money they stand to lose. But you wouldn’t know it with them dropping money on a piano their daughter seemingly only plays once, and $7,000 on a security system they don’t blink an eye to despite it being set up by a 19-year-old entrepreneur who admits to putting a camera in the couple’s bedroom for totally sane reasons!

Moments like these are the threads by which scripts hinge on, but leave dangling. Any time there is a compelling plot point, like the Preservation Society, headed up by Farrow, possibly being the Watcher as a means of keeping the neighborhood the same, it’s dropped. The Brannocks get a few letters, and one breathy phone call, but it’s completely unclear if the Watcher is even dangerous. By the time the couple, now playing makeshift detectives, stumble upon a series of tunnels straight out of “Barbarian” it feels more like they’ve cultivated a dangerous conspiracy in their minds that doesn’t exist. That could have been interesting, especially with how the series plays on the Westfield community being one of insular connection and aesthetics, but it’s dropped as well. The scripts either enjoy trolling the audience or have zero idea how to end things.

“The Watcher” feels half-baked because the scary story at its center lasts all of a few minutes. With the real events being so brief, Murphy relies on outrageousness to cover up for how thin everything feels. Who wouldn’t buy into the Brannocks story when Murphy adds in conspiracies of blood sacrifice and a recreation of the John List murders? Those stories feel far more grandiose than a few letters, so the audience keeps watching even when the central mystery starts to become straight-out nonsensical. “The Watcher” may be Ryan Murphy’s best Netflix series, but the Murphy-isms wear thin.

Grade: C-

“The Watcher” is streaming on Netflix now.

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