I avoided the signs with this one. Naomi Watts gave a decade-in-performances-topping turn in Mulholland Drive, was quietly hilarious in While We’re Young, and brilliant in I Heart Huckabees and the new Twin Peaks, in which she’s had to play the very odd task of being so riled up and discontent as to not notice that her husband’s a vegetable from another realm. I wanted Netflix’s just-released Gypsy to showcase that (rather than, say, reflect the spate of other lesser films she’s starred in in the last decade, from 3 Generations to Adore to Diana) — so much so that I largely ignored the red flag of the trailer boasting “from the director of 50 Shades of Grey,” or the fact that it gave therapy expressions like “I believe your time is up” self-serious double meanings.
Turns out, this show that wants to explore a transgressive fantasy is, like 50 Shades before it, so staunchly vanilla that I actually started paying more attention to the writing on the back of the cup of Chobani I was eating while watching it (incidentally, the same flavor!). “How does the vanilla in this yogurt taste so real?” became a more interesting question than anything regarding the series. However, one question about Gypsy does keep recurring: why does this character study, with its puzzlingly trite conception of what makes for an interesting, transgressive character, exist?
Luckily this thing (which is shot like a Zales commercial) has actors disguising, as best as they can, the flatness of the language and artless sheen of the cinematography. But if at any point you stop to imagine how this series would sound on the page, you might simultaneously find yourself getting very upset at the phantom piles of better scripts out there that never made it into being.
Naomi Watts stars as Jean Holloway, a therapist who delves way too deep into the personal lives of her patients, and who’s in the midst of formulating an Americano-and-bourbon chugging bi-curious alter-ego named Diane. (Not Diane Selwin, unfortunately — if only!) She’s married to a successful lawyer (Billy Crudup), and they have a daughter who they lightly worry might be having questions about her gender identity. They live in a nice house in a Connecticut suburb, and sometimes Jean makes boeuf bourguignon, and then she and her husband stiffly reminisce at bizarre lengths on other instances in which she cooked, as if the show is taking extra time, in front of our eyes, to say, “see, see, we created a couple with a history!” Honestly, every detail of Jean’s life seems as though it was collaged together by an alien who came to earth and did really good research into common tropes in suburban drama: they’re all there, and all so wholly unspecific! The most egregious, perhaps, is the fact that Crudup’s character has an attractive secretary, about whom Jean has augmenting suspicions. And perhaps this stifling generic-ness could substantiate Jean’s character’s longing for escape — but for the fact that her escape routes aren’t particularly interesting, either.
As a story, and in its themes, the premise of the show is interesting. Therapy is a fascinating field, and the idea of an unethical therapist, who uses her knowledge to change her own life, is compelling. Seeing quotes where writer/showrunner Lisa Rubin describes it, even, could make it sound enticing. She told the Los Angeles Times:
A therapist has all this sort of intimate information about their patient and almost hears endlessly about these people and their lives — they could almost fall in love with these people through the stories. There are certain boundaries, emotional boundaries, gray areas that are really interesting because everyone has their own interpretation of what the line is or where the line is.
Could be exciting! Especially with Naomi Watts playing with those complexities! Catherine Breillat, or Michael Haneke, or other writer/directors who’re meticulous about the minutiae of psychological manipulation, could do great things with this! But, alas, this is the type of show that takes a statement like that and literally spells it out for you: in one therapy scene, Jean pretends to listen while pointedly writing out the word “boundaries,” which the camera decides to linger on as it blurs into the next scene.
Meanwhile, the insinuating score seems to want to tickle with hints of “mischief,” and “transgression,” and “danger,” and “fascinatingly tumultuous interiority,” but it’s kind of like being tickled with a cinderblock – because what’s going on doesn’t nearly live up to the tone they’re trying to create. In the first episodes, Jean/Diane happens to be enamored of one of her young patient’s (Karl Glusman, who you may recognize from his 3D ejaculate in Gaspar Noë’s Love) ex-girlfriend, and is stalking her at her coffee shop. There, Jean pretends to be a writer, and slowly starts to learn more and more about the craaazy, singular life of an… indie rock musician in Bushwick who baristas on the side. The second episode is called “Morgan Stop,” and sees her venturing to this stop off Brooklyn’s L train, treated here like a sort of Dante-esque descent into a wild punk-y industrial wasteland rather than the “wild punk-y industrial wasteland” that’s also the über-gentrified place where the Clintons went for pizza back in 2012.
Similarly, and frustratingly, the character’s sexual curiosity — her interest in another, younger woman — is also treated with the same sort of “isn’t this wild?! daring?!” suggestiveness. Bi-curious experimentation is rendered with a type of tonally silly and unfortunate exoticism. As with 50 Shades, Sam Taylor-Johnson (who executive produces, and directs some episodes) tries to tell us to be titillated and lightly scandalized with a script that fails to produce reasons to actually feel those things. We’re seriously cued to think “oooh, someone’s being naughty” when it’s revealed that Jean’s been dabbling in… drinking bourbon.
Dramas about affluent white people who’re itching to escape emotionally stagnating lives may now exist in too-high volume, but they certainly can be astonishingly good, smart, and self-aware character studies — see the leads on Big Little Lies, or any of the siblings on Transparent, or the men who have everything yet butt up against the void on Mad Men, or the lovingly dysfunctional and exquisitely rendered characters on Six Feet Under, or even the characters on the perfectly mediocre Divorce, who’re at least three-dimensional. In fact, see, like, the majority of television for more nuanced, critical examples of the coupling of existential malaise and financial/social comfort. If you want to end up reading the entirety of the back of your subtle, intriguing yogurt, see Gypsy.
“Gypsy” is now streaming on Netflix.