A real-life mother-daughter twisted true crime story makes it way to Lightbox tomorrow in The Act. Jean Sergent reviews the television event of the season.
As a connoisseur of true crime, there is no telly event I’ve been more excited for this year quite like The Act. Chronicling the horrific crimes of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy Rose, this is a powerhouse drama that takes us through a story of lies, fraud, illness, and murder. I’m gleeful about it.
As with any true crime dramatisation, the question of a spoiler-free review is a bit moot. Besides, they let you know in the first ten minutes that something has happened and that something is probably at least one death. So, in the spirit of the times – i.e. you could just look it up – I’m going to tell you a bit about the Blanchards.
Laying out a story as complex as the Blanchards for the small screen is no small feat. Casting is everything in a story like this. Patricia Arquette as Dee Dee and Joey King as Gypsy Rose excell in their duties. The creators, Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca, let the tale unfold piece by piece, giving the viewer tantalising morsel after tantalising morsel as each lie is revealed. There’s a level of “just the facts, ma’am” documentary reporting to the narrative. This is great, because the features of this case are so bizarre they need very little editorialising. Tension builds effortlessly as the audience are let in on the swindle one detail at a time.
At the centre of this story is a rare mental illness called factitious disorder. It’s probably better known by its much sexier name, Munchausen Syndrome. Factitious disorder involves the manufacturing of symptoms to feign illness. It’s not malingering – pretending to be sick to get out of responsibilities – or hypochondria, an obsessive preoccupation with the possibility of illness. Factitious disorder involves inflicting harm on oneself in order to show symptoms that will then get attention. Attention is at the heart of factitious disorder. Lovely warm fuzzy attention, cooing and sobbing bedside visitors, bunches of flowers and maybe the odd donation or two.
Dee Dee Blanchard didn’t have factitious disorder, and neither did Gypsy Rose. Dee Dee Blanchard had a much more sinister version – FDIA, factitious disorder imposed on another, also known by its the jaunty popular name Munchausen By Proxy. Oof I get shivers. Munchausen by Proxy is a vicious, often fatal form of abuse, usually committed by a mother against her child. The mother inflicts pain, often through misuse of chemicals, in order to get medical attention for her child.
This in turn gives the parent loads of attention, and so the parent keeps doing it, keeps poisoning their child, to get more and more medical attention and diagnoses and donations for well-meaning strangers until eventually she is either rumbled or her child dies from her abuse. Which is murder, just in case you needed that spelled out for you.
Dee Dee’s abuse of Gypsy Rose is so expansive the mind boggles. Illnesses and syndromes that Dee Dee induced or faked in her daughter included leukimia, asthma, and muscular dystrophy. She lied about being a refugee of Hurricane Katrina in order to get a house built for them by Habitat For Humanity. She lied to Gypsy Rose’s father and cut off contact between him and his daughter so that Dee Dee could keep up her fiction while receiving financial support from Gypsy’s dad. Dee Dee confined Gypsy Rose to a wheelchair, even though Gypsy could walk.
The central roles of Dee Dee and Gyspy Rose are played by Patricia Arquette, who you’ve heard of, and Joey King, who you haven’t. Arquette is almost unrecognisable as Dee Dee with mousey frazzled hair and conservative smocks. The treachery and violence in Dee Dee’s nature are kept at a constant simmer. It’s electrifying. Arquette gives a melodic performance, her Dee Dee balancing on a constant knife edge between sweetness and tyranny. I found myself imagining Arquette as a third protagonist in that perennial classic of toxic femininity, Single White Female.
Joey King, who has an IMDB list as long as your arm even though she’s only 20, gives a studied portrayal, sticking eerily close to the voice and mannerisms of Gypsy Rose. This is essential, because anyone familiar with the case knows Gypsy’s voice to be childlike, which adds a creepy sadness to a story which is already creepy and sad. King sinks into the role beautifully, giving a delicate performance that absorbs the audience.
The supporting cast features Chloe Sevigny as a no-nonsense nosey neighbour who threatens the safety of the Blanchard hoax. A cameo from the cop uncle off of Breaking Bad is a pleasant surprise. On the whole the supporting cast are largely unknown, a boon to the suspension of disbelief that’s essential to an enthralling drama. If there were too many celebrity cameos the bubble might burst.
The set design is gaudy and saturated, reflecting the Disney Princess obsession of the pair, and the toxic femininity of the crimes. Their pink Habitat for Humanity house features hoarder baskets of toys and costumes, juxtaposed against the stark bright white of the massive cupboard where Dee Dee keeps countless pill bottles.
One of the creepier features of the pill bottle cupboard is the little hand-scrawled notes on the bottles; a bottle of valium has been labelled “sleepy baby” by Dee Dee. That little detail perfectly captures the tone of the series which has the energy of an old-school made for TV movie or crime miniseries – think I Know My First Name Is Steven or Death of a Cheerleader, or even the brilliant Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. That late 80s early 90s style and aesthetic is subtly polished by the calibre of the acting, without losing the voyeuristic, pulpy joy of the genre.
While true crime documentaries abound, a thoughtful long-form TV drama based on a true crime is surprisingly rare. This case is so complex and strange, and the lines between victims and perpetrators are so blurred, that a dramatisation could easily become tabloid trash. This production follows in the footsteps of The People vs OJ Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace, but sets itself apart through the feminine and domestic setting. Factitious disorder is such a peculiarly feminine condition. Girlishness and domestic helplessness are such fertile masks for cruel wickedness.
Although it is totally inappropriate to refer to a depiction of child abuse as thrilling, there are so many moments in The Act that are designed to give viewers chills and elicit gasps. This is a new entrant into the canon of Sunday afternoon hungover binge-watching, par excellence. The story of Dee Dee Blanchard’s mistreatment of her daughter Gypsy Rose isn’t the banality of evil – it’s the garishness of greed. This story has more twists and turns than the teacup ride at Disneyland. Pull on your Cinderella wig and strap in.
The first four episodes of The Act will be on Lightbox tomorrow.
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