By Calum Henderson
The Act (Lightbox)
Every time a new true crime series comes out I always think the same thing. "Boy, they've really done it this time," I'll say, shaking my head in amazement. "Surely things can't get any wilder than this."
I should know better by now. Repeatedly this genre has proven me wrong: as sure as day follows night, things always get wilder. Lightbox's new series, The Act, hot off the undersea cables from American streaming platform Hulu, might be the wildest true crime thing I've seen yet.
The first series of what is envisioned as an American Horror Story style true crime anthology is a dramatisation of the tragic story of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy. There's no real mystery to unravel: in 2015 Gypsy and her boyfriend murdered Dee Dee in the home she and Gypsy had shared in Springfield, Missouri. It's the circumstances which led to the murder that make it worthy of an eight-episode series.
Dee Dee is believed to have had a condition known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Basically this means that all her daughter's life she tricked her into thinking she was sick, medicating her and subjecting her to endless unnecessary medical procedures. The whole world – neighbours, doctors, charities – bought that Gypsy was sick, because who would ever think to question a bald little girl in a wheelchair?
I mean, arguably one of the many doctors should have, but Dee Dee was more than just your run-of-the-mill grifter. There was always some explanation, some excuse, all sorts of complexities and layers which the series patiently picks away at and slowly unravels in its character study.
This is built on a couple of remarkable acting performances. Patricia Arquette channels Kathy Bates in Misery as the sweetly overbearing Dee Dee, while Joey King captures Gypsy's fawnish naivety and distinctive helium voice so well that she's barely distinguishable from the real Gypsy you see in the 2017 HBO documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest (which you are obviously going to find and watch because this is one of those awful cases you become completely obsessed with and need to know everything about).
The series was co-created by journalist Michelle Dean, whose longform investigation published by Buzzfeed in 2016 ('Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered') provides the basis for the drama. Dean's closeness to the story and its characters means this portrayal is a bit more sensitive and nuanced than it otherwise might have been, but are we okay with journalists turning their reporting into screenplays now? That's probably an ethical debate for another day.
Setting aside this and the myriad other moral conundrums that inevitably present themselves whenever true crime is on the table, The Act works as an absorbing, well-paced drama. The details are shocking, scandalous, and ultimately just very sad. "She would have been the perfect mom for somebody who was actually sick," the real-life Gypsy told Dean from prison in 2016. "But I wasn't sick."