Warning: Spoilers for The Act lie ahead.
I’m a fan of true crime the same way some people are fans of Halo Top.
After a long day, I’ll crack open nearly any true crime account and eat up the terrifying, true-to-life details with a metaphoric spoon. Whether it’s a movie, series, or podcast, I live for moment-to-moment reconstructed investigations, retrospective interviews with emotional eyewitnesses, and the big reveal of that one mistake that gets the criminal caught. Put plainly: True crime is very much my thing.
So, you can imagine my surprise when only an hour and a half into The Act, I had an overwhelming urge to turn off the TV — and then possibly throw up. This is true crime in its most brutal and most transparently self-serving form.
The Act isn’t bad television. A stunningly accurate eight-part dramatization of the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard, the series has everything a true crime aficionado could want. Half scam story and half murder trial, the lives of Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy Rose are particularly extraordinary, even in the sensational world of true crime.
If you’re unfamiliar with their history, here’s an abbreviated version.
Gypsy Rose Blanchard, widely believed to be a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, was abused by her mother Dee Dee for nearly two decades. Led to believe she was afflicted with an array of illnesses that ranged in severity from allergies to cancer, Gypsy underwent numerous, invasive medical procedures at her mother’s insistence — including the surgical installation of a feeding tube. Nearly all of these procedures were later revealed to be unnecessary.
‘The Act’ walks the audience through each horrifying fact of the ordeal with painful specificity.
As Gypsy grew up and discovered that she was not in fact ill, she aggressively pushed back against her mother’s abuse. Ultimately, Gypsy snapped. In 2015, Gypsy persuaded her boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn, whom she had met online and who had a substantial history of mental illness, to stab Dee Dee to death.
The Act‘s dramatization of these events, led by the incomparable Patricia Arquette and the increasingly masterful Joey King, walks the audience through each horrifying fact of the ordeal with painful specificity.
In Episode 2, viewers watch helplessly as Gypsy awakes from anesthesia to discover every one of her teeth has been extracted by a dentist, who was given her mother’s permission but not her own to conduct the procedure. Staring in the mirror, Gypsy cries in agony while examining her raw gums. The makeup done on King here looks disturbingly accurate in depicting the body’s physical reaction to the described trauma.
A few episodes later, the audience is asked to stare at the mutilated back of Dee Dee as investigators swarm the crime scene. Gypsy has taken back control, and now her mother is facedown in a pool of blood, clutching the pink sheets of the bed they once shared. It’s a gruesome image, difficult to shake.
If you fact-check the series as you watch, you’ll soon realize that The Act has almost everything correct, nauseating details included. Since her arrest, Gypsy has been vocal about the details of her life and reporters, lawyers, and investigators have gone to considerable lengths to confirm her version of events for the public record.
The series seems to exist not because it is important, but because it is tantalizingly weird.
But with an eight-hour runtime, The Act‘s efforts to maintain accuracy quickly morph from due diligence to exploitation. As the torture mounts, the point of the series seems to be lost. Rather than offering insight into the characters’ respective mental illnesses or circumstances, The Act seems to stew and almost revel in its depictions of abuse and murder.
While genre competitors like American Crime Story‘s The Assassination of Gianni Versace and The People v. O. J. Simpson offer up broader societal contexts to justify their graphic recreations, The Act makes few observations about why these crimes happened and even fewer as to why recalling them matters. The series seems to exist not because it believes the Blanchards’ story is important, but because it is tantalizingly weird, an easy framework for creating scenes that are sure to receive big reactions from audiences.
Moreover, there’s little justice to be had in the Blanchards’ story. This isn’t a tale of good overcoming evil, of the good guys getting the bad guy in the end. What happened between Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard is sheer horror and its results are unquestionably tragic. An abused woman is now incarcerated, her mother is dead, her mentally-ill boyfriend will die in prison — and few lessons can be learned from their shared, real-life nightmare.
What could have served as the basis for a productive discussion on mental health and society’s role in protecting children instead manifests as a kind of modern-day carnival side show, prioritizing the audience’s voyeuristic tendencies above all else.
Although meticulously factual and spectacularly acted, The Act is the kind of entertainment that ultimately makes the enjoyment I get from the true crime genre feel seriously questionable, if not entirely indefensible.
For a genre already on slippery moral ground, this true crime account doesn’t seem to serve a purpose outside of letting its audience gawk at its source material. And for this true crime fan, that’s not enough to justify coming back for more.
The Act is streaming Wednesdays on Hulu.
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