Hollywood has many more outstanding actors than it does outstanding scripts. That’s the only way to explain Naomi Watts’s career, which launched stateside with a masterful twin performance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Even with a pair of Oscar nominations, though, the actress has spent years languishing in Nondescript Mom roles that Laura Dern probably passed on. Watts’s most recent film, the critically lambasted Book of Henry, was called by one newspaper “this year’s must-unsee movie.” Her previous release, 3 Generations, disappeared from theaters about a millisecond after it arrived. Three years ago, Matthew McConaughey became the poster boy for resetting one’s star image through a stint in prestige TV. It’s a move that also worked for heavy hitters like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies (HBO). Dern enjoyed a boost from the drama, too — far more, it seems, than the one she got from the underappreciated Enlightened (also HBO). At least Dern now gets to impress as the mysterious fury Diane in Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime). On the same show, Lynch’s other former ingénue is stuck doing her best with an idiot-shrew role that’s far beneath her.
The solution seems simple: Watts could take a page out of Witherspoon’s playbook by putting together a showcase series, one that’s the vision of a talented filmmaker working from an adaptation by a veteran showrunner, produced for one of the better-regarded networks or streaming sites. A discarded or disparaged genre in need of critical re-evaluation can help: Big Little Lies added depth to the mommy wars through its sensitive exploration of violence and trauma.
With Gypsy (Netflix), Watts gets so close to her shot…and so far. The actress executive-produces, as does Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director who made Fifty Shades of Grey an unexpectedly stylish and funny jaunt. (She helms Gypsy’s first two episodes.) Starring as a therapist who furtively insinuates herself into her patients’ lives — and romantically pursues a client’s ex — Watts is as good as the promising-on-paper material will let her be. The moody, double-entendre-filled drama recalls the erotic thrillers of the 1980s and ’90s — a genre even deader than the studio rom-com. Bored with her lawyer husband (Billy Crudup) and overwhelmed by her grade-school child’s (Maren Heary) possible gender transition, Watts’s Jean invents a new persona for herself: “Diane,” an unattached, bi-curious freelance writer who’s adventurous in all the ways Jean isn’t — most of all sexually.
Deception seems to matter more to Jean than actual transformation. Jean wears pink lipstick; Diane pouts in red. Jean loves chic trench coats; Diane’s not afraid of catching a cold. Jean plays the Connecticut Stepford wife dutifully, down to the TV-style sex scenes with her husband (woman on top, mostly clothed). Diane is presented to us as the “wild” younger self that Jean misses, but the most she ventures in the first six episodes are a few kisses with a charismatic younger woman named Sidney (Sophie Cookson). I mean, even Katy Perry’s kissed a girl.
At least Diane Lane got to fuck Olivier Martinez before going back home to Richard Gere in Unfaithful. Gypsy, on the other hand, is like the online dater who text-promises a willingness to try anything — then gets skittish in real life once the make-out starts. It’s so thuddingly disappointing, in fact, that — in light of other high-profile failures such as Halle Berry’s Extant (CBS), Katherine Heigl’s State of Affairs (NBC), and Jamie Lee Curtis’s Scream Queens — it suggests that a scarcity of good scripts is killing the era of TV makeovers for floundering movie stars.
It’s fine that Jean/Diane’s erotic risk-taking is pretty vanilla; not everyone wants a ride in Christian Grey’s Red Room. But the disparity between who Diane’s supposed to be to Jean and what Diane is to us is distractingly wide. There’s an entire universe of names sexier than dowdy “Diane,” for example, including the variation Diana. We suffer Jean’s lack of imagination — as does the show. If nothing else, it’s an interesting reflection of a handful of execs who’ve apparently calculated that horny mainstream audiences will find Fifty Shades’ bondage and spanking whoop-worthy among girlfriends, but queerness too taboo to explore in depth. (We’re also supposed to find it relatable that Jean is nearly derelict in her parental duties in refusing to deal with her child’s emerging gender identity.)
I hate to lay blame on a writer seemingly getting her start, but Gypsy’s problems begin with creator and showrunner Lisa Rubin and her writers’ scripts. The drama is sheer boredom: Every characterization is thinner than the black slip Jean wears during sex with her husband. The show is a confluence of interesting ideas: female midlife crises, competitive mothering, the parenting of a very young trans child, the invisibility of female sociopathy, mental-health professionals’ frustration at their own helplessness, and, especially, the vicarious thrills therapists (might) experience when they hear about the life-derailing pleasures that got their patients into trouble. But each scene wastes every opportunity to reach for something fresh or original.
In addition to halfheartedly seducing the obsessive client’s (Karl Glusman) former partner and getting a teenage addict (Lucy Boynton) off pills, Jean secretly befriends the thirtysomething daughter (Brooke Bloom) of a pathologically controlling mother (Brenda Vaccaro) who rails to the therapist each week against her child’s traitorous abandonment. Jean has her own unexplained difficulties with her mother (Blythe Danner), and so the fragile but warm bond between the two grown daughters, forged through twice-a-week lunchtime blowouts, is the closest Gypsy gets to genuine emotion. Family-fleeing Rebecca invites “Diane” to her urban commune and offers a reasonable account of why she’s chosen to cut her mom out of her life. With only her patient in mind, Jean urges the newly happy Rebecca to return to the maternal choke. It’s all fun and games until you desperately start hoping that your protagonist loses her malpractice suit.
Gypsy premieres on Netflix June 30.