“The Act” is hard to swallow but worth the effort

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If one’s typical response to the overwhelming stress of the closing semester is to dive down into the deep, deep hole of bingeable TV, Hulu’s new series, “The Act,” might be worth a watch.

Though dramatized, the show is based on the real events of Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King), the show’s protagonist, and the events that led to the murder of her mother, Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) in 2015. This haunting reminder plays at the end of each episode, adding a unique weight to every action that happens on screen.

To the outside world, the mother-daughter duo are an inseparable pair, with Gypsy being completely dependent on her mother’s care due to her laundry list of allegedly chronic conditions. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that this loving family has dark secrets behind the bright-pink walls of their home.

Dee Dee fabricated her daughter’s illnesses and is speculated to have had Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Dee Dee forced Gypsy to take unneeded medications, undergo unnecessary medical procedures and remain in a wheelchair despite being able to walk, all  while benefiting from a number of charities because of the fake conditions.

This web of lies unfolds before viewers’ eyes as Arquette and King deliver gripping performances that give life to the story. Their initial relationship seems to be something out of a fairytale, but things get sinister as the audience follows Gypsy in her discovery of the nightmare she is really in. Viewers are made helpless as they watch Dee Dee’s manipulation of her daughter and the outside world.

This sickening journey is juxtaposed with the time following Dee Dee’s murder, as the Blanchards’ neighbors begin to piece things together. These glimpses into the future of the family also lend a greater helplessness — and possibly even a dark sense of relief — as the audience knows from the beginning how things will end. With every wrong doing and manipulation that transpires, viewers are unable to do anything but sit and wait for the inevitable.

Despite this knowledge, however, the Blanchard story remains equal parts hard to watch and hard to stop watching. As the story progresses, Gypsy discovers lie after lie, and becomes increasingly aware of how different she is from other girls. Gypsy’s body image becomes an important theme of the show, as she realizes that the physical beauty she desperately wants is stripped away by her mother who prevents her by shaving her head, refusing to let her wear makeup and more. Although body image seems to take second place to other pieces of the story, the unusual circumstances grant a unique perspective on the topic that can be taken well beyond the show.

Within the show, however, this seems to be a central motivator for Gypsy, who begins attempting increasing acts of rebellion. But every glimpse of hope for this independence is swiftly crushed by her mother who, despite the charming, southern facade, is capable of an unsettling ruthlessness.

The result of these pieces is a twisted dynamic (with a few legal stumbles), played by talented actors and delivered through gripping storytelling, in which the audience observes helplessly. Dee Dee manipulates and abuses, and Gypsy becomes evermore cognizant of the fact that something is not right. Although the real Blanchard family is considering taking legal action against the creators of the show, the impact appears likely to live on beyond the screen. The show is by no means easy to watch, especially given the true events it is based on. But the compelling story is well-told, and it should have no problem swallowing the stress of looming finals.

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