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Gypsy, Netflix’s new Naomi Watts vehicle, is the hottest show of 2007

Finally a TV series about an antihero struggling to keep up a double life!

Naomi Watts stars in Gypsy.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Gypsy, Netflix’s new Naomi Watts vehicle, feels as if it’s barreling into our world from the year 2007.

It’s a revamp of antihero tropes so bland and formulaic that in one episode, I realized the series was teasing two possible “dangerous” outcomes that were both clichés. The show that Gypsy reminded me of in that moment wasn’t The Sopranos or Mad Men or any of the antihero shows that clearly inspired it, or even a lower-tier but still good antihero show like Damages.

No, I kept thinking of Huff, the mid-2000s drama that marked Showtime’s first attempt to shove its way into the prestige TV conversation. Like Huff, Gypsy is about a psychiatrist who’s, like, really messed up! Like Huff, Gypsy has cast Blythe Danner as the protagonist’s mother. And like Huff, Gypsy feels like all involved briefly observed David Chase cooking up Tony Soprano, but had to stand on their tiptoes to look over others’ shoulders and subsequently couldn’t take notes. It’s all so close, but also so far, like eating a stale Hydrox cookie when all you want is an Oreo.

Combine that lack of inspiration with general Netflix bloat — this thing is 10 hour-long episodes, and its story doesn’t really start until the last five minutes of the whole season — and you have a series that feels like a single-handed indictment of Netflix’s entire creative model.

I know, I know. The streaming service makes lots of great shows. But Gypsy can’t help but feel like Netflix thinks Watts and her co-star Billy Crudup will be enough to keep you watching, and it can just come up with a premise later.

Gypsy mistakes “what” for “why” and seems to fear subtext

The center of Gypsy is meant to be a big, psychological guessing game. Watts plays Jean Holloway, a therapist whose unorthodox methods sometimes involve adopting another identity (Diane Hart, a journalist) to manipulate the situations her patients are in. If a woman’s daughter won’t talk to her, you’d better believe Jean will track down said daughter and just make things messier. And so on.

Things take a turn when Jean confronts Sidney (Sophie Cookson), the would-be musician girlfriend of one of her patients, only to be drawn irresistibly to Sidney and vice versa. Soon, the two are talking about how drawn to each other they are and doing very little about it, because Gypsy needs them to put off hooking up until at least the midpoint of the season.

But would you believe Jean has another, more outwardly “normal” life with her husband, Michael (Crudup), and the couple’s 9-year-old daughter who’s beginning to explore her gender identity in ways that Jean isn’t entirely comfortable with? Would you believe that Jean’s indiscretions put her staid, suburban life in jeopardy? Would you believe she can’t stop herself in spite of that?

Jean and her husband Michael are so normal! What could possibly go wrong with that?

The visual style deployed by director Sam Taylor-Johnson in Gypsy’s first two hours (and generally adhered to by later episodes’ directors) involves lots of voyeuristic touches. Characters are glimpsed around corners, or through windows, or via reflections. The whole series is meant, I guess, to suggest that we’re peering in on the illicit behavior of Gypsy’s characters as they abandon all reason in the name of sexy good times.

Except Jean, as a character, isn’t interesting enough to make you ponder just why she is the way she is. Look at the other antihero dramas that Gypsy cribs from, and they almost immediately started unraveling the psychological knots at the protagonists’ cores. Hell, Tony Soprano was even in therapy, even if it didn’t do him much good.

Those earlier shows weren’t deliberately opaque and didn’t deliberately withhold necessary information from the audience. Gypsy, in contrast, does both, so that when a whole bunch of revelations come crashing down in the finale, it feels like the series is abruptly speeding through the entirety of the story it came up with for season one. Jean is meant to be an intriguing cipher, but the show mistakenly believes that her contradictory behavior is all it needs to make her a compelling character.

Even that might be okay if there were some sort of dramatic stakes beyond, “If Jean is caught, her life will be ruined.” Mad Men had very similar dramatic stakes around Don — but that's why it quickly started explaining just why he was the emotionally shut-down automaton he could be. He had secrets, but the audience was let in on them very quickly.

Gypsy treats secrets like currency, and it treats Jean as someone who’s sexy, cool, and dangerous solely because she keeps them. It doesn’t use those secrets to build a compact with the audience by making viewers complicit in Jean’s behavior; it uses them to string them along as surely as Jean strings along her patients.

Yet Watts is so very good at playing Jean that I spent a lot of the series wanting the character to make more sense than she actually did. Why does Jean fall for Sidney? I have no idea — beyond the show constantly telling us that Sidney is amazing (it’s way too fond of making subtext direct text). But Watts sells the emotion so well that I almost went along with it.

The series’ opening credits (set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy,” as re-recorded in a solo version by Stevie Nicks) show a glass full of bourbon — which Jean drinks a lot of throughout the season — shattering as it hits the ground. It’s supposed to stand in for the way that she’s a splintered personality, someone who compartmentalizes pieces of herself and is heading for a calamity as a result. But there are already so many shows about this basic type of character that Gypsy leaves you thinking, “Yes, and?”

To talk about how what finally hobbles Gypsy is the Netflix model, I have to spoil things. Turn away if you haven’t finished the season or plan to watch for some reason.

Netflix’s bad habit of turning first seasons into pilot episodes is catching up to it

The only card Gypsy really has to play is “Jean’s lies catch up to her and send her two lives crashing into each other.” And the show gets there! But it doesn't get there until — to be really, really charitable — the last half of the season finale. And if I’m being much less charitable, it doesn’t get there until the last five minutes, when Sidney shows up to Jean’s daughter’s school, where Jean is giving a talk on bullying that’s meant to be a thematic wrap-up for the season as a whole. (It doesn’t really work.)

You can make that sort of delayed payoff work. Again, look to Mad Men, which didn’t really play its “Don Draper stole another man’s identity” card until the penultimate episode of season one. But there was so much other stuff going on there, from ad pitches to storylines for supporting characters to corporate intrigue. Each episode of that first season was a perfectly prepared little treat, with the mystery about Don’s past as a cherry on top.

Gypsy treats the cherry as the whole meal and only occasionally gives us a story about, say, Michael being attracted to his assistant, Alexis, but not acting on that attraction. It misses the point of telling a story about someone with a double life, because it never once tries to make us understand why a double life would be so attractive to someone like Jean.

Thus, the season plays out like the show is sitting in park, revving its engine. Scratch that. It’s like the show is sitting behind the wheel of a car that’s not running and quietly whispering, “Vroom, vroom!” to itself.

You’ll lose count of how many times Jean and Sidney allllllllllllmost kiss then don’t.

There are occasional feints toward something happening, but for the most part, even those feints are cliché, as in the aforementioned episode where Jean and Sidney finally hook up, but Michael and Alexis are also on a business trip to Texas.

That Jean and Sidney hook up after six episodes of pointless will-they, won’t-they foreplay (which Watts and Cookson’s chemistry doesn’t even earn) is an eye-roller, to be sure, but had Michael and Alexis hooked up instead — a.k.a. the good spouse going bad when the bad spouse decides to be good — it would have been even more of a cliché. (Instead, Michael and Alexis manage to resist each other’s temptations.)

Much of Gypsy’s conflict would be solved by Jean and Michael simply coming clean and saying to each other they want to be in an open marriage, or something of that sort, which leaves it feeling toothless. The later episodes of the season suggest there are reasons that Jean needs Michael for her own stability, but they arrive so late that they feel like twists instead of character detail.

It’s tempting to blame Gypsy’s flaws on Lisa Rubin, the series’ creator, who is a first-time TV writer, but Netflix deserves plenty of blame as well, because it likes to position its seasons as very long single episodes, as opposed to collections of stories that add up to something more.

That’s a tempting setup for writers, because it means you can keep delaying the story in favor of just exploring the characters. But characters get more interesting when we see them put into situations that reveal who they really are. Gypsy keeps thrusting Jean into situations designed to deflect and diffuse our interest. All it’s interested in is who she really isn’t, and that ends up doing the series in.

Gypsy is streaming on Netflix.