Hulu Drama ‘The Act’ Details Very Peculiar Mother-Daughter Relationship

The Act, a creepy anthology thriller drama, debuts on Hulu March 20. Nick Antosca created the show with Michelle Dean, which is based on Dean's 2016 BuzzFeed article “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom to be Murdered.”

It’s about Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard. Mother Dee Dee has come up with a wide variety of illnesses for daughter Gypsy, who rides in a wheelchair, has her head shaved, and wears thick glasses. Trips to the doctor are numerous. It’s a classic case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which sees a parent or caretaker exaggerate or fabricate an illness in the person they care for to get sympathy.

The pair arrive in Springfield, Missouri, recipients of a Habitat For Humanity house. Dee Dee has very strict limits on Gypsy in terms of her interactions with other people, her internet activity, her consumption of sweets and other things kids like to do.

Dee Dee ends up murdered.

Antosca stopped by B&C headquarters, and said he could not stop thinking about the BuzzFeed article after he read it. “It was exhaustively researched, yet it leaves you with so many questions,” he said.

Universal Content Productions produced the series, which shot in Savannah. Patricia Arquette plays Dee Dee and Joey King plays Gypsy. Antosca calls Arquette, who played Tilly in Showtime’s Escape At Dannemora, the prison employee who helps the two felons break out, “our dream person.” Casting Gypsy was tricky, the producers auditioning “tons of actresses,” said Antosca.

“As soon as she left the room,” he said of King, “we all turned to each other and said, I think that’s her.”

Chloe Sevigny plays Mel, a neighbor who has suspicions about the town’s new arrivals.

HBO aired a documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest, about Dee Dee and Gypsy and their odd relationship.

Antosca previously produced Syfy anthology series Channel Zero. He saw The Act as the story behind the crime, like 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. “You take a tabloid headline and dig beneath it for the human story,” he said.

Antosca and Dean co-created The Act, and executive produce alongside Greg Shephard and Britton Rizzio.

Dean said she first learned of the Blanchard murder case when an editor sent her a wire report. A story didn’t work for that publication--she wouldn’t say which publication--but BuzzFeed greenlit the story. Dean said it took a good year to gain the trust of Gypsy, currently in prison, and others involved in the story. She said it’s hard to describe her interactions with Gypsy, now 27. “She’s very polite, very well spoken,” said Dean.

Dean, author of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, said she felt like she “learned a ton” from the TV adaptation process. She credits television for “its power to get to emotional immediacy” in the Blanchard story.

Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall gave The Act a so-so review. “The Act runs into the same problem Dannemora did: a story that’s ultimately not capable of sustaining around eight hours of television...There are twists and turns to the central relationship and the reason it comes to a violent end, but the story starts to feel repetitive quickly, and the lead performances can only mask that for so long.”

Vulture, for its part, called The Act “extremely compelling television.”

I asked Antosca about the show’s title. “The Act is about the performance they put on for the world,” he said, starting with the mother and daughter, newly arrived in Springfield, appearing on local news at the start of the pilot. “Every episode sees the act peeled back a little more.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.