Netflix’s Gypsy pivots on a therapist, Jean (Naomi Watts), in dire need of therapy. Jean lies to her family, friends, and patients ceaselessly and prodigiously, playing them off each another so as to satisfy an inchoate and spiteful urge to figuratively burn the house down—an impression this intensely literal series can’t help but eventually physicalize. Jean ingratiates herself with Sidney (Sophie Cookson), an alluring barista who’s also the ex of one of Jean’s patients, Sam (Karl Glusman). Quite a bit of the first season is built around such scenarios, in which we learn that people who appear to be Jean’s casual acquaintances are in fact pawns in an elaborate and self-perpetuating scheme that symbolizes the origin of her own estrangement.
The reasoning behind Jean’s manipulations is never quite explained by creator and co-writer Lisa Rubin, and this ambiguity informs Gypsy with a tense emotional vacancy that serves the series even during its many expositional longueurs. More precisely, Rubin provides so many reductive explanations for Jean’s deceptiveness that they cancel themselves out. Jean has mother issues and says that she’s always felt “invisible” despite her identity as a gorgeous and successful career woman and homemaker who would appear to embody the notion of “having it all”—complete with a nice house in Connecticut and career in New York City. There are also portentous references to a patient who once stalked Jean, though she’s doing quite a bit of stalking herself, usually as her alternate persona, Diane Hart, a single journalist with a one-room pad on the West Side.
The name Diane is deliberately familiar. Diane was one of Watts’s two roles in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and like Gypsy’s Diane, she represented the unrealized dreams of another identity who’s tortured by her attraction to a beautiful woman. Jean’s alias engages in a long flirtation with Sidney, often playing what she learns from the young woman off of what she gleans from Sam in therapy. Initially, it’s suggested that Jean is a kind of vigilante who’s going undercover to actualize the wants of her patients, but she’s really meddling to get off. And when patients seem as if they’re reaching closure on certain issues, Jean pulls the strings to keep them at her mercy.
Gypsy is an elaborately structured drama that’s too derivatively clever by at least half; throughout, its intricately arranged causes and effects grow stiflingly busy and thematic, resembling a behavioral proof that Rubin seems determined to confirm. There are countless discussions of game-playing, role-playing, and the nature of identity, so that viewers are sure to grasp the irony of a therapist who’s determined to sow seeds of chaos, and who is, herself, as damaged as anyone she treats. Symbols, metaphors, and allusions abound in the series, often with thudding obviousness.
The show’s opening-credits sequence is rife with imagery of broken glass to suggest multiple strands of the repressed self, which is reaffirmed by a painting that Jean buys of a woman floating above a loft floor, and by the potential gender confusion of Jean’s daughter, Dolly (Maren Heary). Jean’s attractive and successful husband, Michael (Billy Crudup), announces that he can always tell when his wife is lying, exhibiting the blissful overconfidence of a born sucker, though he gradually reveals himself to have surprising reserves of moxie, becoming an able player in Jean’s erotic game of tag.
Sam-Taylor Johnson, who directed the first two episodes, establishes a house style for the series that’s similar to the aesthetic of her adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. A ghostly, gauzy white light informs many scenes, washing out the actors’ faces and connoting an atmosphere of debauched glamor that’s aesthetically celebrated and thematically deplored as a font of conformity (a potentially fascinating contradiction, reminiscent of the films of Nicolas Ray and Douglas Sirk, which appears to be broached unintentionally here). Much of Gypsy is specifically composed of loving close-ups of Watts, attesting to the pleasures of being rich, well-manicured, and adored.
Watts is an extraordinary actress with a fluid expressiveness that brings Jean to life in spite of the writing’s rigid diagramming. Watts dramatizes the biochemical terror of Jean’s unknowability even to herself, and often finds a dry and disturbing comedy in the ease of her character’s lying, which Crudup skillfully complements with humor that poignantly likens Michael’s misplaced sincerity to a form of emasculation.
For all the pretense that Gypsy makes of exploring Jean’s psyche, though, it’s truly eaten up with sex—yet it’s coy to a degree that becomes ludicrous. The show’s driving engine is our desire, consciously encouraged by Rubin and her collaborators, to see Jean and Sidney have a softcore May/December fling. Otherwise, we’d be stuck with a series that endlessly chases its own tail, draping impersonal plotting in forgettable prestige-TV formalism.
In one fashion, the tentativeness of Jean and Sidney’s courtship is resonant, as their game-playing is banal in a way that’s true to how we make fools of ourselves to impress potential lovers. But this delay is also an inescapably cynical tease, and it’s increasingly difficult to believe that women as seasoned as Jean and Sidney, and as practiced in deception, would be so skittish, or at least so insatiably hungry for the other’s gassy and self-pleased pronouncements about hidden agendas. Gypsy ultimately suggests a serialized Adrian Lyne film for the Twilight crowd—a purpose, come to think of it, that’s already being served by the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.