Ryan Murphy delivers another eminently binge-able true-crime story, though thankfully without the exploitative ickiness of his recent work.
This review of The Watcher is spoiler-free.
Ryan Murphy is currently on a roll at Netflix, though I suppose you could quibble about whether “roll” is exactly the right term. His latest bit of business was Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a lurid and uncomfortable retelling of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes, imprisonment, and death, with long-time Murphy collaborator Evan Peters in the title role. The Watcher is a similar bit of work; a dramatization of a true story that took place in New Jersey, in which a suburban family was terrorized by letters from an anonymous stalker calling themselves “The Watcher” and implying that their children would imminently be used as blood sacrifices.
I mean, talk about neighbors from hell.
Given the immediately enticing mystery and the lack of any clear conclusion, there’s no wonder that Murphy was interested in the story. He has stuffed his version of it with fine actors and stretched it across seven pacey episodes in a limited series that has all of his hallmarks without the unwelcome feeling of tastelessness surrounding the Dahmer project. The result is an eminently binge-able true-crime story that is actually enhanced by being plucked from reality and doesn’t present any awkward moral problems given the lack of actual victims in the story itself.
Of course, “victims” is a relative term. The family at the story’s heart, the Broadduses, were obviously victimized, but that isn’t quite the same thing as the litany of murdered young men whose families had to watch Murphy and Netflix profit from their misery. There will always be an element of this in any dramatization of a true story, but the more morally manageable it is the better off everyone feels, and I never felt as uncomfortable here as I did while watching and reviewing Monster. Mileage may vary, but the essential weirdness — which would, ironically, be too farfetched to be believed if we didn’t know it actually happened — gives The Watcher the appearance of pure fiction.
The Broadduses have been renamed here. Now they’re the Brannocks: parents Dean (Bobby Cannavale) and Nora (Naomi Watts), and kids Ellie (Isabel Gravitt) and Carter (Luke David Blumm). 657 Boulevard is surrounded by eccentrics, and they all quickly become suspects — siblings Pearl (Mia Farrow) and Jasper (Terry Kinney) Winslow on one side, husband and wife Mitch (Richard Kind) and Mo (Margo Martindale) on the other. Even those who seem like allies apparently can’t be trusted. Karen (Jennifer Coolidge), the real estate agent who sold the Brannocks the house in the first place, is an old friend of Nora’s who keeps pushing her to sell up at a loss, and the young security specialist, Dakota (Henry Hunter Hall), offers overpriced home security and a very attentive eye on 16-year-old Ellie. Even the private detective Dean hires to look into the threats, Theodora (Noma Dumezweni), comes across as a little too enigmatic for her own good.
A sweeping glance over the above paragraph reveals how many fine talents are involved in this project, but it remains Cannavale’s show all the same. He really seems to get Murphy’s signature blend of horror and dark humor, but he also has a thinly-veiled air of menace about him, as with his overprotectiveness around Ellie’s fashion choices and the way he spirals into spiteful tirades against the neighbors. Watts is an assured presence, but she’s given less to actually play, and she’s intended to be a beacon of surety in the midst of wild eccentricity, so it’s a thankless part that she’s nonetheless great in.
Fans of Murphy’s won’t have any trouble recognizing the usual beats in both tone and structure, but there’s a welcome vein of ambiguous supernaturalism in The Watcher that gives it something a lot of true-crime stories lack. Often, the piano music tinkling through old intercoms, neighborhood weirdos hiding in dumbwaiters, and rumors of blood sacrifice cults feel more like the work of Mike Flanagan, or Murphy’s more obviously fictional stuff like American Horror Story, than something that actually happened to real people. It makes for a disconcerting vibe that helps the show deliver Halloween thrills without veering too far away from the core horror of being watched by persons unknown and unseen. It’ll be mega-popular, make no mistake about that, and unlike Monster, I’d say it probably deserves the attention.
You can stream The Watcher exclusively on Netflix.