‘The Watcher’ series review: Ryan Murphy’s underwhelming tribute to the American suburbian thriller


Ryan Murphy piles on too many elements in Netflix’s The Watcher to the point of suffocating its real life source material

Ryan Murphy piles on too many elements in Netflix’s The Watcher to the point of suffocating its real life source material

When a call (or in this case, a letter) comes from inside the house, Hollywood rushes to receive it, because on the other end is a guaranteed successful thriller flick. Sadly, in his latest show The Watcher, creator Ryan Murphy decided to fix something that wasn’t broken, and in the process has meandered far away from a perfectly good thriller that was served to him on a platter.

The Netflix series, adapted from a long-form article about a true story that took place in 2014, retains the skeletal structure of its source material. It still revolves around a family that pour in every penny of their savings to purchase the dream house, away from the rush of New York and in the heart of a typical American suburb. Soon after, like the real family, the fictional Brannocks, played by Naomi Watts (Nora) and Bobby Cannavale (Dean), start receiving letters signed by someone calling themselves, ‘The Watcher.’ In the letters, the stranger lists out personal details about the two Brannock children and becomes increasingly obsessive about the renovations that the Brannocks plan to carry out, quite literally watching their every move.

The case of ‘The Watcher’ has attracted the interest of traditional media and conspiracy theory YouTube channels alike. It is American horror at its simplest and its finest — to be terrified of living in your quaint white-picket fence house — and embodies the absolute erosion of trust in the modern neighbourhood. Murphy is no stranger to this suburban horror slate of media that finds its roots in films like The Stepford Wives, and he doesn’t waste time in turning this show into one. He quickly stacks it with the formulaic elements of eccentric neighbours, awkward luncheons, mysteriously dead pets, a phantom doorbell, and disembodied music from the attic.

The Watcher

Creators: Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan

Cast: Naomi Watts, Bobby Cannavale, Mia Farrow, Noma Dumezweni, Richard Kind, Margo Martindale, Jennifer Coolidge, Terry Kinney, and others

Episodes: 7

Storyline: The Brannocks move into their dream home in the suburbs but soon find themselves terrorised by anonymous letters by someone claiming to be ‘The Watcher’

However, it’s Murphy’s urge to expand the universe of the show beyond his creative means that results in a product confused about its own genre. The arrival of troubling letters is also accompanied by harried introductions to the cast of oddball residents of the Boulevard Lane. Mia Farrow and Terry Kinney play Pearl and Jasper, a pair of siblings perpetually dressed to recreate Grant Wood’s American Gothic who run a neighbourhood preservation society. They constantly wander onto the Brannocks’ yard and are joined in on this trespassing endeavour by Richard Kind and Margo Martindale as the track-suited retirees Mitch and Maureen. Jennifer Coolidge as Karen, the realtor and Nora’s friend from college, who sold this house to them, does her own share of spectacular character acting.

Murphy’s past works are proof that he can pull together a powerful group of actors, but The Watcher is proof that they can only do so much with a scattered script. The next seven episodes cycle through Nora and Dean suspecting these characters to be The Watcher, as they attempt to DIY a police investigation from their basement. The show drops the ball here and presents almost identical episodes for each suspect.

The Brannocks stumble upon a clue or make one up in their mind, and are joined at the drawing board by Noma Dumezweni playing a private investigator named Theodora. Halfway through each episode, she steps in and reads out her findings to the couple and then steps back out. Then, Nora and Dean angrily point fingers at their suspects but find themselves at a dead end every time.

The frustration of the Brannocks becomes the frustration of the audience because there are only so many times that one can tolerate being tricked in the same way. Burdening the drama with a lead per episode, Murphy is unable to wrap everything up. He leaves you with too many threads to follow, which incorporates the essence of suburbia where you are drowning in doubt. But the show’s tone suggests its end goal to be for these threads to lead us to a singular culprit, and not leave us and the Brannocks floating in dread.

An engaging thriller doesn’t try to best its audience, but instead leads them through the clues. The Watcher indulges in a lot of distracting exposition, meant to throw you off the scent, all for the show to repeatedly yell “Gotcha!” in your face. However, it is not devoid of merits that are visible when it focuses on the unravelling of the family at the centre of this drama. As fear takes control of their actions, Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts deliver layered performances as the spiralling husband and the doubtful but determined wife. These are the plot sequences that feel tightly written. At one point, Nora points the finger of suspicion at her husband and Watts is successful in extending this sentiment across multiple episodes to keep the audience engaged.

If the story of the real Watcher can be considered a template, then it is to Murphy’s disadvantage that he fills in the gap with so many distractions that the main culprit easily manages to vanish out of sight. At one point, it feels like the show has one foot each in Murphy’s popular anthologies, American Horror Story and American Crime Story. Never knowing which genre to pursue to its fruition, the show’s ending leaves much to be desired and gives a safe farewell to a true crime drama that had the luxury of a blank canvas.

The Watcher is currently streaming on Netflix

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