The premise of “Gypsy,” a new Netflix drama starring Naomi Watts, is intriguing, especially if you’ve ever been in therapy, or if you’re a therapist.
Created by Lisa Rubin, the show takes a deep dive into the soul of a New York therapist with serious boundary issues. Watts’s Jean Holloway tells her clients — including a widow who’s too invested in her adult daughter’s romantic life and a devastated hipster who’s obsessed with his ex-girlfriend — all about how to steel themselves against codependent relationships, how to take responsibility for their own needs and feelings. But then Jean develops a fake identity — journalist Diane Hart — and gets to know that widow’s daughter and that hipster’s ex-girlfriend, stealthily accessing and ensnaring the people in her clients’ lives like an undercover spy.
Why is she doing this? Jean appears to have it all — a beautiful home, a handsome lawyer husband named Michael (Billy Crudup), an adorable daughter named Dolly (Maren Heary), an office to die for, and remarkably good hair. Her life reeks of privilege, like an East Coast version of the Architectural Digest lives on display in “Big Little Lies.” But underneath the perfection, you can see hints of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and boredom. Jean has suspicions about her husband’s seductive secretary, she’s uncomfortable seeing her daughter show early signs that she may be trans, and she finds the other mothers in her daughter’s class repulsive. Quietly, she is breaking apart.
Her most dangerous transgression involves her hipster client’s ex, a barista and musician named Sidney (Sophie Cookson). Jean, in the guise of Diane, begins to frequent Sidney’s cafe, the Rabbit Hole — perhaps her alias should have been Alice? — and she and Sidney begin a flirtation. She begins to lie to Michael in order to clear more time for Sidney, who is smitten with her. When her hipster client says he is back in touch with Sidney, Jean firmly discourages him.
Watts makes the most of the mysteriousness of Jean’s motivations, the reasons she has napalmed all of her ethical duties. Does she care so deeply about her clients that she wants to do some professional investigating, in the way Dr. House on “House” would send a team to his patients’ homes to gather clues to help with his diagnoses? Or is she unconsciously taking on her clients’ feelings, succumbing to deep countertransference? Or does she just want more risk and danger in her life? Or, bottom line, is she a sociopath?
Is this “In Treatment” or is this “Dressed to Kill”?
Watching Watts, you can never be sure, and that gives the early episodes their ballast. One minute, Jean seems high on her risk-taking adventures, the next she is brimming with regret. It’s a compelling performance whose best strength is its bewildering nature. She brings a touch of Hitchcock to the game, even while the show built around her has some shortcomings. The pacing is too slow; I could see “Gypsy” as a half-hour drama in the manner of “Nurse Jackie.” The ponderous tone does not make the drama any more powerful, alas. Also, some of the secondary characters aren’t developed enough. The best shows make each character count, even if we only see them briefly. And yet “Gypsy” kept me engaged, as Jean drifts further and further into her secrets and lies.
Starring: Naomi Watts, Billy Crudup, Sophie Cookson, Lucy Boynton, Brenda Vaccaro, Karl Glusman, Poorna Jagannathan. On Netflix, season one available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.