A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Act is a true-crime miniseries based on the story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard, the mother-daughter duo profiled in the much-lauded 2018 HBO documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest. The show examines the dark realities of Munchausen by proxy syndrome, a psychological disorder wherein a caregiver or parent fabricates or even induces illness or injury in a person under their care (in this case, Dee Dee's daughter, Gypsy Rose). The details of this case have been well-documented elsewhere; The Act lightly fictionalizes the tale, showing the years of abuse and abnormal behavior that led up to its violent conclusion: Dee Dee's brutal murder at the hands of her desperate daughter and her online boyfriend Nick Godejohn. Viewers should expect mature content, from simulated sex and masturbation to a copious amount of abuse (both emotional/verbal and physical). There's a brief shot of an erect penis shown when a character receives an unexpected "dick pic" online, and someone is nude in the bath. Adult characters smoke and drink, and there's some rough language as well.
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What's the story?
THE ACT's Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King) is, at first glance, a seriously ill teenage girl suffering from a litany of ailments, from muscular dystrophy and epilepsy to overactive salivary glands. Her ultra-attentive mother, Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette), has devoted her life to caring for her disabled daughter, who has "the mind of a 7-year-old" and will presumably require help for the rest of her days. The true story, however, is much more sinister: Dee Dee has been making Gypsy sick all along, plying her with unnecessary medications and forcing invasive surgeries on her, attention-seeking behaviors that are a hallmark of the psychological disorder known as Munchausen by proxy. The series delves into the years of torment Gypsy suffered at the hands of her mother -- examining who may have known what was going on and what was done about it -- and how the twisted dance the pair was locked into eventually led to Dee Dee's death by murder.
Is it any good?
Was this series truly needed, given how ubiquitous the Blanchards' story has been in the media landscape of late? Maybe not, but standout performances by the always-solid Patricia Arquette as Dee Dee, and a mesmerizing Joey King as Gypsy make it a compulsively watchable guilty pleasure. The Act might not have a whole lot to say about the case that hasn't already been covered in the (multiple) documentaries or articles, but what it lacks in analytic substance, it makes up for in emotional truth.
Arquette's Dee Dee is a pathetic, deeply disturbed woman desperate to hold on to her daughter by any means necessary -- both because of the pity and adulation it brings her and the sense of security Gypsy's "condition" gives her. It's in her best interest for Gypsy to remain ill, as this ensures an ongoing influx of cash donations and compliments, and the contrast between Dee Dee's public persona as a self-sacrificing caregiver and the emotionally manipulative sicko she is behind closed doors is truly discomfiting. King's helium-voiced performance, however, is the biggest surprise here. The former teen star is shockingly great at showing the stages Gypsy goes through, from vulnerable naïf trapped under her mom's oppressive, abusive thumb to vengeful internet flirt using whatever connections she can to get out of a truly impossible situation. It's an acutely odd story, and one that will keep you absorbed despite already knowing how things wrap up.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why true-crime dramas are so popular. What is the appeal in watching a fictionalized account of a horrible event like someone's murder? What does taking a narrative approach add to a story like The Act?
Families can talk about Munchausen by proxy syndrome. Why do you think the people around Gypsy and Dee Dee didn't pick up on what was really going on? Do you think the doctors and neighbors could have done more to help Gypsy?
Talk about the choices Gypsy made when trying to escape from her mother's control. Do you agree with her assertion that she had no other recourse aside from murder? What steps did Dee Dee take to ensure nobody would believe Gypsy's claims?
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