Cognitive behavioral therapy, the field that Naomi Watts' character Jean Holloway practices on the new Netflix drama Gypsy, is meant to put into place new patterns of thought and behavior in order to break old cycles. No surprise she can't heal herself: Jean spends her hours off-duty repetitiously gorging on bourbon, spying on her patients' personal lives and engaging in extramarital liaisons. To craft a new pattern for her thoughts would be to impose one for the first time--she's all random acts of hedonism.
Watts digs into an outsize role that's the opposite of her current turn on Showtime's Twin Peaks. There, she's a devoted 1950s sitcom wife trapped in a collapsing world. Here, she makes the chaos, hiding her impulses from her lawyer husband (Billy Crudup) and sweet kid (Maren Heary). She's stuck in a tidy Connecticut suburb despite the fact that her ideal night out includes heavy drinking and heavier deception.
Jean's mind races during therapy sessions as she decides how she'll mess with her clients once the hour wraps. She's addicted to entering her patients' lives, and Watts, with a weary gift for fabulism, sells an addict's mentality. Long past finding pleasure in the act, she just performs as she's wired to. It would be more difficult to stop her game-playing--like trying to become best friends with her patient's daughter in order to sabotage the filial relationship--than to keep the game going, no matter how exhausting.
Why is Jean who she is? Maybe it's marital anxiety and the dullness of suburbia (a plot point, nearly two decades post--American Beauty, that's lost its charge). Maybe it's the pressures imposed by her mother (Blythe Danner). But ultimately it's an uninteresting question posed by a show that yearns to be even pulpier. The psychological inquiry doesn't compel the way Watts' acting does--her Jean is aware that she's erring but is helpless in the face of temptation and resigned to inscrutable urges. If Gypsy is to tie up Watts--one of her generation's great actresses--for more seasons, it ought to follow her lead, showing us Jean's journey to the dark without straining to explain why. After all, for Jean's patients, self-examination doesn't seem to do much good.
Gypsy streams on Netflix beginning June 30