Bonkers Thriller The Watchful Eye Is Your New TV Addiction

6 minute read

A wealthy woman composes a suicide note by the light of a Christmas tree and then jumps out the window of her palatial Manhattan apartment. Six months later, her kindly widower hires a recent college grad to care for their little boy. It’s a live-in position; in this old-fashioned luxury building, The Greybourne, nannies get their own cramped, dusty quarters on the top floor.

It’s a premise fit for a 21st-century tale of gothic horror—a contemporary answer to Jane Eyre or The Turn of the Screw, perhaps. But it’s also only the tiniest tip of the iceberg that is The Watchful Eye, a wickedly addictive domestic thriller that debuts Jan. 30 on Freeform (episodes will hit Hulu the day after they air). First of all, the nanny is no innocent. A fraud and potential thief, Elena Santos (Mariel Molino) has a very specific agenda in mind before she ever sets foot in the home of Matthew Ward (Warren Christie) and his son, Jasper (Henry Joseph Samiri). But, savvy as she is, Elena isn’t quite prepared for the sinister ecosystem she encounters in The Greybourne, which is still largely occupied by the blue-blooded descendants of its namesake.

Mariel Molino, left, and Amy Acker in The Watchful EyeKailey Schwerman—Freeform

Down the hall from the Wards lives Matthew’s sister-in-law Tory Ayres (the wonderful Amy Acker, in her best role in years), a control freak who seems to have it out for Elena from the moment they meet. “She’s one of those meddling Real Housewives types who smoke one cigarette a week,” Elena complains. Tory’s husband, Dick (Christopher Redman), is a smarmy creeper. Even more forbidding is Mrs. Ivey, a haughty matriarch—played by the sublimely typecast Kelly Bishop, essentially repurposing her performance as Emily Gilmore—who immediately clocks Elena’s lies. In this enclave of privilege, the only thing more fearsome than the machinations of the extended Greybourne clan are rumors of supernatural forces. Residents whisper about “mysterious deaths” and a “malevolent presence in the basement.”

Thankfully for Elena, she’s good at recruiting allies. Her boyfriend Scott (Jon Ecker) is her co-conspirator and confidant. She makes fast friends with fellow nanny Ginny (Aliyah Royale) and soon finds herself commiserating with a whole crew of extremely Gen Z childcare workers. For the rebellious teens in the building, Elena is a cool adult who can help clean up the youthful messes they make. Matthew seems like a decent guy, too, despite the company he keeps.

It’s a lot of characters. Whodunits with huge casts of eccentric suspects are having a moment right now (see: Only Murders in the Building, The Afterparty, Glass Onion, Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot reboots). But creator Julie Durk (Grace and Frankie) and showrunner Emily Fox (Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist) have a more complex story to tell, and they use their enormous ensemble differently. Elena, who is not necessarily a good person, has her friends and antagonists, but every person in each camp knows a slightly different set of facts about who she is—and vice versa. Everyone has their own agenda and secrets, some innocuous, others malevolent. For viewers as well as characters, there’s not one central mystery, but dozens of potentially interrelated ones: Why did Allie kill herself? What does Elena really want, and why does she want it? Who even is she, really? What about every single other character’s backstory? Also: Is The Greybourne haunted?

Mariel Molino and Warren Christie in The Watchful EyeKailey Schwerman—Freeform

Especially in the first few episodes, so much uncertainty facilitates twist after mind-blowing twist. What’s impressive is how organic most of these reveals feel, grounded as they are in genuine questions about each character’s motives. This is what sets Durk and Fox apart from a creator like Ryan Murphy, whose propensity to shock tends to come off as more nihilistic. They also avoid the post-BigLittleLies clichés of David E. Kelley, whose shows take place in similarly rarified social worlds, but whose rich, oblivious heroines have become interchangeable. The Watchful Eye is more reminiscent of a slightly older, soapier cohort of thrillers, such as Revenge and the original incarnation of Pretty Little Liars, that predated streaming’s demand for bingeable miniseries and were thus built to accommodate multiple seasons’ worth of intrigue.

Like those series, it runs the risk of repeating itself or jumping the shark after a few good years. None of the cast is at risk of getting an Emmy nomination, either; Molino and Acker are a lot of fun to watch, but most of the other performances are utilitarian at best. Bishop isn’t on screen nearly as much as I’d hoped. While most of the twists are smartly executed, a big one towards the end of the eight episodes I screened seemed thuddingly obvious. And although the dialogue is generally sharper and more culturally literate than it needs to be (“Solo cups for cognac? This isn’t the Fyre Festival!”), the show’s portrayal of Gen Z pieties panders a bit to Freeform’s young audience. “I can consent in three different languages,” a teenage boy tells his love interest.

Less an earnest critique or satire of wealth and nepotism than a self-aware product of ambient eat the rich sentiment, The Watchful Eye has no highbrow aspirations. It’s just a solidly built thriller, with a smartly assembled cast of characters and well-executed plot beats, whose brisk pace guarantees a consistently exhilarating watch. At a time when so many shows reach for prestige signifiers that exceed their grasp, that lack of pretense is as refreshing as it is fun.

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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