Netflix come in for something of a critical pummelling on this blog; for every Tick, Tick…Boom! gem, there’s plenty of weak sauce efforts like The Bubble that elicit a sigh of resignation; Netflix may have spent heavily on content, but surprisingly little of it has stuck. The streaming giant do come up with some watchable stuff, and The Watcher is one of the more compulsively trashy mystery dramas that Netflix have offered. With a big name cast, a deeply strange true story as inspiration and a central mystery that never quite settles, The Watcher is bespoke for the gossipy wine-swilling couch-potatoes who seem to be the target audience for Netflix.
American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy is the creative force behind this adaptation of a magazine article called The Haunting of a Dream House by Reeves Wiedeman, but for once, there’s no supernatural theme here; this is a horror story about the poor attempting to climb the property ladder despite the rungs getting kicked away above them. Nora and Dean Brannock (Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale) and their two kids decant to a beautiful house in New Jersey that they can barely afford; she makes artisan pots, which isn’t much help, and he’s some kind of finance manager in NYC. Between them, they scrape together the funds required to make the purchase, but that’s just where their nightmare begins. Anonymous, threatening letters arrive in their mailbox from a mysterious figure known as The Watcher, but which one of their kooky neighbours could it be?
Mia Farrow steps up to the plate with a wonderfully nutty variation of Ruth Gordon’s Rosemary’s Baby character; her character Pearl Winslow may or may not be the head of a secret cabal, and Dean is warned they could be up against devil-worshippers. Estate agent Jennifer Calhoun (Jennifer Coolidge in rampant form) is keen to re-sell the house, so her motivation is obvious. Could she be in league with dodgy local copper Det. Rourke Chamberland (Christopher MacDonald) who seems as crooked as a Supreme Court judge and won’t give any credence to the Bannocks’ plight? The boyish new security man Dakota (Henry Hunter Hall) seems more interested in the Brannock’s teenage daughter than securing the house. Private eye Theodora Birch (Noma Dumezweni) always says considerably more than her prayers. And neighbour Mo (Margo Martindale) is the neighbour from hell, or at least until she gets a shotgun blast to the face, but somehow that’s not the end of her pernicious influence…
Add in Flashdance’s Michael Nouri as a pretentious local architect, and our cup runneth over in terms of suspects. Or are they all in this together, an aging community rallying round to expect the interlopers? Farrow’s reverse casting is key; as with Rosemary’s Baby, this is a story of a young couple whose dream life becomes a nightmare as an predatory older generation seek to exploit the cracks in their relationship. Some details are casually skimmed over (making it big on the NYC artisan pottery scene is handled in a laughably offhand way), and the lack of a firm resolution will undoubtedly be a downer for some. But while The Watcher is daft and the final episode offers several twists too many in lieu of a proper denouement, at least Murphy, co-producing with Ian Brennan, takes the time to entertain the chattering crowds of Netflix with some old fashioned campy Grand Guignol.