Things were different before I watched The Watcher (Netflix). In fact, I used to think that life was too short for bad television. Now, I can’t get enough of it. I hate that.
I don’t hate The Watcher, though. No, there are too many good people involved in this thing for me to actively despise it. Truth be told, the series, created by — who else? Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan (the lads behind that awful Dahmer show) — might be the best unintentional satire of the year.
This bonkers, seven-part miniseries tells the story of an uptight New York family, the Brannocks, who move to a mansion in Westfield, New Jersey and are sent sinister letters in the post from some local head-wrecker known only as ‘the watcher’.
Most of the neighbours are creepy weirdos, so ‘the watcher’ could be anyone. Mia Farrow shows up as an eccentric historian who’s obsessed with the Brannocks’ creaky dumbwaiter. The married pensioners across the road (Richard Kind and Margo Martindale) wear matching outfits and complain about the noise.
Jennifer Coolidge joins in as a kooky estate agent who’s clearly hiding something. Out in front, then, we have Bobby Cannavale (proprietor of the funniest stressed-out face in screenland) and Naomi Watts (a close second) as adult Brannocks, Dean and Nora.
The letters arrive, Dean loses his marbles, and the Brannocks begin to fall apart. Is The Watcher a horror? Um, well, maybe. Is it a comedy? I’m not sure, but I’ve been cackling away here like a mad man. Is it a thriller? A terrible one, yes, but I’ll tell you one thing — it’s never boring.
For a start, Murphy and Brennan give ‘the watcher’ a distorted reading voice, and it is deeply unsettling. The satanic cult bit (you’ll see what I mean) deserves a show of its own. There are barmy flashbacks, too, about former Westfield residents whose lives were destroyed by ‘the watcher’ — and I’m all here for Christopher McDonald’s slippery guest spot as Detective Rourke Chamberland, a man who says it’s his job to serve and protect, but really, he’s about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
Put ‘em all together, and you have a tacky, trashy yet oddly satisfying soap opera that fully commits to what I like to call the Richard Curtis Film World Rulebook.
Long story short, when Curtis was making Love Actually, he had Hugh Grant question the unforgettable 10 Downing Street dancing sequence. See, Grant wondered where, exactly, the music was coming from given that his character starts off in the bedroom — next to a radio — but winds up shaking his hips on the other side of the gaff. “Oh, don’t worry about all of that,” said Curtis. “It’s film world”.
The Watcher is loosely based on a true story, and takes its cue from a 2018 New York Magazine article — but it firmly establishes itself inside a wonky, wobbly universe where nothing makes sense.
Day turns to night when the plot requires it to. Dean runs marathons throughout his dream house, waving an envelope around like a maniac, and his family thinks nothing of it. Supporting characters come out with the strangest things, and nobody ever follows up on them.
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Yep, The Watcher is bananas, but I cannot take my eyes off it. Worse still, I cannot decide which is funnier: Coolidge going full-on Coolidge, or Cannavale roaring about how he doesn’t need a dumbwaiter because he doesn’t live in “Downton-f**king-Abbey.” Unbelievable scenes.
Meanwhile, The Peripheral (Prime Video) is off to a dodgy start. Based on the 2014 novel by William Gibson, this muddy, murky sci-fi imagines a near-future where small-town siblings Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Burton Fisher (our own Jack Reynor) enrol in competitive VR simulations to pay for their dying mum’s medical bills.
He is a stealthy ex-marine — but she is the better gamer, and when Burton is asked to test a new “sim” (set in a futuristic version of London), it falls to Flynne to plug in, switch on and kick some virtual reality butt. Alas, the mission goes sideways, and Flynne — amazed at how real it all felt — is a tad concerned. Could it be that this new ‘sim’ is, in fact, a real-life gateway to a troubled distant future?
A tantalising concept, for sure, but The Peripheral squanders it with a slow, messy and frustratingly flat follow-through.
We might fare better with The Midnight Club (Netflix), Mike Flanagan’s watchable, old-school horror about a group of teenage hospice patients who meet in secret every night to drink some wine and swap some ghost stories. They also have a pact: whoever dies first is obligated to come back and haunt the place (now that’s freaky).
Based on the novels by Christopher Pike, The Midnight Club isn’t quite as subversive as it thinks it is, but a committed, capable cast keeps this show on the road. Let’s see where it goes.