Hulu Original Series: Shut Eye – Season One Review
By: Packy Smith (@nerfedllamas)
New series on streaming services seem to pop up weekly these days. In fact, it seems impossible to keep up with all of the amazing content that is being put out on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and all of the other streaming services. I have gotten to a point where I scan trailers nearly as often as I sit down to watch TV shows and movies. However, a lot of the trailers for new TV series don’t initially catch my eye. As I have gotten older, I have become fairly selective in the content that I absorb via TV. Shows I watch have to show a special something in the trailer in order to reel me in. It’s hard for me to say what that special something is, as recently I have enjoyed watching Galavant (Medieval Musical Comedy), Westworld (Wild West/Sci-Fi), The Ranch (Sitcom), Marco Polo (historical drama), and Stranger Things (Retro 80’s Supernatural Thriller). My interests are all over the place and there is no one single genre or style of show that I watch exclusively. All of this is being laid out so plainly to better illustrate that it is difficult for me to express what it is that draws me to some shows and away from others. Whatever this unknown quantity is, Shut Eye‘s trailer had it.
What is Shut Eye?
Shut Eye is a TV series created for Hulu that follows Charlie and Linda Haverford, a married couple that manage a number of psychic storefronts for a Romani gypsy family that operates similarly to a mafia-like organization. Charlie, in a nuanced performance by Jeffrey Donovan, is a failed magician and illusion creator that has found employment as a psychic in Los Angeles through the patriarch of the Romani family, Fonso Marks. Linda, brought to life by KaDee Strickland, is an ambitious and morally grey wife that wants her family to prosper, but also wants to get out from under Fonso’s thumb at nearly any cost. Fonso, manically acted by Angus Sampson, is running the family business with a deliberate and brutal hand, while at the same time attempting to pull his family away from the old customs of his gypsy heritage. Along the way, Charlie suffers a major head injury and starts to get bizarre visions that may or may not be from the future. Could he actually be becoming a legitimate psychic? Not even Charlie knows for sure. What transpires during the first season of Shut Eye, consisting of ten episodes, is a darkly humorous take on the con art of retail psychic readings and an insight into the seedy unseen underbelly that controls the lucrative business of fortune telling. As with all my reviews, I won’t go into major spoiler territory, so read on with confidence that I will not ruin the Shut Eye experience for you.
What I liked about Shut Eye
The premise that was shown in the trailer is what initially drew me in. The idea of a psychic who absolutely knows it’s a con, but through an unfortunate accident starts to believe that he might actually have psychic abilities, seemed too alluring a concept to pass up. I’m glad that I didn’t, as Shut Eye proved itself to be a wonderfully twisty, darkly comic, character-driven, superbly acted, psychic/mafia caper of a TV series. Here are the key elements that stood out for me:
• Jeffrey Donovan is amazing in the role of Charlie. Perhaps best known as Michael Westen on the hit cable TV series Burn Notice, Donovan has also put in recent high quality performances in the TV series Fargo and the feature film Sicario. What’s nice about his portrayal of Charlie is how different it is from other roles that he has tackled in recent years. Charlie is reserved, contemplative, and deceptively intelligent. He is subservient to his wife, and fiercely concerned with matters of the family. Charlie is also hyper observant, which saves his neck (and others) more than once. The beauty here is that Donovan embraces all of these various pieces that make up Charlie and finds a way to link them altogether in a skillful performance. His ability to shift the character from charming, to sage, to fatherly, to concerned, and to broken is a credit to his acting instincts. Charlie is a bizarre character, brimming with wit and frustration, and Donovan absolutely nails it in the delivery. Kudos to the actor!
• The rest of the main cast is well performed as well. KaDee Strickland keeps you constantly guessing as Linda Haverford. You never really know what she is going to do next, nor what she is capable of any situation. Linda is a true wildcard that has a complex story of her own that in some ways mirrors Charlie’s and in others pulls her away from him. Throughout her arc, and the exceptionally hard decisions that she has to make, Strickland sells the tough mom and whip smart wife aspect of Linda in a huge way. Angus Sampson puts in a multi-faceted performance as Fonso Marks. On the surface Fonso seems like a standard mafioso, but deep down, he is a family man dedicated to his children and will do nearly anything, including potentially defying the larger Romani family, to secure their happiness. Fonso has a darkly sarcastic and pointedly harsh side that allows him to maintain a brutal stranglehold on his business and all of his subordinates. The only character that reins Fonso in is his mother Rita who is played to gypsy perfection by Isabella Rossellini. Rita does her best to keep Fonso in line with the Romani traditions, but is a twisted character that has hidden layers of depravity that are delightfully shown with significant effect throughout the series. It is also worth mentioning that Emmanuelle Chriqui, Susan Misner, David Zayas, Dylan Schmid, Mel Harris, Zak Santiago, Tyler Johnston, and Leah Gibson round out this excellent ensemble with solid performances. This is a wildly character-driven show, and all of these fine actors are working together to make the most of each scene, and it shows in every episode.
• The twists that come once the plot gets rolling are truly fascinating to watch unfold. There are deceptions, misdirections, secrets, and betrayals hiding around every corner. Charlie and Linda hardly get a moment’s peace once things get interesting. Linda’s ambition and desire is at the forefront of many of the calamities that befall the Haverfords, but there are so many forces at work that they all start collapsing on one another at all the wrong times. Fonso has trouble with another member of the Romani family, White Tony. Charlie is working a secret client that he is hoping to grift money from without involving the Romani family. The police are looking to take the psychic storefronts down, and the Romani family as well. Charlie’s visions are causing him to alter his plans, often times without letting Linda know what he is doing. All of these issues slowly meld together until they inevitably collide in the satisfying season finale.
• Charlie’s visions are not of the typical plot point-solving kind. The visions are not used as some MacGuffin that magically allow him to save the day. There is no convenient valuable clue that gives him special insight into his clients. In fact, his visions are often vague and obscure, almost to the point that it leaves Charlie just as baffled as the audience is. This is good, as it allows for there to be heightened suspense and massively raised stakes for both Charlie and Linda. He may have a premonition that something is about to happen, but he usually doesn’t know what is actually going to happen and it leaves him in a constant state of hyper-alertness. Details matter to him. Location, visual cues, people, everything that ties into his visions are of extreme interest to him and he is constantly trying to figure out what they mean in real time. Also, the results vary hugely depending upon how Charlie reacts to the visions. Sometimes he is right and things go well and other times he is wrong and things go horribly askew and you never know which one it’s going to be until it plays out on the screen.
What I didn’t like about Shut Eye
There were at least two issues I had with Shut Eye. The first is pacing, and the second is missed opportunities. Let’s drill down just a bit:
• Pace is the trick: It takes nearly three episodes for Shut Eye to finally take off. There is a lot of set up on the front end, as well as a sizable amount of world building. That is to be expected with all shows, but with Shut Eye, the more interesting aspects of Charlie and Linda’s twisted life in the land of psychic con artists takes a touch too long to get running. Once they hatch their scheme, the ship rights itself and the show flows much more naturally, but until then it drags along, trying to set all the dominoes up for their inevitable fall. Certainly, Shut Eye should have taken a page from high profile series launches like Netflix’s Daredevil and HBO’s Westworld, both of which did an excellent job of creating wonderfully dense worlds while at the same time propelling their stories forward with the right pace from the pilot episode. The good news is that Shut Eye is available in its entirety on Hulu, and shows that start slow and build to a worthwhile conclusion are easier to watch when binge watching. Series like Shut Eye and Netflix’s Sense8 that start slow and build momentum with each episode would likely not fare well in the ratings-dependent network TV world, but in a full streaming release scenario, they can thrive as binge audiences are willing to watch “one more episode” to see what happens, especially if they are invested in the characters. Amazing characters are what save the first act of the season. Impatient weekly viewers would not be as lenient, but in the world of binge watching, there is more give here. Double good news is that with all of the set up out of the way, a potential season two could hit the ground running hard and fast.
• Missed Opportunities: I rarely ever complain about the length of a series, but I honestly felt that Shut Eye was perhaps too short for its own good. There is a lot of plates spinning in the background: the doctor’s fascination with Charlie’s visions, his son Nick’s dilemma (which would contain major spoilers to discuss), the ongoing police investigation which rears its teeth occasionally but never fully bites, all of the dead bodies (again, spoilers), and a variety of other subplots (especially with the Romani) that are left massively unresolved. This could have been alleviated with a larger episode order. The story in ten episodes was a good one, but I can’t help but think that with 13 episodes they could have made the experience more rich and rewarding.
Shut Eye is an entertaining and twisty adventure that gives a rarely seen glimpse into the world of retail fortune telling. Whereas it takes a solid three episodes to get the ball fully rolling, once it gets moving, the plot is a fantastic roller coaster ride that is equal measures of thrilling and intense. It is well worth making it through the labored set up to get to the delicious meat of the series. Binge watching is changing the way series are made, and the slow build-up is acceptable because the characters are exceptionally interesting, which is well suited for binge audiences. For those of you that may not binge watch on a regular basis, trust me on this: stick with Shut Eye, the performances and the narrative pay off are well worth it. If you are in the mood for a series that offers a dark, often humorous, and strangely bizarre peek into the less traveled world of paid psychics as well as the shady Romani machine that controls the industry, then Shut Eye might be what you are looking for. I highly recommend watching the first season of Shut Eye, available exclusively on Hulu’s streaming service.
Hopefully, the series gets picked up for a second season, but even if it doesn’t, the finale is quite satisfying in a way that many first season shows are not. Again, I won’t spoil it, but rest assured that the final episode is quite excellent.