Sometime in 2014, a family who’d just moved into their dream home in the upscale suburb of Westfield, New Jersey, started getting ominous letters from someone identifying themselves as “The Watcher.” Four years later, those events were chronicled by Reeves Wiedeman in a New York article that immediately went viral.
Now, four years after that, Wiedeman’s story has been turned — inevitably, given the current gold-rush for adaptable true-crime material — into Netflix’s The Watcher, created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan for Netflix. But in the process, a singularly striking story has been transformed into just another ripped-from-the-headlines drama in an endless sea of content, neither bad enough to sink to the bottom nor good enough to float to the top.
The Bottom Line
Unforgettable true story, forgettable miniseries.
As spooky true stories go, 657 Boulevard’s is a relatively simple one: Though the letters indicated a bone-chilling familiarity with and possessiveness of the home and the people in it, promising to “watch and wait for the day when the young blood [children] will be mine again,” the torment waged by The Watcher was psychological rather than physical. At the time when the article was published, the case had not yet been solved, which only added to the intrigue.
The Watcher beefs up the saga by introducing more violent, more outrageous, just-plain-more twists. The series flirts with supernatural elements, a QAnon-ish conspiracy theory and (briefly, inexplicably) the looming specter of cancel culture. The plot beats move by briskly enough to hold a viewer’s attention; it certainly helps that all seven chapters clock in at under an hour, a blessing in the era of single episodes that run longer than most feature films. If I rarely found myself intensely engaged, I never found myself bored, either.
But the sum total of all these additives is bloat, not depth. Dean (Bobby Cannavale) and Nora Brannock (Naomi Watts), parents of a teenage daughter (Isabel Gravitt) and a preadolescent son (Luke David Blum), hem and haw in seemingly every episode about whether to cut their losses and resell the home or stick to their guns and stay — which on the one hand seems perfectly understandable from a human perspective and on the other gets repetitive over the course of the series.
Red herrings may be expected from any mystery, but The Watcher places the Brannocks in a thicket of dead ends and paper-thin supporting characters. There are a few interesting themes at play here, the most prominent being that class anxiety is the real monster, or whatever. Mostly, though, The Watcher seems content to just throw a bunch at the wall and see what sticks, caring only to a point whether any of it actually hangs together.
That applies to the plot, which is far from airtight, but also to the tone, which veers all over the place. Watts and Cannavale are playing out an intense psychodrama about a couple who find that the stresses of their new home deepen the cracks already existing within their marriage, and Cannavale is particularly compelling as a man gradually consumed by his drive to protect and provide for his family at any cost. At the same time, the characters surrounding them tend to be exaggerated in everything from their costumes to their mannerisms to their dialogue, but stop somewhere short of full-blown camp, as if they’re American Horror Story characters trying to blend into a Conjuring movie. The Watcher as a whole is left in an awkward middle ground, too straight-faced for sheer juicy fun and too silly for any real profundity.
Still, The Watcher has its pleasures from moment to moment, thanks in large part to a murderer’s row of beloved character actors able to chew through even the flimsiest of characterizations and sloppiest of storylines: Margo Martindale and Richard Kind as a nosy couple in ugly matching tracksuits; Mia Farrow and Terry Kinney as a pair of adult siblings who look like the American Gothic painting come to life; Joe Mantello as the slipperiest and most unsettling of them all, an ordinary-looking man spouting monologues worthy of Rorschach from Watchmen.
Noma Dumezweni begins as one of the series’ most eccentric-seeming characters — a sartorially bold jazz singer who’s turned her obsession with true crime into a second career as a private investigator — but evolves over time into one of its steadiest, richest characters. And while Jennifer Coolidge is playing very much to type as Nora’s friend and realtor Karen (ditzy, divorced, horny) it’s never not going to be fun watching Coolidge drawl out phrases like “chilled Whispering Angellll.”
And underneath all the extraneous plot twists, the letters themselves lose little of their deliciously unnerving power in their translation to the screen. The Watcher expands the paranoia spurred by the letters into a broader, more nebulous sense of anxiety that stretches beyond the walls of 657 Boulevard. It tugs at the sense that the world is a fundamentally dangerous and devious place, that there will always be too much change and not enough money, that we’ve been robbed of the security and comfort promised to us by the American Dream. Once we’ve been sucked into the Brannocks’ mindset, it’s difficult not to see everyone on screen in terms of what they might stand to gain from terrifying the family out of their home; it seems a deeply isolating way to live.
But the mood evaporates before the credits have finished rolling on the finale. At the center of The Watcher is a home that invites obsession — whether from the mysterious Watcher claiming to have watched the house and its occupants for decades, or from the Brannocks fixating on 657 Boulevard as the manifestation of both their most cherished dreams and their most feared nightmares, or from local oddballs who have their own reasons, from the mundane to the vaguely eldritch, for wanting the house to remain frozen in time. The Watcher itself casts no such spell. It’s a nice enough home, if you want to stop in and look around a while. You’ll forget it by the time you drive off.
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