The New Ryan Murphy Series ‘The Watcher’ Is Campy and Bizarre

This (barely) based-on-a-true-story psychological thriller is ridiculous and funny, but never as scary or thoughtful as it means to be.
The Watcher Review Netflix

A seemingly well-off family moves into what they think is their dream home. The couple’s teenage daughter soon gets romantically involved with an ill-advised suitor. Creepy, nosy neighbors soon begin encroaching on their space – including an older woman with a disabled family member in tow. Soon, the ghost of a past owner seems to begin haunting the place, tormenting the family’s increasingly unstable patriarch. Ryan Murphy made this show 11 years ago with the first-ever season of American Horror Story, and now, he’s making it again with his latest, Netflix’s The Watcher. The detailed similarities between the co-creator’s two plots are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this baffling – if also admittedly entertaining – limited series.

The Watcher alleges to be based on a true story, but only its bare-bones premise matches up with the actual account that appeared in The Cut in 2018. That genuinely harrowing saga involved a family who bought their dream home in New Jersey, only to be plagued by mysterious, disturbing anonymous letters from an apparent stalker who alleged to have deep ties to the house itself. All of that happens in Netflix’s The Watcher, too, but instead of digging into the terror of the unknown but omnipresent figure, the series almost immediately devolves into a campy wild goose chase, one that always seems like it’s about to make a point it never quite gets to.

Bobby Cannavale heads up the cast as Dean Brannock, the businessman husband to Naomi Watts’ pottery-making wife. The pair have two kids – Carter (Luke David Blumm), who barely has any screen time, and Ellie (Isabel Gravitt), a teen whose burgeoning sexuality turns Dean into a total weirdo. When the family moves into 657 Boulevard, dumping every cent they have into the real estate deal, they’re quickly caught off guard by the arrival of threatening, hand-typed letters. But unlike the real story, there are tons of embellishments to a plot that already could’ve been unnerving on its own, from secret tunnels to hints of Satanic Panic plots to the aforementioned ghost.

Not only do Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan not have confidence in the story of The Watcher to stand up on its own, but they also feel the need to invent an ever-rotating cast of kooky suspects. Indeed, the bulk of the show simply involves Dean pointing the finger at one person after another, constantly changing his mind about whether The Watcher is one set of strange and off-putting neighbors (Terry Kinney and Mia Farrow, the latter in a welcome return to screen after years away) or another (Richard Kind and Margo Martindale). It could also be the private investigator (Noma Dumezweni), the cop (Christopher McDonald), the real estate agent (Jennifer Coolidge), or a small handful of other nefarious randos who wander through their lives across the show’s seven episodes.

Rather than functioning as a normal whodunnit, though, The Watcher is a sort of cyclical study of modern madness that goes round and round without ever stopping anywhere significant. Thematically, it hints at interesting ideas, but Murphy and Brennan never seem to be much more than interested in them. Several characters parrot right-wing talking points, and others spout irksome platitudes that don’t actually match up with their circumstances. At one point, for example, Farrow’s character bemoans that the Brannocks not letting her brother break into their house to ride the dumbwaiter is what’s wrong with the world today.

The Watcher is clearly meant to be about conspiratorial thinking, the commodification of fear, and the breakdown of communication among Americans. That ambitious set of ideas, in itself, makes it more interesting than several of Murphy’s past works. But it also doesn’t push any of its own observations far enough. Instead, it makes them at once obvious and surface-level, never bothering to dig beneath the surface of its central metaphor.

The Watcher does work on one level: it’s very funny. How much of its humor is intentional isn’t quite clear. Some abruptly hilarious moments, like when a trio of characters discusses a grisly and largely narratively inexplicable crime over brunch, seem meant to strike our funny bones. Other details, like the fact that Watts’ character somehow becomes an art world sensation by creating a series of blandly designed tan vases, seem unintentionally funny. The Watcher functions best as camp, and once started, it’s worth seeing through to the end to delight in its wildest performances from great, up-for-anything character actors. While Watts plays it the straightest of everyone, Coolidge, Martindale, Kind, and Farrow are all wonderfully ridiculous. Meanwhile, Cannavale walks the razor’s edge between seriousness and farce as an increasingly sweaty and stressed-out dude who would do anything to kick The Watcher’s ass.

If you have to choose between watching The Watcher and watching something else, there are plenty of shows out there that are more thoughtful, artful, and entertaining than this one. But if you, for any reason, feel compelled to dig into a series with countless goofy twists, a wonderfully bonkers supporting cast, and a campy streak of dark humor, well, have I got the show for you. I promise it’s a better deal than the one the Brannocks got.

The Watcher is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the series trailer here.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)