Who Isn’t Watching The Watchers?
The Watchful Eye May Be Freeform’s — And Your — Next Sensation
I have made little secret in this column that I think one of the most undervalued players in television is Freeform, part of the Disney family, essentially on its third rebrand. Ever since it aired the gone-too-soon Bunheads over a decade ago, it has quietly been producing some of the most pleasing programming in years, given voice to diversity in ways so subtle you wouldn’t recognize it. From the wonderful spin-offs Good Trouble and grown-ish to the invaluable The Bold Type and the recent superb comedy Single Drunk Female, Freeform has a way of entertaining you that will sneak up on you while producing extraordinary shows. They have not been rewarded with recognition from awards show yet, but that may be changing: Cruel Summer was recognized by several critics awards shows as one of the best shows in 2021. (It’s return is imminent, and I’ll be writing about it soon enough.
It was, in part, because I’ve been waiting for that show to come back that I recently became aware of the newest series The Watchful Eye which from the trailers looked like it had the same mystery-thriller vibe as Cruel Summer, but possibly a hint of supernatural as well. I decided last night to DVR Quantum Leap and watch the two episode premiere hoping to get a hint of what I got from Cruel Summer. Not only will it do for now, but there’s also the potential for a smash here.
The Watchful Eye begins on Christmas Eve when we see a woman start to write a suicide note and then stand by a window. We then see her crash into the sidewalk in front of the doorman, but we never see whether the decision was of her own volition. Six months later, Elena Santos comes to the Greystone Building to apply for the job of nanny to the son of the recently departed whose death is described by the widow Martin as ‘an accident’. Martin seems amicable enough but most of the supervision is being done by his sister-in-law Tory (Amy Acker playing a character that doesn’t even bother to have the good behavior of…well, almost every character she’s played on TV over the past twenty years) who clearly would not be satisfied with anyone Martin would hire. Elena managed to finesse the interview.
The pilot tells us from the beginning that Elena is there under false pretenses. We will learn pretty much by the end of the second episode that her entire background is a lie, that she is a con artist whose been guilty of multiple counts of fraud, that her mother has been in prison, and that she is working in consort with a dirty cop (her lover who seems to have arrested her just for this purpose) so that she can find something that they can steal from the building and make a fortune. By the time we learn this, the viewer has gotten to the point that we don’t trust anything that we have seen or heard that anyone says, and Elena is no different — the cop himself will not reveal where he got his information about the contraband under Elena’s pressing, and we certainly don’t trust any aspect of the relationship: we think it’s likely that both individuals could very well betray the other when they see a chance to get away with the fortune. Elena is slightly more sympathetic by the end of the second episode, but it has nothing to do with our trust for her (in that sense, she fits right in with everyone else we’ve met at the Greystone) but because she has completely underestimated what she was in for and is already in too deep to get out.
Because the Greystone has a reputation, one that is only slightly better than that of the Overlook before it blew up. Everyone seems to be lying about something, and everyone has a hidden agenda. Tori doesn’t seem to care one bit about her husband’s infidelities and far more about whose around her brother-in-law’s kid. She and Martin keep getting into heating battles and she fundamentally distrusts everybody (she demands a drug test from Tori than Martin clearly had no idea was about). Bennett and Darcy, two of the local teenagers seem to be more open, but considering that they are part of the Ayres family, we know they have a different kind of secret. Mrs. Ivey (Kelly Bishop essentially being Emily Gilmore, only making her brusqueness present to everybody not just her daughter) is unpleasant and essentially blackmails Maria into spying on her brother-in-law because she believes someone was responsible for her death. Naturally, she is completely disinclined to give any explanation or reasoning for this; she feels she just has too. Even the doorman is keeping secrets from people. When a woman shows up in Elena’s quarters telling her ‘Don’t trust them” it’s almost superfluous by this point, and only more surprising when Elena learns the source.
Is the Greystone haunted? That is no doubt the question that the show’s writers want us to think, though right now they are fundamentally covering their bases in this regard. (The only concrete proof Elena has that theirs something creepy going on is something she saw after smoking a joint, and right now who gave her that joint is another mystery I want unfolded.) What is clear is The Greystone is creepy. Like any old building is it filled with secret passages that lead everywhere (though Elena did know they were there and went in willingly), there are creaky noises (could be the building settling) and Jasper, the seven year old at one point vanishes during hide-and-seek (given Elena’s state of mind, it’s hard to know how seriously to take that). And there’s enough deception going around that so much of the unease Elena is feeling is natural. In the second episode, she has a conversation with two other nannies (the show’s comedy relief; their charge involves caring for three different sets of identical twins) and Kim and Ally tell her that the previous nanny for Jasper just…vanished. And no one wants talk about it, not even the manny who knew her. Kim and Ally, I should add, are among the only people we truly think are trustworthy so far on this show; the others so far are Elliott, an African-American high school student who lives in the building but is more than willing to share his info with Elena, and Ginny, another nanny who has automatically bonded with Elena in ‘nanny solidarity’. All of them have no problem filling Elena in on the horrible things that they have heard about the tenants in the Greystone, as well as the very real possibility that Matthew may have been having an affair with previous nanny and could very well have killed both her and his wife. Right now, Matthew does seem sincere and protective of his child, but for all we know, he’s just better at putting up a front in front of the help.
I don’t know if The Watchful Eye has is capable of sustaining the momentum it put up in the first two episodes: it’s already juggling a lot of balls and it doesn’t seem to be close to finished yet. I don’t know if this has the potential to work over a full season, much less an entire series if indeed it does get renewed. What I do know is that it might be a better example of a new kind of mythology series that some have talked about — something that many complained about X-Files and Lost but that series like Yellowjackets are not. In the latter type of series, the mythology is known to the characters but not the viewers where as both of the former series, for all their virtues, went to the end of their runs with most of the characters not understand what had happened. I have no problem with either of type of series, to be sure, but I can understand why the latter would be so much more appealing and therefore watchable than those of us who, say, got tired of the fact that Westworld kept building on its house of cards rather than stick with the basic structure it has built in the first season.
It also helps that Watchful Eye is superbly acted, written and directed. With the exception of Acker and Bishop, the cast and writers are unknown to me, though I suspect given their performances they won’t be for long. Mariel Malino is particularly good as Elena, a twenty-two year old who is already a master at psychological manipulation and perfectly capable of spinning a new lie when one is revealed. She is, to be clear, as two-faced and capable of lying as almost everyone we’ve met on this series and is perfectly willing to be used if it suits her purposes. She’s not exactly an antiheroine but I feel more empathy for her and her condition that I have for say, any of the teenagers in Euphoria. She clearly got more than she bargained for when she took on this job, but its already too late for her to turn back.
I think there’s a chance that Elena will get through the first season of Watchful Eye. As for the rest of them, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a higher body count than Walking Dead or Game of Thrones by the end of Season 1. In that sense, I’ve made my own decision to be yet another person who’s eyes are on Elena. I hope that other viewers make the same decision.
My score: 4 stars.