Hulu’s Shut Eye is what happens when a solid premise (fake psychic starts having real visions) meets entirely the wrong tone (The Sopranos meets Breaking Bad meets The Riches) and is paired with a real mixed bag of a cast. It’s a show I sampled this Christmas Break due to my affinity for the star, Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donovan, as well as my curiosity for how this would compare to Psych, The Mentalist or The Dead Zone (spoiler: it couldn’t be more different). After three episodes, I am tapping out because in the age of peak TV mediocre just doesn’t cut it. While I appreciate the show’s attempt at a slow burn (no Burn Notice pun intended), I am left wishing it had gotten to the point far sooner and not busied itself with so much ponderous bullshit or dark journeys into Roma (aka gypsy) subculture. Shut Eye tries way too hard to be yet another gritty examination of a male anti-hero when all it needed to be was entertaining.
The pilot starts promisingly enough, introducing us to Charlie Haverford (Donovan) through a montage of him scamming gullible people with a mixture of new age-y crystals, candles, tarot cards and supposedly psychic insight. He does so out of his home office, telling one woman the truth about her cheating boyfriend, convincing another to buy a crystal from him to battle her depression and assuring a cop he’ll do just fine on his Lieutenant’s exam. The show thinks all of this is inherently amusing, laying a bluesy Deerhunter song under the montage so that lyrics like “I was born nailed to the cross/ I was born with a feeling, I was lost/ I was born with the ability to talk/ I was born with a snake-like walk”” play as a smiling Haverford easily and happily greets fools who are soon parted from their money.
You think you know where the show will go from there. Our lead character is clearly good at what he does and gives little thought to the morality of his actions, which can often appear humorous to anyone who’s in on the con. Once he starts having actual psychic visions of the near future, though, he will suffer a crisis of conscience, instinctively drawn to using his visions to simply advance his own cause financially before possibly deciding to actually use them for good (while also maybe making a quick buck along the way). And that is maybe, kind of, sort of the path the show takes across its first three episodes, just nowhere near as seamlessly nor as convincing about it as you’d expect.
In truth, Shut Eye appears far more interested in the process and mechanics of Haverford’s various cons (the long con he’s playing on one supremely wealthy woman is particularly ingenious and cruel) as well as the perilous hierarchy he operates under. As part of the underworld of California psychics, he has to answer to the head Roma family led by a thuggish brute (Angus Sampson, who speaks in an unintentionally funny Batman voice so we know how serious and scary he is) and his truly cruel mother (Isabella Rossellini). The visions are thus far barely part of the show, mere confusing images (such as a box full of donuts melting and turning into a boiling liquid) Haverford glimpses after suffering a blow to the head from an unhappy customer. He sees a kooky neuroscientist (Susan Misner, who appears to be acting in an entirely different kind of show than everyone else) about it, and is prescribed a treatment which involves dropping acid for, um, reasons.
Show creator Les Bohem (Extant) told TV Guide the story is ultimately “about a bad guy in a bad world who slowly starts this incredible journey to sainthood.” Emphasis on the “bad world” and “slow.” In the first three episodes, Haverford witnesses his sister, an aspiring fake psychic, being spit upon and cut into by the gypsies for disobeying their rules and a poor fast food worker pushed into a boiling vat of grease and oil for his suspected part in a drive-by. Moreover, Harverford’s not around when this happens but we also witness Sampson’s character brutally beating a man in a bathroom for making a sex joke about his teenage daughter. The show revels in this material, yet it still doesn’t have a handle on how to visualize Haverford’s visions nor a clear path for how exactly he will use them. Priorities, man. Come on.
It all feels like Shut Eye is trying too hard to convince us of its own grittiness (there’s even some female nudity and the occasional F-bomb for no good reason), laying it on pretty thick so that Haverford’s eventual journey out of this mess will be all the more impressive and fraught with peril. But do you care enough to go on that journey? If this is to be a redemption story are you properly invested in the person who is on that road to redemption? Or will you just feel bad for all those saps they keep conning?
Haverford is presented as a defeated man, good at his job, but stuck under the thumb of others who have robbed him of his once mighty ambition. His fellow con woman wife (Kadee Strickland, a Tricia Helfer lookalike who has never met a facial expression she couldn’t instantly turn into a well-seasoned glare) has lost respect for him and jumped into the arms of another woman (Emmanuelle Chriqui as a troublesome hypnotist who wants in on their game), and his dopey teenage son is busy courting the cute girl at school while wishing his life was more normal. No one truly believes in Haverford anymore, and he senses as much.
The problem is the show doesn’t really believe in him either, not enough to properly commit to him as the center of the show. Instead, his journey often gets lost in, as The Atlantic put it, “endless subplots involving nuclear families, Roma crime bosses, wacky neurologists, drug-pushing hypnotists, angsty teenagers, and Isabella Rossellini.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Dark and gritty where it needed to be light and breezy or at least more tonally consistent, Shut Eye is a real challenge to get through, with few if any characters to latch onto. It probably genuinely started out as an idea to do a show about a fake psychic who has visions, but as the writers conducted more and more research about Los Angeles clairvoyants and Roma culture they couldn’t help but find all of that infinitely more fascinating. That’s the show they wanted to make, but they were already married to the “fake psychic becomes real psychic” thing. Shut Eye is the compromise between those two visions, and it really, really shows