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Ryan Murphy Was the Wrong Choice to Adapt The Watcher

The American Horror Story mastermind brings too much to the table for what should have been a tight psychological terror.
  • Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts in The Watcher (Netflix)
    Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts in The Watcher (Netflix)

    The real-life story of The Watcher is one of the most subtly creepy and unsettling stories in recent years. As first reported in New York Magazine in 2018, it's the story of a family who purchased their dream home in Westfield, New Jersey, only to have their suburban bubble punctured by the arrival of an anonymous letter from "The Watcher," who claimed to have been watching their house for decades and was eager for the "young blood" of the children. "Once I know their names I will call to them and draw them too [sic] me," it read. It was the stuff of delicate, understated terror; the ultimate Jezebel Scary Story. It has now been turned into a scripted series on Netflix, overseen by Ryan Murphy, perhaps the least subtle, least nuanced creator of televised horror working today. The resultant seven-episode limited series is a starry adaptation to be sure, but it's unfortunate confirmation that Ryan Murphy was exactly the wrong choice to adapt this tale.

    The spooky appeal of the “Watcher" article is obvious: It's the ultimate "what would I do?" story. You've moved into the most spectacular house, a literal dream come true… and then the letters come. Are they a prank? A hoax? A neighborhood busybody who didn't like the look of the new neighbors? How easy would it really be to brush it off as something unserious? For one thing, the writing in the letters is too good, too evocative, too foreboding. The part about how The Watcher is the latest in a family line that's been watching your home throughout the decades invites thoughts of Masonic secret societies or at least the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family. References to "what lies in the walls," oblique accusations of "greed" that make it feel like The Watcher doesn't like you very much, and of course, the delight they seem to take in you not knowing who or where you are. If it's a hoax, it's such a good hoax that it almost doesn't matter. The terror of uncertainty and instability has settled into your life, and it's here to stay.

    As a horror auteur, Ryan Murphy doesn't really do uncertainty. He's been incredibly successful with the American Horror Story franchise with his maximalist approach to the genre. There's a kitchen-sink quality to any given season of AHS — you might start with a coven of witches, but you're probably going to end up with cannibalism, cults, ghosts, serial killers, maybe even aliens. The Watcher, at its core, is psychological horror small enough to fit inside a mailbox, and it's tough to watch Murphy struggle to achieve that objective when his every instinct is to go bigger, expand farther.

    The problem here isn't a lack of fidelity to the true story being adapted. We don't owe the real-life Broaddus family (called the Brannocks on the TV show) documentary levels of accuracy. Using the germ of the Watcher's letters as a jumping-off point for something more elaborate would be a fine approach if it worked. Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan really seem to want to make it work, their way. Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts — both new to the Murphy-verse, though Watts will also be starring in the next season of Feud — play Dean and Nora Brannock, parents of two; he's a white-collar corporate-ladder type, she's an artist. They're escaping New York City for vibes reasons. They get one look at this dynamite house that is probably too expensive for them and they overbid on it. It'll all work out. Then the letters arrive.

    Murphy and Brennan's misguided approach to the material really hits home with the arrival of that first letter. This is the moment everything changed for this family, a psychological glass-breaking where every feeling of security and stability that their comfortable lifestyle has afforded them is pulled away. And yet it's depicted almost casually, the teenage daughter reading the letter aloud at the breakfast table, with an altered voiceover taking over as Dean and Nora take the letter to the cops. Watts and Cannavale are tremendously talented actors who could work wonders with the terror of receiving such a letter, but they're not asked to.

    Murphy and Brennan's approach is to focus on the laundry list of suspects. Who could be writing these letters? Since everybody who passes by 657 Boulevard seems utterly enamored with the house, it could be anyone, and if nothing else, The Watcher luxuriates in its supporting players. Suspects include a scowling neighbor couple played by Margo Martindale and Richard Kind, who are introduced as they are literally raiding the Brannocks' arugula; Mia Farrow in braided pigtails as a Preservation Society busybody whose brother Jasper (Terry Kinney) is a Boo Radley type, all hulking and simple and either innocent or terrifying; and Jennifer Coolidge as Karen, the real estate agent for the house who knows Nora from their days at RISD and who, once the letters start arriving, becomes suspiciously adamant that Nora not only sell the house but leave Dean as well. Coolidge, who recently won an Emmy for her work on The White Lotus, is working with Murphy again for the first time since a handful of guest appearances on Nip/Tuck, and you get the sense that Murphy doesn't want to be left out of the Jennifer Coolidge moment happening in pop culture right now. He gives her plenty of campy lines to read and seems to relish shining a spotlight of suspicion on Karen whenever possible.

    In real life, the story of The Watcher is one of frustrated dead ends, with the Westfield police unable (or often unwilling) to uncover the perpetrators, leading to high levels of paranoia from the Broaddus family towards their neighbors. Murphy and Brennan are happy to approach this angle, with Christopher McDonald playing an incredibly unhelpful chief of police, but they can't help but constantly meander off the point. Each avenue of suspicion is played out in full. It's the creepy neighbors who are into freaky cult stuff! It's the realtor who wants the house for herself! It's the cops of the kid who installed the security cameras or a far-reaching conspiracy of suburban NIMBYs. A private investigator, played by the incredible Noma Dumezweni, can't just be a P.I., she's a former jazz singer dying of cancer. It's like Murphy ultimately doesn't trust The Watcher's story to be robust enough, so he adds filler like a character played by Joe Mantello, who's a thin gloss on the real-life John List, who infamously murdered his family in Westfield decades before the events of The Watcher took place.

    Visual or narrative references to everything from Rosemary's Baby to The Amityville Horror to The Shining feel less like homage and more like Murphy grasping for a template for this story he can't quite grasp. This aimlessness is most glaring in the moments when The Watcher makes a handful of truly half-hearted attempts to place its story into a greater American context. In the second episode, Nora gives a literal hand wave to a vaguely articulated atmosphere of "fear" that's "happening to everyone across the country," but that's the extent of the show's attempts to comment on it. Even less successful are the show’s inarticulate glances towards racism and cancel culture.

    You can feel Murphy yearning for The Watcher to be something it's not, be that a haunted house story or a twisted tale of murder and mayhem. It's neither. It's a story about how the mere suggestion of menace just out of sight is enough to terrorize a family. This needed a tightly-coiled production and a writer/producer whose approach is less maximalist and more attuned to the finer points of human behavior. That disconnect leaves The Watcher adrift and ultimately unsatisfying, especially for anyone familiar with the source material. This one's scarier in the imagination that it is on the screen.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Watcher, Netflix, Bobby Cannavale, Ian Brennan, Jennifer Coolidge, Joe Mantello, Margo Martindale, Mia Farrow, Naomi Watts, Richard Kind, Ryan Murphy