Freeform thriller The Watchful Eye may look like a spiritual successor to Cruel Summer, the anthology that became an instant hit when it debuted in 2021, but viewers would be wise to resist comparing the two. While Cruel Summer’s first season examined grooming and the villainization of women by 1990s media culture, The Watchful Eye layers a Hitchcockian premise with the “eat the rich” sentiment that has taken hold of contemporary pop culture. The result is a young adult drama that’s both compulsively watchable and socially aware, a rare combination in the genre.
Structurally, The Watchful Eye differentiates itself from Freeform’s last great mystery with its expansive storytelling (Cruel Summer employed a one-day-a-year format that drew equal measures attention and criticism). Mariel Molino stars as Elena Santos, a 20-something who lands a job as a nanny for a wealthy family and moves into their stuffy Manhattan apartment building, The Greybourne. Elena empathizes with widower Matthew (Warren Christie) and his son, as she claims to have also lost her mother as a child. However, we quickly learn that the nanny job isn’t her end goal: She’s really after a prized ruby that was hidden away in The Greybourne decades ago. At the urging of her boyfriend Scott (Jon Ecker), an NYPD detective, Elena uses her new position as cover to search for the jewel, discovering a larger conspiracy about the building, the nefarious dealings of its owners, and its residents’s history of abusing their hired help in the process.
Molino was one of the lone bright spots in ABC’s short-lived drama Promised Land, and she’s equally skilled here, teasing out new depths of Elena’s character as the show reveals more about her backstory and her motive for pulling one over on The Greybourne’s elite. Even in Watchful Eye’s more ridiculous moments — there’s a supernatural element that doesn’t completely jibe with the rest of the drama, but is entertaining nonetheless — Molino ensures that Elena remains grounded, never losing sight of the socioeconomic realities of her position. The upstairs-downstairs tension (though in this case, the staff quarters are in the attic, a dimly-lit space Elena describes as “insane asylum chic”) drives the plot, which picks up steam as Elena becomes increasingly consumed with unraveling the tangled web of the building’s many mysteries.
In a smart move, creator Julie Durk and showrunner Emily Fox, both of whom have comedy backgrounds, largely resist the urge to sympathize with the ultra-wealthy residents. Each of these characters is loathsome in their own way: Matthew is kind, but spineless (and far too flirty with the new nanny); Mrs. Ivey (Kelly Bishop, playing Emily Gilmore on steroids) is dismissive of everyone in the building; and Tory (Amy Acker), Matthew’s overbearing sister-in-law, is downright rude to Elena, constantly reminding her of her place in The Greybourne food chain.
Contrast this with the warmth and inclusivity of Elena’s fellow nannies, who welcome her into their crew with open arms and consistently look past her suspicious behavior. It’s here that The Watchful Eye feels most like a traditional Freeform show, complete with romantic intrigue — Aliyah Royale and Claire Filipow are particularly good as women evaluating what they want out of their lives, and out of each other — and some clumsy but well-intentioned monologues about gender expression and Gen Z culture. Still, these moments offer a needed break from the intensity of the secrets-and-lies portion of the show, and strong performances from supporting players Royale, Lex Lumpkin, and Andres Velez help lessen the burden on Molino.
The nanny scenes are also visually distinct: While Elena’s sleuthing typically takes place in the dark bowels of the building, the caregivers spend their afternoons at the park or waiting in line for cupcakes at an Instagram-famous bakery. These tonal and cinematic differences reinforce the sense that The Greybourne’s residents and the people they have hired to take care of their children exist in two different worlds, though it’s not up for debate which Durk and Fox believe to be more virtuous.
As other young adult dramas attempt to cram as many “real-life” storylines as possible into each season, The Watchful Eye offers an alternate model. It is singularly focused on its takedown of the rich, and everything, from Molino’s performance to the show’s visual style, functions in support of this aim. Restraint is a mature look, and it’s a characteristic other shows should keep a watchful eye on themselves.
The Watchful Eye premieres Monday, January 30 at 9:00 PM ET on Freeform and streams next-day on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.