Ryan Murphy is back. Again. Love his work or not, there’s no deny the writer, director, and producer stays busy. The American Horror Story already topped the Netflix streaming charts this month with the Dahmer series. Now he’s back on top again with the highly anticipated mini-series, The Watcher. A psychological mystery and thriller in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, The Watcher actually takes its story from a real incident. Murphy has adapted a true account from New York magazine, which detailed the mysterious harassment of a New Jersey family after purchasing their ‘dream home’. Not surprisingly, Murphy’s premiere episode, Welcome, Friends, takes plenty of liberties with the source material.
Welcome, Friends Introduces to the Brannocks and Several Red Herrings
As Welcome, Friends, kicks off, The Watcher introduces us to its picture perfect family, the Brannocks. Naomi Watts (Goodnight Mommy) and Bobby Cannavale (Blonde) are Nora and Dean Brannock, respectively. And they’ve brought their adorable children – teen daughter Ellie and Carter – along with them. In Murphy’s brightly lit, almost dreamlike scene, we’re introduced to the admittedly gorgeous heritage home and several immediate potential suspects before the first ominous letter even arrives. First, there’s Jennifer Coolidge’s realtor and Nina’s former high school friend. She’s showing the house and Murphy immediately establishes that she’s envious of Nora, an aspiring artist clearly in a position to buy the house.
In these scenes, Murphy stumbles over himself to contrast the Brannock’s normalcy with the over-the-top oddball neighbours.
At the open house, the Brannocks bump into a strange man wandering the halls. Is he an interested buyer? Though he never asks about the selling price he does oddly inquire about whether servants built the home. In addition, Mia Farrow turns up as Pearl, the president of the local preservation society along with her adult mentally disabled son, Jasper. They’re both entirely fascinated with the home’s dumbwaiter. In these scenes, Murphy stumbles over himself to contrast the Brannock’s normalcy with the over-the-top oddball neighbours. But there’s little in the way of substantive character development. Following the open house, Dean convinces his banker to finance the purchase despite the fact that the Brannocks are totally overextended. And six weeks later, the family settles into the American Dream – owning a home you can’t afford.
The Watcher’s Dream House is Situated Amongst a Lot of Bad Neighbors
No sooner than the Brannocks have unpacked and the first letter arrives. If you’re unfamiliar with the basic story, an anonymous stalker referring to themselves as only ‘The Watcher’ sends a series of increasingly creepy and threatening letters to the family. Like with his other productions, Murphy swerves between melodramatic mystery and psychological horror to occasional camp. But the two letters that arrive in Welcome, Friends, are genuinely chilling. Of course, the letters are very real so they should be scary. Not surprisingly, the local police aren’t very helpful, chalking the whole thing up to a prank. Somehow the joke is lost on Dean who immediately hires a young, inexperienced security technician to install a bunch of cameras.
But the two letters that arrive in Welcome, Friends, are genuinely chilling. Of course, the letters are very real so they should be scary.
Shortly thereafter, Dean gets into a pretty nasty confrontation with next door neighbors, Mo and Mitch. In addition to complaining about Ellie’s piano playing – despite the fact she hasn’t touched the grand piano – the neighbors are harvesting arugula that’s migrated onto the Brannock’s yard. It’s a Ryan Murphy show so Mo and Mitch are eccentric and things get heated quickly. Amongst the threats hurled at Dean, Mo makes sure to warn him that they’ll be ‘watching him’. Could they be ‘The Watchers’ sending the mystery letters?
Welcome, Friends Finds Murphy Laying On The Hitchcockian Mystery Pretty Thick
Maybe Mo and Mitch are prime suspects. But Dean and the Brannocks also run afoul of Pearl later in Welcome, Friends. After Carter finds Jasper hiding in the house dumbwaiter, Dean roughs him up and tosses him out on the front yard. Pearl takes offence – apparently it’s perfectly normal to let your adult son play in the neighbor’s house. In addition to making a reference to ‘watching’ the family, Pearl babbles on in such a way to ensure you know she’s not quite right.
Other strange things happen in Welcome, Friends. Someone kills Carter’s pet ferret in the middle of the night. Earlier in the episode, Ellie finds lipstick that doesn’t belong to her or her mother. That unhelpful local police officer knows the Brannocks are financially in over their head. Nora’s old high friend and realtor, Karen, drives by the house late at night – Murphy makes sure we see her ‘watching’ intently. And the young security technician takes a pretty keen interest in teen daughter, Ellie. So there’s plenty of red herrings by the end of The Watcher’s first hour.
Welcome, Friends, Mixes Fact, Fiction, and Red Herrings in Tonally Wild Episode
Traditionally, Ryan Murphy’s shows are hit and miss. Sometimes individual episodes vary wildly in quality. So it’s not really a surprise that Welcome, Friends is a mixed bag. At the heart of The Watcher is a creepy, Hitchcockian mystery-thriller and the letters are unnerving. Yet The Watcher immediately includes many of Murphy’s excesses in the fictionalized bits. In addition to some of these tonal problems, Murphy spends little time developing his characters. And Cannavale’s ‘Dean Braddock’ isn’t immediately likable. Still there’s plenty of promise in the premise.