If you’ve ever wondered what goes on those inside storefronts that advertise the services of psychics, “Shut Eye” does a good job of breaking down their rituals and scams. Those elements of the Hulu drama give it a bit of raffish flair, but premonitions about where the story is headed are a little too easy to come by. Despite a magnetic performance from its lead actor, it’s not difficult to see “Shut Eye’s” rather predictable trajectory.
Jeffrey Donovan played a spy who frequently resorted to subterfuge in the long-running USA show “Burn Notice,” which did a consistently fine job of capitalizing on his ability to play a cynical, conflicted man who can’t quite resist the urge to do the right thing. Now — following his entertaining transformation into a stubborn, beefy Midwestern thug in the second season of “Fargo” — Donovan is once again playing a character whose gifts for mimicry and charm are used in pursuit of unethical and often illegal ploys, and who hides a great deal of frustration under a tightly controlled surface.
But instead of taking an occasionally shady path in pursuit of a morally defensible goal, Donovan’s character, Charlie Haverford, is trying to go from small-time scammer to big-league criminal. Charlie and his wife, Linda (KaDee Strickland), run a chain of fortune-telling parlors, one of which occupies a room in their unremarkable Los Angeles home. A lot of their time is spent chafing at the oversight of the Marks family, a Roma clan that strictly enforces its dominion over all the fortune-telling places within a large section of the city.
Fonso Marks (Angus Sampson) is capricious and overbearing, but he’s nothing compared to his mother, Rita (Isabella Rossellini). She can be friendly now and then, but Rita is also a very tough businesswoman, which makes the Haverfords wary of crossing her. But an opportunity comes along that the couple can’t resist, and they don’t want to give their usual cut to the Marks clan.
Despite “Shut Eye’s” well-intentioned effort to note that the Roma community is full of productive citizens who have nothing to do with illegal activities, that’s not the core focus of the show, and Fonso ultimately comes off as a bit of a gangster cartoon. And though there’s every indication that Rossellini is enjoying herself in this role, Rita doesn’t vary much from the typical gangster matriarch familiar from dozens of other movies and TV shows. Emmanuelle Chriqui’s character, a grifter who specializes in hypnotism scams, is also underwritten and not particularly memorable.
The most successful storylines center on Charlie and his interactions with clients. In particular, his dealings with a wealthy character played by Mel Harris have an intimacy, nuance and emotional complexity that other aspects of the show lack. Charlie, a former magician, is especially skilled at reading people and figuring out what they want or need to hear, but his use of that talent is complicated by a mysterious medical malady that follows a head injury. Doctors are mystified by his symptoms, and he begins to think that he really does have a gift for seeing the future. But that ability often feels to Charlie more like a curse than a blessing.
“Shut Eye’s” biggest problem — aside from a subplot about Charlie and Linda’s teen son that is deadly dull — is that it can’t quite decide on a tone. At times it almost has the frisky feeling of a slightly darker take on the “Psych” premise, but then, moments later, it will indulge in the kind of graphic violence seen on much bleaker shows. The mixture is jarring, to say the least.
Whether Charlie’s psychic gifts are real or not, the choice he makes over the course of the first few episodes — to become colder, crueler and far more manipulative — is undeniable. The transformation he goes through has its silly or surreal moments, and its share of bloody incidents, but he willingly chooses a path that is very likely to end up hurting a number of people. It’s debatable whether the audience will want to follow him down that road.
“Breaking Bad” — which also had some tonal wobbles in its early seasons — was able to draw viewers deeply into Walter White’s metamorphosis thanks to its crisp pace, thrilling plotting and ability to surround the lead character with complicated and colorful supporting characters. All those elements mitigated the chilling selfishness of the protagonist’s choices.
Without those assets, it’s harder to buy into the deeply cynical path that “Shut Eye’s” lead characters embark upon. It’s not that Donovan can’t make Charlie’s decision to rebel against his bosses interesting (even though thieves stealing from each other is one of the oldest dramatic constructs in the book). The actor consistently commands every scene he’s in, and portrays Charlie’s burning drive and stifled aspirations with subtlety and specificity.
But watching the character make mincemeat of unsuspecting victims is not only challenging, it’s rarely surprising. After all, as the drama itself makes clear, Charlie usually holds all the cards.