“I’m hearing things,” Charlie Haverford (Jeffrey Donovan) tells his doctor. “Colors are too bright. Time is out of joint.”
Charlie, the anti-hero of the new Hulu drama Shut Eye, is a psychic by trade, which means he’s actually a con artist, managing a chain of Los Angeles storefronts that run grifts both big and small, and bringing clients into his home office to tell them whatever he needs to in order to separate them from the maximum amount of money he can get.
But where some of TV’s other fake psychics like Patrick Jane on The Mentalist or Shawn Spencer on Psych eventually turned their true gift for reading small details about people into helping out law enforcement, Shut Eye goes a different way by sending Charlie down a path in which his powers may turn out to be real, which he then considers using to become an even bigger crook than ever.
Hulu’s doing something different with Shut Eye — created by Les Bohem, it costars KaDee Strickland as Charlie’s ruthless wife, Emmanuelle Chriqui as a hypnotist from Charlie’s days in the Vegas magic scene, and Angus Sampson (Donovan’s brother from Fargo season 2) and Isabella Rossellini as heads of the local Roma (don’t call them gypsies!) crime interests, and the people who give Charlie his marching orders — by premiering all 10 episodes at once tomorrow, rather than the streaming service’s usual weekly approach. This is more experiment than sea change, with an eye on people doing a lot of bingeing over the holidays (which helped turn Making a Murderer into a phenomenon for Netflix a year ago), and the series is more plot-driven than some other Hulu fare like The Mindy Project or Casual. (Even if, as I’ve often said, Casual plays better as a marathon.)
Is Shut Eye worth your December binge time? Well, that requires some psychic abilities — or, at least, the guesswork that comes with a lot of TV criticism — since Hulu only gave critics the first four hours. but gazing into my crystal ball (it’s on a shelf next to my Bob’s Burger pop figures), I’m skeptical that it will be.
Charlie’s a natural role for Donovan, who for seven seasons of Burn Notice had to channel certain skills required of both psychics and scammers, but it’s almost too easy a fit, and emblematic of a show that’s not shy about incorporating bits and pieces of other, better, anti-hero dramas: the empathetic doctor (Susan Misner as a neurologist who begins seeing Charlie after a head trauma that may have given him real abilities) about to get caught up in the world of organized crime, various crime bosses (including David Zayas from Dexter as one of Charlie’s clients) with the ability to pull our protagonist in deeper than he may be able to handle, an inconvenient corpse to be disposed of at the worst possible moment, etc.
There are a lot of moving parts, some of which work quite well (Mel Harris as a wealthy but naive client who thinks the Haverfords are saving her from a short con when they’re really setting her up for a long one), others of which grind the show to a halt (Dylan Schmid as the inevitable troublemaking teenage son). And while the show occasionally gets to demonstrate how much fun Charlie and Linda have running their various games, for the most part their work is presented as an enormous hassle for them, which gives the show a dour tone not too distant from Hulu’s disappointing previous new drama, Chance.
The two areas that feel relatively unique are Charlie’s dawning powers and the Romani culture that the Haverfords are immersed in because they decided to set up the wrong kind of business in the wrong part of town. But the early episodes are incredibly vague about what exactly Charlie can do. It may be a hedge in the event that he just has a brain injury that makes him think he’s really psychic, but it makes the scenes where he appears to be using powers unsatisfying because it’s not clear what he can actually do (or thinks he can do). And the material with Sampson and Rossellini is interesting to a point, but ultimately even the Roma-specific details of their culture can’t completely polish up the very familiar nature of their relationship to Charlie and Linda.
The narrative moves along at a nice clip, and there’s an effort at times to differentiate one episode from the next (the fourth hour is mostly a bottle show set at Charlie’s house), so depending on what happens over the rest of the season, it could turn out to be a satisfying binge. But in these early stages, it feels a bit too much like Charlie at the start of the story: pretending to be the real thing while hoping the audience won’t notice the difference.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com