‘The Watcher’ Review: Ryan Murphy’s Next True Crime Netflix Series Is a Joyless Camp Fest

Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale lead the seven-episode series that’s as subtle as a sledgehammer

The Watcher Naomi Watts
"The Watcher" (Netflix)

The 2018 New York Magazine feature “The Watcher” had all the makings of a taut, twisty and timely psychological thriller that triggered our universal neuroses about the illusions of privacy and safety in our own homes. Journalist Reeves Wiedeman unfurled a years-long saga of the real-life Broaddus family who paid a bit too much to fulfill their American dream of escaping the city and moving into an idyllic New Jersey suburb, only to find themselves trapped in a nightmare: Almost immediately after settling in, they begin receiving sinister letters threatening them and their children. The situation spins out of control, sending the family into paranoia (both justified and not) that pits neighbor against neighbor.

It’s easy to see why six different studios were eager to snap up the screen rights to Wiedeman’s feature, but it feels as though Netflix was trying to burn off this premium piece of IP … despite also throwing what was undoubtedly an enormous budget at it. The streamer’s second Ryan Murphy-helmed true-crime limited series in less than a month following the mammoth launch of “Dahmer,” “The Watcher” adaptation drains all the potential relatability and genuine terror out of the source material. With a subtler hand, and a much shorter runtime, a film could have explored the rich themes of the dark side of upward mobility and the erosion of civility among neighbors while serving up subtle but real scares, toying with the idea that the titular letter-writer could be any smiling neighbor at the grocery store.

The neighbors in Murphy’s “The Watcher” wouldn’t be even remotely recognizable in the real world, so we get none of that all-too-believable dread. Instead, the fictionalized Nora and Dean Brannock (Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale) encounter a parade of caricatures in Westfield, New Jersey, each only too happy to rant about property lines and “you city folk.” Directly over the hedge of their new dreamhouse are Margo Martindale and Richard Kind, who are put to poor use as a bizarre Boomer couple who tell Dean to watch himself within seconds of meeting him. Mia Farrow and Terry Kinney play Pearl and Jasper Willow, a mother and son who walked straight out of “American Gothic.” Jennifer Coolidge manages to delight, as always, as a real estate agent who should be cast in “Selling Turnpike.”

If you know anything about the actual story, it’s hard to find anything to enjoy even in the fun performances. Murphy’s sledgehammer-like writing (he co-wrote and co-created the series with Ian Brennan, his partner on “Glee” and recently “Dahmer”) and cheap jump scares make for delicious entertainment when paired with the right subject matter, but “The Watcher” needed much more nuance and a 90-minute or less runtime. Yet even with seven episode, we don’t get a slow build of animosity and dread — we get dead ferrets and ridiculous monologues (including a surreal one from Noma Dumezweni as a jazz singer turned private investigator) and a bizarre subplot involving a 19-year-old security equipment entrepreneur (Henry Hunter Hall), all within the first episode.

If you’re in the mood for pure camp, “The Watcher” will entertain you for an hour or so before you’re yelling at it to get off your lawn. 

“The Watcher” is now streaming on Netflix.