‘The Act’ spins deadly Missouri mother-daughter story into Hulu series

A Wisconsin man has been sentenced to life in prison in the stabbing death of a Missouri woman who forced her daughter to use a wheelchair and undergo unnecessary medical tests so she could collect gifts and charitable donations.

The Springfield News-Leader reports that the 29-year-old Nicholas Godejohn, of Big Bend, Wisconsin, won't be eligible for parole. The sentence was the only one possible after he was convicted in November of first-degree murder in the June 2015 death of 48-year-old Clauddine "Dee Dee" Blanchard at her home near Springfield.

Defense attorneys argued for a lesser charging, saying that Blanchard's daughter, Gypsy Blanchard, manipulated Godejohn into killing her mother in order to escape from an abusive home life. She already is serving a 10-year prison sentence.

"The Act" offers the second dramatization of the ill-fated relationship between Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard in two months, and it's easily the better of the two. Yet while this Hulu limited series captures the unsettling con game played by the mother, be forewarned that replicating these events can be as off-putting as the actual characters.

The story of the Blanchards -- which ended with Dee Dee's murder, leading to the convictions of Gypsy Rose and her boyfriend -- has already been told, quite well, in the HBO documentary "Mommy Dead and Dearest."

Based on a Buzzfeed article by Michelle Dean, who adapted the series with Nick Antosca, "The Act" has the latitude to tease that out over eight episodes, casting Patricia Arquette -- fresh off her standout turn in "Escape at Dannemora" -- as Dee Dee and Joey King as the pipsqueak-voiced Gypsy.

For those unfamiliar, Dee Dee kept Gypsy in a perpetual child-like state, while convincing the girl that she suffered from an array of maladies with which she wasn't actually afflicted, a form of abuse by a caregiver known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Here, that includes jabbing her with an epi-pen every time her daughter comes into contact with sugar, even though it's later revealed that isn't actually allergic.

The story unfolds partly through the eyes of a neighbor, Mel (Chloe Sevigny), who is initially skeptical when the Blanchards and their sob stories take up residence across the street, as well as said neighbor's daughter (AnnaSophia Robb), who becomes a sort of confidant for Gypsy. The murder, meanwhile, is presented in glimpses, letting the narrative play as a flashback from the body being discovered.

Anyone who has seen footage of the Blanchards understands how stilted their behavior was, qualities that the actresses have dutifully captured. "I can dress up in my princess dress and make friends!" Gypsy squeals in a high-pitched voice at one point, before her view of her mom begins to seriously sour.

As for Arquette, she conveys the martyr-like qualities that Dee Dee projected in her efforts to wring money and gifts from the situation, but does so using a honeyed, breathless voice. It's a bit like being subjected to an adult speaking baby-talk, a cross between Blanche DuBois and Kate McKinnon impersonating Jeff Sessions on "Saturday Night Live."

"The Act" remains oddly fascinating, perhaps especially so as the strange, sad relationship between the needy Gypsy and disturbed Nick (Calum Worthy) develops. That said, given the cloying nature of Dee Dee's persona, watching does begin to feel like a bit of an ordeal.

Hulu is already positioning "The Act" as an umbrella title that the streaming service intends to re-use to dramatize other high-profile crimes, chronicling self-contained stories over each subsequent season. It is, in essence, a vehicle for turning what would otherwise become Lifetime movies or episodes of "Dateline NBC" into miniseries.

The network and producers will have a hard time finding another yarn as inherently creepy as this one, and not every salacious murder can bear the weight of such multipart productions; still, as we've seen time and again with TV's current true-crime wave, that won't prevent them from trying.

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