Freeform’s latest primetime soap-thriller plays it fast and loose with mostly entertaining results.
Creating an engaging plot-driven primetime soap is a delicate process, despite how big and loud such shows tend to be. Burn through too many storylines too early, and you end up with, well, a Ryan Murphy series. On the other hand, take too much time to toss out the red meat, and the audience drifts, tired of potential with no execution.
In the eight episodes (of ten) provided to critics, The Watchful Eye has negotiated that balance well. There’s plenty in motion to engage the viewers while seeming to have enough in the chamber if the series goes beyond this season.
The Greybourne is a classic gorgeous New York City building populated by people who have received their apartment through inheritance, generation after generation, or possess an almost pornographic level of wealth. In the case of the family whose name adorns the building, it is both. Think Only Murders In The Building, but even more aggressively inspiring class warfare.
Elena Santos (Mariel Molino) ends up on the premise as a live-in nanny. The mother, Allie Ward (Emily Tennant), herself a Greybourne descendant, seemingly completed suicide by jumping. She left behind her husband Matthew (Warren Christie) and her son Jasper (Henry Joseph Samiri). While Allie’s overprotective sister Tory Ayres (Amy Acker) does everything in her power to keep Elena from getting and keeping the job, our protagonist proves a natural, both when it comes to childcare and passive-aggressive tussling.
Of course, Elena isn’t who she seems. Billing herself as a small-town Pennsylvanian, the suburbs of New York City accent she keeps slipping into every time she’s with her co-conspirator Scott (Jon-Michael Ecker) tells a very different story. It seems both have grudges against the Greybourne heirs they plan to settle by stealing a hidden family treasure.
The Watchful Eye is a fundamentally ridiculous show. Elena and Scott seemingly have zero idea what incognito or stealth means. They meet in broad daylight regularly, squabble on street corners, and make out only feet away from Elena’s newfound fellow nanny friends. On her own, Elena is only slightly better, consistently getting caught where she shouldn’t be snooping with no excuse in the chamber. Their grand plan should be derailed by the third episode, easily.
It’s good soapy nonsense and the series is happily serving it.
But if you’re here for The Watchful Eye¸ you’re not here for realism. Or, at least, you shouldn’t be. You’re here for a very game Molino on the spot blackmailing other building staff by threatening to reveal their affair. You’re here for snotty rich people, crafty underdogs, bad sex, good sex, hints of benevolent and malevolent supernatural forces, pretty clothes, and attractive people. It’s good soapy nonsense and the series is happily serving it.
The fuel mixture could be a bit better sorted. Molino and Ecker lack the chemistry necessary to make their tumultuous bickering worth the time the show gives it. Three times of them doing the “Are you forgetting the plan?”/“Don’t you trust me?!” dance, and one never needs it again. Alas, it will happen a lot more. Elena’s sojourns to the creepy basement are a similarly repeated action that loses potency over time. Initially, with its green glow and set for company that never came dining room, it does get the chills going. However, it loses a bit of potency each time she goes down there. Eventually, viewers even learn one character using the basement to store his golf clubs. When another character traipses in and out of the place on a regular basis, it loses a lot of menace.
That’s time better served with some of the supporting players. More time with Acker, for instance, might give us a clearer picture of her. She’s good at both haughty rich woman who might want her former brother-in-law AND vulnerable, grieving sister who feels completely out of control. Unfortunately, the show never manages to blend those two sides organically. Or the audience could get more of the likes of Mrs. Ivey (Kelly Bishop!), the building’s most effortlessly cool and mean resident and matriarchy of the Greybourne family, or Tory’s lecherous, social climbing husband Dr. Dick Ayers (Christopher Redman). Some more time with Elena’s new friends, including fellow storage closet/servant quarters dwelling Ginny (Aliyah Royale) and nerdy stoner guy Elliott (Lex Lumpkin), would also be a good call.
Still, The Watchful Eye stays intriguing and twisty thanks to the scripting led by series creator Julie Durk. While most recently of Grace and Frankie, here she returns to her 90s roots when she produced films like Assassins. Moreover, Molino handles the silly and the serious with equal weight, what you need in a primetime soap protagonist. In addition to the Only Murders’ vibes, the show plays like a mishmash of the television series Revenge and Wedding Season meets the film Ready or Not meets The Sixth Sense. As a recent entry in the current “eat the rich” zeitgeist, it steals well from the others before it. Then it successfully adds just a dollop of skepticism about those who talk about upending the class structure by enriching themselves.
The Watchful Eye isn’t great television, but it is good entertainment. Big, brash, and silly, it fits Freeform’s new direction alongside shows like Cruel Summer. As a network, they can do much worse than become the equivalent of a pop star, cranking out banger (primetime soap thriller) after banger.
The Watchful Eye is now creeping through the halls of Freeform.