In 2018, a story by Reeves Wiedeman for New York magazine detailed the haunting account of a couple, who after buying a valuable home in a New Jersey suburb, became the targets of an anonymous stalker. Taunting Derek and Maria Broaddus via anonymous letters signed, “The Watcher,” the author delivered menacing references to their three children and specifics on their domestic lives gathered in drive-bys to the home.
A fictionalized version of the saga is played out in a new Netflix limited series produced by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan. It follows the descent of married couple, Dean and Nora Brannock (Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts), as they purge their lifesavings to buy a historic mansion outside of New York City. The Brannocks find themselves unable to sell it to escape the anonymous threats. Further menacing the couple’s polished lifestyle throughout the series is an increasingly dire financial situation.
The series delivers a cautionary tale about upper middle class excess and contains subtexts about a milleu of contemporary afflictions: financial security, market uncertainties, class wars, generational infighting, and paranoia.
Further stoking Murphy and Brennan’s riffs on class tensions afflicting metropolitan elites: the producers draw out a subplot that taps into art world caricatures that ushers in some of the show’s campiest moments.
Executing the bulk of the series memorable lines is a real-estate agent and art school-grad named Karen played by Jennifer Coolidge (the actress has gained a recent cult following for her portrayals of cheap anti-heroines). As the agent listing the sprawling property, Karen runs into Nora at the open house, recognizing each other from their days at RISD. Nora quips about her first major show at a new gallery in Tribeca for which she was featured in the Times.
Throughout the series’ seven episodes, Coolidge delivers wry reminders of anxieties that have classically plagued art types congregating in urban hubs. “I never pictured you ending up in the suburbs,” she tells Nora, a ceramicist on the verge of a mid-career breakout. “You were so crunchy.”
In the series first episode, the two women congratulate each other on becoming affluent, while lamenting coyly about abandoning their early-career fantasies of living as grungy artists. “You’re fucking doing it,” Karen tells Nora. “Not me. I’m like, fuck painting I’m just gonna marry rich. It’s easier that way.” Those remarks play on a persisting image of an embattled MFA industry roiled with a reputation for matriculating unskilled graduates and for enabling entitlements of the creative class.
Increasingly in popular culture, writers have begun to embrace depictions of commercial art world types as fitting players for plot-lines that draw out dystopian themes. Characters played by Cate Blanchett and Jake Gyllenhaal in projects like Manifesto (2015) and Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) have tapped into the causal elitism of art world gatekeepers. The former morphed in and out of characters in Julian Rosefeldt’s multiscreen video installation that surveyed art history’s canon; the latter played an embattled critic succumbing to a murderous force while peddling haunted works by a deceased artist. (Murphy’s most recent art-focused foray was producing The Andy Warhol Diaries.)
Other economic forces specific to the art world come into play in later episodes. While the reality of the Brannock’s financial situation grows more imperiled, Nora’s career in the siloed blue-chip New York gallery scene thrives. She’s sold out a show of potted vessels, fielding invites to editions of Art Basel in Miami and Geneva (the latter doesn’t exist in reality), with her dealer inviting her for another solo show the following month.
It is a scenario that is reminiscent of the art world’s mid-pandemic climate. Embracing the decorative, the commercial art market consistently flourishes without tangible reason even in the face of economic distress. Nora rises to the unlikely position of being able to support the high-brow lifestyle of a four-person family through ceramic sales alone.
Murphy and his cohort make aggressive gestures towards the pandemic-era zeitgeist. That security, both financial and material, promised through escapes to suburban havens are a thing of the country’s past. The show presents a humorous nod to those burdens – it refuses to deliver them with much seriousness.
Reenter Coolidge to echo art world cliches. “You’re probably thinking, Oh, you should live in squalor because you’re an artist,” her characters remarks over a country-club lunch to Nora. “This is the life they want, all of it. You shouldn’t feel guilty.”
The Brannocks at times appear like avatars of the American creative class imagined by political commentator David Brooks – a consumer class flocked to urban areas whose bohemian values, he argues, are largely performative. Riding a high from her solo show, Nora is alleviated from earlier concerns that if she’d ever left New York her career “would just go with it.”
While it comes up as a subject in several instances starting early in the series, the specter of class tensions comes to dominate other scenes as the Brannocks become acquainted with a band of strange neighbors. Local preservationist Pearl Winslow (played by horror-genre darling Mia Farrow) and her disabled brother Jasper often appear at random to deliver warnings about safeguarding the house’s historic status.
Throughout various scenes, the Winslow duo seem lifted from Grant Wood’s widely-parodied 1930 painting American Gothic. The comparisons aren’t overtly subtly: Farrow’s character dons a striking middle part, menacing stare and portrait pendant around her neck, while Jasper wears overalls reminiscent of a Depression-era farmer and is shown in multiple cameos carrying a rake as the pair confront their neighbors (Wood’s character famously holds a three-pronged hayfork).
Much viewed as a satirical take on midwesterners out of touch with a modernizing country and an ode to rural values, the work is a fitting reference. Throughout the series, the Winslows serve as tintypes frozen in the past, positioned as vanguards of local culture. They’re warring against their urban-expat neighbors, who Pearl describes as a “horrible yuppie couple,” ready to shell the residential antique with custom updates. “I see that’s what you think of American history,” remarks Pearl. “Complete disregard.”