In Shut Eye, a new series premiering in its entirety on Hulu Wednesday, nothing’s as straightforward as it initially seems. That much is clear in the first episode, when Charlie Haverford (Jeffrey Donovan), a genial “psychic” and low-rent conman, gives a reading to a client, Eduardo, who says he works in packaging, and is deeply upset by his son’s medical issues. Charlie’s patter hoodwinks Eduardo in a way that seems unconscionably cruel, until Charlie’s wife (KaDee Strickland) sidles over at the end of the session. “The only thing that man packages is cocaine and body parts,” she murmurs. “Just be careful.”
Shut Eye, set in the seedy and apparently violent world of Los Angeles clairvoyants, is based on a simple premise: A fake psychic suffers a head injury that somehow grants him real visions of things that are about to happen. But the show, created by Les Bohem, and executive produced by Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein (Breaking Bad, Rectify) complicates that setup with endless subplots involving nuclear families, Roma crime bosses, wacky neurologists, drug-pushing hypnotists, angsty teenagers, and Isabella Rossellini.
What helps is that Shut Eye’s journey into this particular underworld is well-researched and full of tricks. At its best, the show mimics the stylized visuals, outlandish violence, and comic cynicism of early episodes of Breaking Bad—though, so far, it lacks the clarity and the focus to make its story half as thoughtful. The show’s central figures are almost universally awful, which makes rooting for their criminal success more of a challenge. And while the cast is loaded with accomplished character actors who are a treat to watch, Charlie’s personal crisis often gets short shrift amid the dense layers of cons and countercons.
Donovan, for his part, makes Charlie more sympathetic and complex than the character’s history—as someone who’s always taken the easiest option, ethics be damned—might seem to allow. He’s a failed magician whose attempts to launch a fleet of storefront psychics backfired when he stepped on turf controlled by Fonzo (Angus Sampson), a nauseating caricature of a gangster who uses his Roma heritage to run parlor tricks all over the city. In the first few episodes, Charlie seems wearily downtrodden, dominated both by Fonzo and by his wife, Linda, a savvy and hyper-ambitious former stripper frustrated by their stalled success.
When Linda, working magic tricks at a soiree for bored housewives, meets a wealthy woman who seems like an easy mark, she persuades Charlie that they should execute the con themselves rather than feed it up the chain to Fonzo, as protocol dictates. But the situation is complicated by Charlie’s head injury, which happens midway through the first episode when he’s beaten up by the jealous boyfriend of a client. Charlie begins experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations, many of which seem to predict events before they happen. “Time is out of joint,” he poetically tells his neurologist (Susan Misner), an unorthodox type who prescribes psilocybin to get to the root of may have broken his brain. But she also suggests that his psyche might be rebelling against what he’s become, and is using his brain injury to suggest other options.
Shut Eye sometimes feels like a superhero origin story: Will Charlie decide to tap into his powers for good or for evil? But it also flips somersaults trying to be a crime drama, a family saga, and a deep dive into an unscrupulous industry. Its examination of storefront psychics, the tricks they pull, and the syndicates they work for is well-written and often surprising, especially given the human impulses at play. “People are looking for a pilot,” is how an unexpectedly sagacious high-school sophomore sums up the desire to have someone else find meaning in your life for you. “Is a psychic like a therapist?” one of Charlie’s clients asks later. It’s a rich universe to examine, and one with seemingly endless dramatic potential.
The problem is that Shut Eye doesn’t seem entirely convinced of its own ethical standpoint, and it impels viewers to play along while its antiheroes and heroines engage in joyfully amoral schemes. Some characters are more thoughtfully drawn than others—Rossellini’s Roma matriarch is two-dimensionally cruel, while Emmanuelle Chriqui’s huckster hypnotist seems to exist solely to have a skeezily gratuitous sexual relationship with Linda. Strickland, meanwhile, is fascinating playing someone who apparently has no moral compass whatsoever. Donovan skillfully communicates Charlie’s pusillanimity, as well as his discomfort with some of the more violent acts inflicted under his watch, but he’s less persuasive as Charlie heads toward darker waters. If anything, the central conceit of his brain injury needlessly complicates matters. Psychics, like drug dealers or even lawyers, are rich terrain for a drama about the darkness of human greed. This is no business for a superhero.