At the opening of the second episode of Shut Eye, Jeffrey Donovan’s Charlie Haverford removes a bandage to reveal a scar on his forehead, the outcome of an angry boyfriend kicking him in the head. The first thing I thought of was Harry Potter and his lightning-bolt scar, the mark of severe trauma but also of exceptionalism and destiny. At first, it was easy to pass this off as simple recognition – the placement and shape are similar. As the second episode begins to increasingly suggest that the beating that left the scar gave him a supernatural psychic ability, however, there’s a hint that the nod to Hogwart’s favorite alumnus wasn’t just coincidence. And the fact that this entirely magical ability serves so little to invigorate the involving narrative and the show’s efficient, hardly imaginative imagery speaks directly to the show’s problem.
Shut Eye takes place in the world of what I guess you would call mysticism – tarot card readers, hypnotists, old-European hokum peddlers, and straight-up psychics. Haverford, who lives off of psychic readings and managing a ring of parlors, is an outsider in the world of self-identified gypsies, who seemingly run the whole mysticism racket in Los Angeles. They are ably represented by crime boss Foz (Angus Sampson) and his all-powerful mother (Isabella Rossellini), who are brutal and have a hard time trusting Haverford, who they refer to as “gadjo,” a Romani term for impure. Haverford also gets his wife, Linda (KaDee Strickland), and sister, Drina (Havana Guppy), involved in the business, which does not turn out entirely well for the talented, intelligent con man.
The criminal world that is set up in Shut Eye under Foz, his mother, and Haverford could have opened the door to a recitation on the idea of immigration or refugees and the struggle to salvage some tradition or legacy from one’s homeland. Unfortunately, it only begets more predictably scaffolded, impersonal story, including Charlie’s fantastical powers, his relationship with an influential drug dealer (Dexter’s David Zayas), Linda and Charlie’s son’s high school life, a flirtatious hypnotist (Emmanuelle Chriqui) that wants in with the Haverfords, and a whale of a mark named Nadine Davies, played by Mel Harris. The writing is repetitious but not without clever and resonant moments, such as when Drina must go through a shaming process known as Council or when Linda grills a potential betrayer with nothing but a lit cigarette.
Despite quick glimpses of something more personal and rooted in intimate experience, Shut Eye falls into the same trap as nearly every new promising drama out there in that it’s really trying to be a movie. Huge portions of each episode are dedicated to foreshadowing and prognosticating events to come, and little of the scenes in the four episodes that were screened for critics feels as if it’s happening in the moment. Each scene moves the plot along but almost no scenes reflect who these people are when not interacting with others. There’s no sense of spirit in these characters, and the just-sufficient fascination of the entire operation is owed almost exclusively to the cast, with special nods to Donovan, Strickland, and the indomitable Rossellini. The rest of Shut Eye is engaging only at the most base level, and fails to conjure the menace, magic, or all-around strangeness of a life made passing messages along from beyond this plain of existence, whether genuine or not.
Rating: ★★ – Not Bad, Not Good
Shut Eye premieres in full on Hulu starting December 7th.