Shut Eye, much like its protagonists, is a show that doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be. A two season series commissioned by Hulu starring Jeffrey Donovan, Shut Eye features a glimpse into the life of a fraudulent psychic, who ends up experiencing real visions. I knew next to nothing about the show when I started watching it, drawn in only by the fact that I’m familiar with Donovan’s acting prowess.
The show started off with a very particular set of rules, and set the parameters of the world in which Donovan’s Charlie Haverford and his family live. Part of a Roma “crime syndicate” his business was owned by the Marks Family. This main plot served the first season well as it provides a consistent element for Charlie to struggle against, as well as set up and inform the character interactions and struggles. The political correctness of the Roma Crime Family plot notwithstanding, it is certainly a fascinating setting for the story.
In the first season, the audience is made to understand exactly who Charlie is at this point in his life: a man who once had ambition, who has settled into complacency because of both internal and external forces. His wife, Linda, is the conduit for that. More than husband and wife, Charlie and Linda are business partners, and more often act like business partners than a married couple. This was the element I somehow managed to miss until late season two, and acknowledging it certainly helps the viewer understand character motivations. Linda is unhappy with Charlie’s complacency. She wants more. More from their business, more from their marriage, more from Charlie by way of tenacity and daring; in short she wants him to take charge, and he won’t. Her motivations from this point forward are obvious, though her decision making is poor.
Charlie runs his business out of home, dealing mostly with repeat customers and referrals as well as walk-ins – people looking for a Tarot reading, palmistry and other such ‘spiritual guidance’ as he and Linda put it. Simply put, they are con artists for thewillingly led. Now, I’m going to interject to explain up front that I use Tarot myself. I’m more than passably familiar with how it works, own and use several decks on myself and others. Tarot doesn’t see the future, and Charlie’s gig works by telling his customers that. That’s at least the truth. It doesn’t predict the futures. The images on the cards have to be interpreted by someone, and generally, the meanings are vague enough that anyone can find meaning their. They work best when the person whose ‘fortune’ is being read is allowed to fill in the blanks for themselves. That doesn’t mean it’s technically a con. Tarot opens up a person to insights about themselves; because you’re looking for insight, you find it, especially when you have a starting point to work from, aka the card. That’s why their gig works. It would probably be easy for me to make a couple hundred bucks a sitting, but I do my work for free. There’s no magic or mysticism, only internal reflection and the willingness to open the mind to the possibility that there is something more there. We’re more willing to listen to our own advice when we think it’s coming from somewhere else.
All this aside, the show makes no illusions about how professional psychics work. That’s not to say there are real, genuine seers out there. I read Tarot for fun, I have got to have some level of openness to the concept myself. Everything is an avenue for Charlie and Linda to work their marks, and, eventually, get out from under their boss, Fonzo Marks, head of the Marks Family, who owns and operates a ring of psychic storefronts.
Charlie’s legitimate visions are gained from a kick to the head by an angry boyfriend. The palette for this show comes from this concept. Bright, high saturation colours make up the So-Cal world in which the Haverford’s live, and they only get brighter in Charlie’s visions. He sees the natural world, distorted, and eventually, what he sees or hears make sense in future situations. The correlations are not always obvious and I spent more than my fair share of time sitting on my couch saying “What the —-?” to myself.
One might expect the series to revolve around Charlie’s visions at this point, and how he might use them to assist in conning his Con artist masters. But that isn’t the case. Ultimately, the visions almost end up incidental, in this frustrating true-to-life sort of way that suggests, yes Charlie, you’re a real psychic, but it doesn’t work on command, and most of the time it won’t make sense in time for your premonition to actually matter or for you to make a difference. Instead, his visions apply mostly to side plots. A local gangster trying to make a straight go of it happens to be the subject to one of Charlie’s first visions and Charlie is actually able to help him. Unfortunately, this cemements Charlie’s legitimacy in Eduardo’s eyes. He expects Charlie to work on command. Not a great thing for a gangster to believe. Another deals with a woman who gets too close to Charlie and Linda’s scheme, yet another to do with his teenage son, Nick.
The cast of characters is wide ranging, though, and tightly knit in the first season. Bisexual Linda is cheating on Charlie with Gina, a woman they interviewed to work as a hypnotist and medium, though ultimately rejected. After the visions begin, Charlie sees a Doctor, Nora White. An out there neurologist who believes Charlie might be a Saint. Fonzo’s family, including his mother, Rita, played by the indomitable Isabella Rossellini, and White Tony, another Roma family head and Fonzo’s enemy. Emma, a drug addicted teenage girl that Nick is interested in and Charlie and Linda’s long con mark, Nadine, round out the season one cast.
It is the characters that make the first season, not the plot. Charlie’s inability to man up is explored in a session with his Doctor Nora, when he describes having been high on acid and having a bad trip. He spent four hours crying in front of his record player because he couldn’t decide what to listen to. Every time Linda asks him to pursue the long con, to dedicate himself to making it out from under Fonzo, he flip flops. He’s a con man, but he doesn’t have the ambition he needs to reach his desires, and lacks the decision making skills to ever take control of his life, especially when he’s having vision episodes that wreak havoc on his life. Eventually, he gives up the long con, despite having secured the money, because he foresees that Nadine will kill herself. His struggle of conscience is the key in the first season, Nora on one shoulder and Linda on the other. This most fascinating element, compounded by the moral negligence of most of the cast of characters, is something that I found really engaging. Unfortunately, that was dropped in season two.
Linda, discontent with her life and settled into her lying, scheming ways, falls for Gina despite the fact that Gina spend every moment of their time conning her. And because she’s so suckered into it, Linda falls for the con every time. She is a chronic bad decision maker, constantly trying to outrun her problems and have it all at the same time. When hallucinogenic drugs from Gina are found by Emma in the Haverford home, she OD’s and dies. Linda, unwilling to admit to her affair or throw Gina under the bus, hides the girl’s body and covers up her death, lying to her husband and son as well as the police. When the girl’s body is found, she almost goes so far as to let her son be tried for the murder. Despite telling Gina to get out of her life, Linda keeps returning to her, frustrated with Charlie’s constant mistakes. She allows herself to be conned by Gina again, and she too loses all the money they stood to gain. Though never actually hypnotized herself, Linda – the seasoned con artist – fell easily under Gina’s spell. I have very little sympathy for cheaters, but by the end of season two, when she’s on the brink of cheating with Nora, it was easier to look at Linda as an addict, desperate for a fix. She’s a cheater, but the addiction feeds only bad things, and results in nothing good. Not every marriage is perfect. Despite how many times Linda has told another person that she loves her husband, I’m not sure she was ever ‘in love’ with him. Some marriages are more partnership than marriage and the Haverfords is one of them.
Fonzo was a surprisingly interesting character as the show went forward, transforming from overbearing crime lord boss to surprisingly sympathetic widowed father of two. Railroaded by his scheming mother Rita, Fonzo is quick to temper but a shrewd businessman and surprisingly compassionate, progressive father, at least as far as the way the Roma are depicted in this series. Much like the mob, everything is about family. And if he has to do a little murder to revenge insult done to his daughters, or throw his mother under the bus to keep his fourteen year old from becoming a child bride, Fonzo is willing to do it. I can respect that. I understand it even. Would I go to such lengths as to murder two men to do it? Maybe on the second occasion, but I’m a progressive gal, no child marriages for my kids. Though he is Linda and Charlie’s antagonist, a crime lord and a murderer to boot, I still find myself rooting for him. Considering the fact that very few people in the main cast aren’t morally despicable, it is important that they be likable despite it all. Relatable even.
Season Two is strange in several ways that it both fades seamlessly from Season One, so much so that it’s hard to remember where one ended and the other began, and being so different that they feel like they were run by a totally different group of people (Hint, it was. John Shiban replaced David Hudgins as showrunner). As a few of the more crucial lingering Season One plot questions are tied off (such as Gina’s death and Emma’s death), the Season Two plotlines start to divide the characters along interesting lines. Whereas everything and everyone involved in the first season were pretty tightly bound together, the second season sends the characters in opposing directions, almost entirely splitting Fonzo and the Marks’ family drama off from Charlie’s family drama.
Several first season elements are dropped completely or take a new form (such as the police taskforce investigation). The two seasons initially cover a very short timespan, so it seems, though late season two features a few month-long gaps in time. The most significant plot element that alters is the role and stylistic tone of Charlie’s visions, as well as the smart inclusion of his backstory, which lends mystery to the nature of his psychic ability. Initially, Charlie’s ability is revealed to Linda and Nora and confirms that Charlie’s vision of her pregnancy is real. Despite this, the visions, always so underutilized, again take a back seat to his eventual new position as a guru. Nora sends him into the circle of a man who can ‘hear the universe’ named Paz. The nature of his ability is called into question by Charlie’s natural inclination to spot a con. Maggie, the woman who runs the con, has been hypnotizing Paz. Nora, of course, has always believed it to be real. When Maggie sets her sights on Charlie as her new moneymaker, Paz is left to a psychological break when his ‘ability’ leaves him. Charlie’s visions, which had become alarming and volatile (and most of which are left totally unexplained by the show, much to my distress), feature a creepy doll which Charlie speaks to as the avatar for his ability. Eventually, he and Linda ceremonially burn it. Around the same time as Paz’s breakdown, Charlie’s visions desert him and Maggie approaches him to become a guru, which he initially turns down.
Linda, still looking for her way out, of course encourages Charlie to do so. Seemingly overnight, he changes his mind. He’s out there, working and successful, which should delight Linda, while she runs the new shop they run out of Fonzo and Eduardo’s mall, but instead she’s found herself, despite it all, back in the same rut. But instead of Gina, it’s Nora. Despite his newfound success, Charlie still doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and grows increasingly frustrated that his visions are gone, and he, like the audience, are left without answers.
Towards the end of their storyline, Charlie’s visions return in very different form, full of death and terror and alarming herald of the past, and he realizes that he may have had his ability as a child. Linda pulls away from Charlie (her own backstory revealed in how she and Charlie came to be a couple) and grows increasingly closer to Nora. The ending, with Linda caught in the middle of Fonzo and Eduardo’s mess, shows that Charlie’s visions are indeed still coming true, but her reaction to him in the hospital, after he’s rushed, desperate and terrified to her side- “Fuck you, Charlie” – is just as confusing as the last four episodes, forever to remain unexplained.
On the other side of things, Eduardo and Fonzo’s attempt to go straight is derailed by an unfortunate encounter with a gunrunner who fronts a pawn shop in their mall (the lovely and gruff Jim Beaver guest stars). All the while, Fonzo is still trying to regain his familial membership, Rita is working with the Feds behind everyone’s back and Drina and Little Tony’s child marriage is off to a rocky start, made all the more interesting by her budding relationship with Nick. This is all despite the fact that it ends up having very little bearing on any of the rest of the story. Self contained to the better part of the season, while interesting these side elements felt too closed off to adequately contribute to the rest of the plot. Everything comes back together during the final shootout between Fonzo, Eduardo and the cops, putting the ever vascilitating and increasingly embittered Linda in the crossfire.
Them’s the Breaks
Shut Eye, when all is said and done, is not a satisfying show. Now, that in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Satisfaction isn’t the be-all-end-all. It doesn’t make or break a show. The problem with Shut Eye isn’t even that season two failed to answer any long term plot questions. The problem is that, with season two, these characters diverged from their neat confines, and plots drew out too far, that too many really important questions didn’t have time to stew. Fonzo and Eduardo’s plots have little to nothing to do with the Haverfords in season two. Charlie is out, but he’s still going nowhere. All the strange decision making Charlie made is never really explained, the answers only alluded to with very little to support them. And his new style of visions never find explanation for Charlie or the viewers. With its cancellation none of these questions will ever be answered leaving the two season endeavor in a far worse place overall than had it been renewed. Of course answering questions doesn’t make or break a show either but when the audience is left scratching their heads it’s not always conducive to securing their good graces. It’s not surprising that the show was cancelled. The plot was meandering at best and the focus of the show very far from where it began. Characters from season one were dropped without much fanfare and I couldn’t help but wonder if what happened in season two was hatched in a totally separate nest from it’s season one counterpart. Binging the show made the seasons run together, but they watch as extremely different animals, bringing to question how far reaching the creators initially intended this show to be. At this point, it doesn’t much matter. Without renewal, there’s really no point in wondering what could have been.
A Final Word
All things considered, I really liked Shut Eye. It was compelling, left me anxious to watch the next episode when I couldn’t immediately do so and constantly desperate for answers. This show had major potential. It could definitely have been something special, but the timeline got away from it. Too much happened too fast. Some shows, like Donovan’s lauded Burn Notice, suffered from plots being too long drawn out, but Shut Eye would have benefitted from sticking to the conflict between the Haverfords and their Roma employers.
Rather than stepping back from the original premise of the show “fake psychic, real visions”, they ought to have capitalized on it, focusing on Charlie maybe learning how to govern his visions as season one implied. I think they were maybe on their way there with all of Charlie’s childhood backstory and the implications that he had visions from a young age, perhaps repressed, but that lead never panned out, feeling seemingly less important despite the amount of screentime it received as the season went on.
Season Two’s strength lies in flipping Charlie and Linda’s positions. Where Linda is never really hypnotized by Gina, it’s implicated that it is how Maggie gains her mark’s comfort and collaboration, even possibly sex. Charlie’s visions go away (and when they come back they are vividly different) just as did Paz’s – what he heard used to be a jumble, and when he met Maggie, and was subsequently hypnotized, the voices were clear and made sense. The indication is that Maggie has somehow done the same thing to Charlie, making him compliant and willing whereas before he shied away from the Guru gig. The common denominator is Nora, who is revealed to have been lying about her pregnancy in some capacity in the final episode when a distraught Linda attempts to see her, only to discover the fake baby bump. Is Nora connected to Maggie? Do they run a two woman con, where Nora identifies the marks and Maggie manages them? What was the purpose of her fake pregnancy? We will never know.
The one truly fascinating thing is how a show about a pair of damn good con artists is focused on the fact that they keep getting conned themselves, over and over. This is it’s greatest success: it illustrated the complexities of human nature, through Charlie and Linda’s marriage to Fonzo and Eduardo’s attempts to go straight, to Rita’s compulsion to protect herself before anyone else, and the general struggle between taking the moral high road, the morally ambiguous road (the ends justify the means) and the morally non existent road. Had season two managed to keep those threads alive from season one, maybe Shut Eye would have survived the chopping block. Did the execs see it in the cards? I don’t think they needed the otherworldly assistance to know that, try all it might, Shut Eye was sure to flunk out it’s sophomore endeavour.