The world's worst therapist in Gypsy had me reaching for the off button

How did this Netflix series, with its portentous Seventies vibe and implausible plot, come to be made?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In Gypsy (30 June) Naomi Watts plays Jean Hollo­way, possibly the world’s worst therapist. You should see the notes she makes while she is with her patients. “Boundaries,” she’ll write, glasses perched on the end of her nose. Then, for ­emphasis: “BOUNDARIES.” In her Manhattan consulting room, the interior of which resembles the lobby of a uniquely unexciting boutique hotel, she communicates with patients using a grisly combination of 21st-century cliché and self-help ­mumbo-jumbo.

“It’s a process,” she’ll tell the lightly ruffled types who find themselves on her books. Or: “You were in a serious codependent relationship.” Usually, this kind of thing works a treat. Should it fail to do so, there is always her gently whispered last ­resort: “This is a safe space.”

But there is more. Jean has a creepy habit, which is that she likes to dabble in her clients’ lives. Call her a stalker at one remove. Her latest adventure, in which she calls herself Diane and poses not at all plausibly as a journalist, involves a young woman called Sidney (Sophie Cookson), whose drippy ex-boyfriend Jean has been counselling for some weeks. It started with a coffee – Sidney is a barista – and proceeded swiftly to a warehouse party, where Jean danced uninhibited alongside hipsters half her age.

I thought her Eighties moves might have been the result of the Clonazepam she kept swallowing, pills she mostly filched (why?) from the bathrooms of friends. But I was wrong. The disco hands were supposed to be a sign of her burgeoning liberation. Sidney, moreover, found them really hot. Later, the pair of them snogged like teenagers.

What on Earth is Gypsy about? Its creator, Lisa Rubin, has said that she thought it would be interesting to write a series in which a fortysomething woman is portrayed as both desirable and desired, “because the world is full of these women, and yet we so rarely see them on television” – a statement that sounds vaguely laudable in the abstract. But along the way, a car has crashed and left a mess all over the road.

I understand that Jean is suffering from a bad case of first-world ennui, what with her gorgeous lawyer husband (Billy Crudup, struggling manfully with the banalities his character must utter), her charming young daughter and the awful Connecticut soccer moms she must deal with whenever the aforementioned kid wants a play date (though one does wonder why, given that Jean has what purports to be a career, she doesn’t just opt out of the mommy race and hang with women more like herself).

And why shouldn’t she have a little extra-curricular sex with a younger woman, if that’s what floats her perimenopausal boat? What I don’t get is the pseudo-stalking and the stealing. I’m not sure that Gypsy’s somewhat antiquated feminist message – is Rubin aware that Betty Friedan has been dead for a while now? – works in a context in which her behaviour also dictates that she should be struck off.

According to Rubin, Sam ­Taylor-Johnson, who directed the first two episodes, was “really important for establishing the language of the show”. And what a language it is. So easy to learn! Taylor-Johnson fell out with E L James when she directed the film of Fifty Shades of Grey, but you would have to be blindfolded (red velvet, black lace) not to see that this series comes with a powerful whiff of that film. Its aspirant soft-focus gaze cares as much for status refrigerators (the size of a ranch) and winter coats (think Jil Sander) as Jean’s masturbatory fantasies. When, in one inexplicably drawn-out scene, she asked an assistant in an upmarket store whether it stocked Chance by Chanel, her voice was so earnest that she might as well have been asking for the selected écrits of Jacques Lacan.

How did this series, with its portentous Seventies vibe and implausible plot, come to be made? I guess the ravenous maw that is Netflix must be fed somehow. A more interesting question, as you reach for the off button, would be why so many ostensibly intelligent women have come, in 2017, to confuse feminism with shopping and a particularly mindless kind of self-love. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

Free trial CSS