Shut Eye is a series about how psychics are a scam… just not in the way you might think. Maybe the storefront psychics working out of shops and homes scattered around LA have powers and maybe they don’t. But what they definitely are is run like an organised crime syndicate where the rich get richer and the poor get what’s left over – and one man has had enough.
Charlie Haverford (Jeffrey Donovan) used to be a Las Vegas magician who designed spectacular tricks. Now, together with his one-time stripper wife Linda (KayDee Strickland), he runs a small chain of fortune-teller parlours. While they bring in a steady trickle of cash to support themselves and their teen son, they’re not anywhere near as profitable as they’d like, thanks to the kickbacks they have to pay Fonzo Marks (Angus Sampson). He’s the son of Romani matriarch Rita (Isabella Rossellini), who controls a hefty slice of the psychic business in LA.
The big problem Charlie and Linda face is that they’re outsiders – “gaje” – and much like the way you could never be a part of the Mafia if you weren’t Italian, not being Romani means they’re never going to be let into the inner circle where the real money is. They have a plan to get around that, but then fate takes a hand. Or more accurately, a disgruntled client takes his hands to Charlie and gives him a beating. Combine his head injuries with being hypnotised by a scammer named Gina (Emmanuelle Chriqui) who wants him to hire her, and suddenly Charlie starts to get visions. Is he now a psychic for real?
It’s a quirky setting for a series, and Shut Eye takes full advantage of it. There’s definitely a “behind the scenes” fascination with these small-scale psychics, and while the Romani themselves aren’t the main focus, there’s enough of their culture on display to give the show a texture similar series lack. Turns out being spat on is a big punishment, which makes sense if you think about it.
The offbeat setting is reflected in the series’ tone, which can swing from in-your-face violence to comedy and back again. The sunny location and low-rent nature of the scams is often played for laughs, but situations can and do turn deadly serious in a heartbeat. Laughable people often turn out to have a dangerous edge to them; there’s a reason why these characters have to be good at reading people, and it’s not just to predict that a handsome stranger will soon enter a customer’s life.
Donovan’s biggest role prior to this was in Burn Notice and while there’s some overlap between his charming spy there (who often found himself involved in what were basically cons) and Charlie Haverford, this is definitely a darker role for him – especially as the series moves forward and he commits to the big-time crime he has in his sights.
But between Burn Notice and this he played a mobster in season 2 of Fargo, making this a reunion with his Aussie co-star on that show Angus Sampson. Sampson goes big (and occasionally slobby) here as the swaggering, knife-wielding crime family enforcer who may have been promoted beyond his abilities, but he’s always fun to watch even when he’s not so much fun for other people to be around.
The men are the front-of-house workers in Shut Eye; it’s the women who are the backroom power players. Linda is something of a Lady Macbeth in waiting, irked at first that her man isn’t living up to his full potential, and Strickland’s performance gives her some real steel. She’s not afraid to strike out on her own either, as seen when she starts a steamy affair with Gina.
It’s Rossellini that rules the roost here though, playing Rita as alternately approachable and icy, with a fury underlying it all that makes her utterly convincing as the head of a not-quite crime syndicate.
Even the smaller roles are memorable. Charlie’s neurologist, Dr. White (Susan Misner) slowly builds into a comedy highpoint as she wheels out stranger and stranger approaches to figuring out what’s going on with his visions.
After one of Charlie’s visions pinpoints a problem his son is having, he befriends local gangster Eduardo (David Zayas); he turns out to be a handy friend to have. And Mel Harris as Nadine, a big fish Charlie is trying to land (and scam out of close to $2 million), brings some surprising emotional depth to a character who might have been just a disposable victim.
It all adds up to a series that’s often hard to predict; good thing there’s a psychic on hand to guide the way.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Shut Eye are now streaming at SBS On Demand:
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