Out with the old and in with the new. We’re in the midst of spring now, and that means Hulu’s monthly horror anthology Into the Dark is moving from familiar holiday observances to more abstract ones—something that makes the grasping, icky, #MeToo-adjacent “Treehouse” even worse.
The Ides of March-themed thriller focuses on its ancient role as a date for debt-settling rather than anything too Shakespearean, and in any case “Treehouse”—directed by James Roday (Psych’s increasingly prolific multi-hyphenate), who co-wrote the script with Todd Harthan—is contemporary, or at least banks on seeming so. Its opening shots of sticky, sweaty decadence as a bruised and battered woman sips wine on a sunny desert hilltop set the misguided tone from the outset. The episode is about the trials of a sketch of a parody of a celebrity chef, Peter Rake (Jimmi Simpson), who shouts things like “It’s water, but congratulations—there’s heat involved. It’s cooking!”
Simpson is meant to play a rakish bad boy, introduced in slow motion as he pushes his hair from his eyes while terrorizing his cooks, which isn’t just out of step with Simpson’s more sensitive streak—his Westworld performance aims specifically at exploiting this—but is written so even Simpson’s talents can’t make it click. (Ryan Reynolds couldn’t make this work, and it’s basically built for him.) Zingers whip and roll and accrue references (everything from The Silence of the Lambs to The Witch) just like we’re watching Roday’s Psych character accidentally stumble through a horror film. It all but makes an acting vein strain in Simpson’s forehead while we wait for the inevitable turn.
It’s hard to take the first half-hour of the episode seriously as it attempts to force a light tone from its dickish protagonist’s perspective—he’s supposed to be quick-witted and utterly charming. Instead, the clash between this and reality is so facile it’ll bore you to tears. Roday shoots and shoots and shoots, chopping conversations up into different-angled snippets with the same impish energy as his dialogue to keep things moving. It’s all empty, charmless flash meant to replicate that of a serial killer (Ted Bundy is mentioned) or a misogynistic abuser. (Hint, hint.) But it’s so simple, without any danger of seducing or tricking us, that is feels too slight, and too irreverent for the subject matter.
Rake is divorced, entitled, and looks down on everyone around him. We know he sucks. He bungles his time with his daughter (of course he has a daughter) and heads to his family’s estate, where his sister bungles time with him. He’s escaping a scandal, lying low away from the media, because, he says, he’s an “easy target.” He can’t be that bad, right? If Peter was really such an asshole, wouldn’t he be wearing AirPods while he jogged? All the clichéd excuses and lines come out, all of which leads one to believe a glorious string of comeuppances are on the way.
You begin to think they might be when a neighbor on a bachelorette weekend (Julianna Guill, a bright spot of energy) leads her friends (competently played by Shaunette Renee Wilson, Stephanie Beatriz, Mary McCormack, and Sophia Del Pizzo) to the Rake house for dinner, where Peter’s one-liners finally fall as flat with his fellow characters as they have to us viewers. His glibness ultimately bleeds into every topic “Treehouse” touches: A few speeches about a woman’s truth and a woman’s lot in life have the same just-off triteness as the stale revenge plot at the episode’s core. Though the story should ostensibly focus on women, especially after the inevitable and foreseeable twist, “Treehouse” takes its sweet time meandering around with the crappy man at its center until reaching its over-explained end—and even then the message flops.
Add in tone-deaf jokes about white privilege and strange throwaway lines like, “Pray for Puerto Rico”—delivered with the kiss-off tone of a cheeky catchphrase—and “Treehouse” appears desperate to namecheck the issues of the day while failing to engage with those issues meaningfully. (One of the only plot moments in the entire episode that works is given over to Nancy Linehan Charles as the estate’s housekeeper, who has a perfectly sullen deadpan that puncture’s Rake’s dialogue with more than just words: When the words miss their mark as often they do here, you’ll take everything you can get.) If there are good intentions here, with an abuser facing up to his sins, they’re buried under the story, one told in such an ill-conceived, half-assed, and frankly dull way that it can’t help but leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.