Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
If the effects of Ryan Murphy’s influence can be found anywhere on TV, it’s in the solidifying popularity of the anthology series. He’s got more and more coming out himself (American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Feud, Scream Queens, sort of), and most networks are joining in on the party with shows like American Crime, Fargo, and True Detective. Given that the overly mysterious new season of AHS is essentially honoring those goofy Paranormal Witness-type shows that Syfy has popularized, it makes sense for the network to finally throw its own hat into the anthology ring, too.
It’s doing so with Channel Zero, a series adapting the popular (and deeply unsettling, I’ll admit) short form internet horror stories known as “Creepypastas” into a serialized format, with each season beginning a new pasta. The first season is inspired by the message board story thread called Candle Cove, which centers on an older man’s recollections of a disturbing television show from his youth, and what Syfy does with Channel Zero is both triumphantly eerie and somewhat disappointing.
The show bathes in creepy imagery and decent intrigue around the hellish puppets at Candle Cove’s center, but it lacks the key ingredient needed for any anthology series to thrive: a specific, pulsating voice. As it stands in its first four hours, Channel Zero is menacing stuff – I covered my eyes more times than I’d like to admit – but it’s also slightly vacuous and lacks a truly meticulous viewpoint to stand apart from any other middle-of-the-road TV horror that’s debuted over the last five years.
But, if you let it, its horrors might get you. Like the show’s main character, child psychologist Mike Painter (Paul Schneider), who allows the lure of his middle-of-nowhere hometown of Iron Hill, Ohio to trap him back in a nightmare when he discovers that a creepy kid-centric TV show from the late-eighties, called “Candle Cove,” is back on the air and a hit among the kids in the town. More disturbing still, when Candle Cove originally played in the fall of 1988, four kids were found murdered, and a fourth – Mike’s twin brother Eddie (played by Luca Villacis in flashbacks) – mysteriously disappeared.
Now that the kids who survived the tragedy have grown up, there’s a Stephen King-esque vibe of childhood trauma bearing near-physical scars on the adults in the town, who just want to forget what happened. As Mike returns to Iron Hill, he’s reacquainted with old buddy turned police chief Gary (Shaun Benson), his wife, and Mike’s old flame, Jessica (Natalie Brown), their friend Amy (Luisa D’Oliveira), and Mike’s own mom Marla (Fiona Shaw, Channel Zero‘s most engaging actress). Of course, Mike doesn’t want to forget as easily as everyone else, and hopes to stop Candle Cove in its tracks before it (somehow) kills again.
It’s a good setup, filled with just enough emphasis on the kids’ hauntings as children and some downright macabre moments of skin-prickling terror. Once Mike sets foot back into Iron Hill, which he claims to be because he’s writing a book about the events that took place there, he starts to revisit the fears of his younger years all over again.
Channel Zero delivers these scenes with subtly (one in particular of young Mike backing away from his bed and to the door is quietly chilling), which is nicely layered onto the show’s overall downbeat vibe. Jump scares occur, but infrequently, and creator Nick Antosca gets away with the less-is-more adage of creepy puppets and the dark, empty voids of the other side of dimly lit rooms. Anyone who prefers off-camera threats and silent, discombobulating shocks to the garish productions of (most) seasons of something like American Horror Story will probably be comfortable and at home in Iron Hill.
On the backbone of a creaky central plot – and the sometimes even creakier Syfy performances – that silent menace doesn’t always produce goosebumps. Some serious scenes, in which meant-to-be-shocking revelations take place, are less than impactful, and other moments of high tension (in particular the main arc of episode 3) are downright cheesy. It’s a combination of the staging, the dialogue, the delivery (Schneider is playing the somber everyman to a fault here), and the essential root of Channel Zero‘s drama – evil puppets from a kid’s show are killing people – that produce a few unintentionally humorous sequences instead of the gripping, horrific spectacle it’s seemingly aiming for. It’s a humor that leads to a blandness, and a blandness that undercuts some of Channel Zero‘s could-have-been-effective scares.
Doubly unfortunate is the blatant shocks Channel Zero delves into the further it goes along, shunning the unsettling imagery of its opening for some disappointing, in-your-face frights. A few are at least grossly imaginary (the main creature here perfectly marries the show’s goofy turns with pure, disquieting nightmare fuel), but some late in the game developments are anything but imaginative; really, they feel like most of the evil puppet/killer kid-filled horror of any TV show or movie of the last few decades. With six episodes in the first season, there’s room for some of these more obvious turns to make sense in the long run, but on first glimpse the impending explanation for the events in Iron Hill threatens to air on the nonsensical side of things.
The teetering tone and unbalanced story threads fuel Channel Zero‘s overall indistinguishable style, which is disappointing given the seedy, mythical nature of its source material. A few pops of the original story’s creepy revelations are delivered with a suitably dead-serious panache, but they lack the threatening, look-over-your-shoulder simplicity of Creepypasta’s most indelible hooks. The show is an admirable take on a little-known, but deservedly frightening well of online horrors, but without the fear of urban legend creeping in from the corners of a computer screen, Syfy’s adaptation has to rely on building its own myths and fears and horrors, and it’s only fitfully successful.
Still, some of its imagery sticks with you in an unnerving way, and that’s a hard accomplishment to brush off. Channel Zero might lack a distinct personality of its own to execute a hair-raising, short-form spook fest on the level of its concisely creepy source material, but it has an admirable, all-too-relatable emotional backbone centering on childhood fears, and a range of subtle and in-your-face frights, earning it at least a passing glance on your Halloween watchlist.
Although bland and uninspired in spots, Channel Zero mostly satisfies as a surprisingly eerie, restrained, and downright unsettling adaptation of the short form source material from which it originates.