Oh, SyFy, maybe you cancel everything I love, but I can’t quit you. On one hand, this is the network that has brought us several unasked-for Sharknadoes. On the other, it gave us The Expanse, which, to be fair, it also canceled, but just realizing a multilayered, dense, hard sci-fi universe of that quality in the first place offsets a lot of jumping sharks. At first glance, notwithstanding creator Nick Antosca’s Shirley Jackson award, Channel Zero sounds like another schlocky joint from the House of Sharknado wing of SyFy: an anthology horror series told in 6-episode bursts that digs into the pulpy, gotcha scares of creepypastas. Even if you’ve never spent time scrolling them, most people heard of creepypastas in 2014 when two teenage girls were allegedly inspired by the creepypasta-born Slenderman character to take kitchen knives to a classmate. They are penny dreadfuls in subreddit form – sometimes anonymized, often subliterate, and viral AF. There’s a natural gravitational pull to reimagine these guileless, plain text shockers for a slightly larger screen, and it’s just as natural to expect the end product to be little more than the ephemeral funhouse popcorn it came from.
It certainly delivers on all the gore and the outré elements you might expect, but Channel Zero is no smash cut guilty pleasure. You’re going to find it on a lot of listicles of underappreciated gems, especially as the days close on Halloween and the fourth season opens shop for binging. Underappreciated is right. As far as I’m concerned, everybody should be watching Channel Zero, and until every available eyeball has logged its Channel Zero time, it’s underappreciated by definition. It’s really that good, and add to that, it’s that surprising, which is its own elite achievement. Like American Horror Story, probably the highest profile anthology horror series of the moment, each season of Channel Zero takes its main cue from a theme – a given creepypasta – but harvests liberally from broader horror tropes and brings to life a story that is entirely its own inimitable thing. You start down familiar paths, but before the first episode is done, usually with the linchpin of its source creepypasta already revealed, the whole thing breaks open on aggressive, addictive strangeness. And they manage that every dang season, with a different cast and largely rebooted creative team. Season after season, Channel Zero has delivered everything that I had hoped for, but got unevenly, if at all, in American Horror Story, Twin Peaks: The Return, and nearly everything J.J. Abrams has ever put his name to: chiefly a mystery that is as purposeful at the end as it is tantalizing in the beginning.
Part of what makes the difference between Channel Zero and other horror series might be the format. Six 45-minute episodes is Poe’s Philosophy of Composition reconsidered for nights in with Netflix.* (Or, in this case, Shudder.) It’s long enough to establish strong characters and relationships, but short enough for a brutal pace. Long enough to foreshadow; short enough to cut the bullshit. Things happen quickly in Channel Zero – in the first season, hero Mike makes a disturbing admission to his mother by the middle of episode two that any other series would end on. But there’s also careful background orchestration behind each abrupt scare and horrifying revelation, building to satisfying resolutions you didn’t realize you were being prepared for. Tonally, each season is very consistent, with little humor and harrowing dread that would become exhausting and self-defeating with longer arcs. But as it is, the dread never overstays its welcome. The result is a show with all the fat boiled off, leaving only the good stuff behind.
That good stuff, the real good stuff, isn’t just unflinching scares and bizarre visuals — although this show does give you a child made of other children’s teeth, a man breaking open puppies and people like shrimp scampi, and Gutter favorite Rutger Hauer in his seersucker Sunday best. The good stuff is the emotional truth. Season one, Candle Cove, follows a child psychologist on his trip home to investigate the cold case of his twin brother’s disappearance and contemporaneous child murders in their neighborhood. Season two, No-End House, is the story of a recently bereaved, college-bound girl and her friends going into a notorious haunted house and finding far worse than her worst nightmares. Season three, Butcher’s Block, tells the tale of two sisters’ flight from their mother’s schizophrenic abuse into the surreal embrace of a seemingly immortal clan of cannibals. But whatever the premise, none of these stories end anywhere close to where they started, and yet they all resolve exactly where they needed to be. It’s damn fine writing buoying damn fine acting across the board, and the journey they take you on uses thrills to get down to some meaty epiphanies.
Talking just of the performances, Channel Zero boasts some of the bravest acting I’ve seen in any genre, in TV or movies or even capital F Film. Paul Schneider and Fiona Shaw star in the first season as Mike and his mother Marla. It’s difficult to get specific without shedding spoilers, but Mike’s journey to find his lost brother gets him into dark depths with his mother very quickly. When we first see them together, Mike and Marla evince no intimacy or familiarity; they’re stiff, guarded strangers. By the end, my empathy for Marla as a mom – divided between her sons, forced into a duty no parent should ever face, even as Mike confronts heartbreaking choices of his own — is overwhelming. Their achievement is no less amazing for being part of a cable horror program in which the central peril is a killer puppet show. Season two’s No-End House follows that up with Amy Forsyth’s Margo grieving her father’s (John Carroll Lynch) accidental death – though Margot guiltily suspects it might not have been an accident – and then she exits the haunted No-End House into a world where her father still lives, sort of. Forsyth’s grief and desperation to thwart her father’s death is palpable, but the story takes unexpected turns, making Lynch the most articulate and pitiable monster since Frankenstein’s. And yet he’s still freaking scary. He was like this in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, too. Something about Lynch’s physicality paired with a beaming good guy facade has you constantly bracing for a blow. But then, he’s not even the real monster. And I don’t want to overlook Aisha Dee, who plays Margot’s best friend Jules, taking what seems like a cookie-cutter heroine’s best friend role and filling it with all the simmering, self-censoring sorrow that comes with losing a loved one to their own mind. In Butcher’s Block, Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden are sisters Alice and Zoe, two young women who have suffered with their now-institutionalized mother’s schizophrenia and are trying to make a new life for themselves. Or Alice is trying to make a new life for them and is dragging self-medicated Zoe along. The way the sisters deal with their relationship to mom, madness, and each other refuses all clichés with gritty candor. I’ve had my share of Sylvia Plath moments in life, and I’ve also seen and read a lot of stories that plunge into the matter of mental disturbance like it’s a plot cookie jar rather than a place a majority of people live, whether for a little while or all their lives. It’s not for everyone – there’s cannibalism, brain surgery, and big bugs – but Butcher’s Block, and specifically Zoe and Alice’s journey within it, is my favorite depiction of living with mental illness, and I think it’s also one of the most constructive.
Grief and identity and family ties. Channel Zero was never really about the creepypastas at all, it turns out. What Channel Zero is about, far more than spooky punchlines on a message board, is the horror that waits inside all our happiness and fear alike, the horror of loss, both abrupt and inevitable, and it talks about it in ways that are sometimes oblique and sometimes canny, but never, ever expected. At its heart, every season thus far has revolved on dark family dramas, but not only the ones I’ve indicated here. The format allows just enough room to build convincing worlds, and what plausible universe only has one unhappy family or one kind of suffering? There are points in all three seasons where there is almost a symphony of competing grief, and with stories that are often deviously layered, it’s telling that only true way to single out who’s a monster is to note who’s not singing their loss.
Channel Zero’s first two seasons are currently streaming on Shudder, with the third imminent. The fourth season, The Dream Door, will be airing on SyFy over the course of a week from October 26-Halloween. The first episode is available on SyFy VOD now.
* Shorter Poe: the best stories are about beautiful dead ladies you can read in one sitting.
Angela is livin’ on Channel Z.