With FX’s ‘American Horror Story’ getting to be a little long in the tooth, Syfy’s new anthology horror series ‘Channel Zero’ hopes to appeal to the same audience. The difference between the two shows (at least based on the pilot episode) is that this one discards the campiness and pastiche elements to focus instead on simply being creepy as hell.
Like ‘American Horror Story’, this series is an anthology where each season will have a new theme and new storyline. The gimmick behind ‘Channel Zero’ is that the seasons are based on popular creepypastas (viral horror stories that get copy/pasted around the internet). The first season adapts the story ‘Candle Cove’ by writer and cartoonist Kris Straub.
The Syfy drama’s seasons will also be much shorter than FX’s, running only six episodes each. I consider this a strength. Season after season, ‘American Horror Story’ inevitably runs out of steam trying to fill 12 to 13 episodes of screen time. At least in theory, a season at half that length can tell a much tighter and more compelling story.
In ‘Candle Cove’, Paul Schneider stars as Mike Painter, a famous child psychologist known for his appearances on ‘Dr. Phil’ and similar TV talk shows. The premiere episode opens with a nightmare in which a talk show host forces Mike to take a phone call from his dead brother. When he was 12-years-old, Mike’s identical twin, Eddie, was among the multiple child victims of a serial killer who was never caught. Although the other children’s bodies were all found (missing their teeth) strewn about the branches of a tree deep in the forest, Eddie’s was never recovered.
Recurring nightmares compel Mike to return to his hometown in rural Ohio for the first time in many years. His mother, Marla (Fiona Shaw, who played the witch Marnie in Season 4 of ‘True Blood’) immediately suspects that he’s there to dig into the old case. She’s very wary of this and laments, “I hope you haven’t come to rip open a wound.” She says that just about every year, another batch of would-be crime-solvers comes to town hoping to crack the infamous Iron Hill Murders. She just wants some peace and to leave the past in the past.
Mike reconnects with some of his old childhood friends, including local sheriff Gary and his wife Jessica. Gary insists that things have been very quiet in town for the past couple decades. “We’re a little bit more Partridge Family than Manson Family around here,” he says. The only crime of note he’s currently dealing with involves a strange series of home break-ins where nothing was stolen. (That seems like it will be pretty important later.) Mike says that he’s writing a book about his brother’s death and asks to see the old police files on the case.
Gary invites Mike to dinner. While at the house, Mike sees Gary’s young daughter Katie watching television. He recognizes the show as ‘Candle Cove’, a bizarre children’s program featuring creepy puppets that he remembers watching with Eddie. The show only aired for two months in 1988, the same time as the Iron Hill Murders, and was never seen again. Mike is perplexed as to why anyone would bring it back now. He mentions this to Gary, Jessica and some of their other friends at dinner, and they all reminisce about how the show gave them nightmares. In the middle of their conversation, Mike is overcome with feelings of anxiety and suddenly leaves the house.
That night, Mike has nightmares about Jawbone, the pirate skeleton puppet from the show, invading his room. He wakes up outdoors in the middle of the night, apparently having sleepwalked.
The next morning, Gary and Jessica can’t find Katie. They panic and organize a search party. Mike joins them. As they search the woods, Jessica confronts Mike. His mother told Jessica that Mike recently suffered a “psychotic episode” and was only released from a psych ward two days ago. As soon as he got out of the hospital, the first thing he did was drive to Ohio. As Mike starts babbling what sounds like nonsense about the ‘Candle Cove’ show, Jessica suspects that he may have had something to do with her daughter’s disappearance.
Mike breaks off from the search party and returns to Gary’s house, where he talks to Katie’s younger brother Dane. He believes that Katie told Dane where she went. Dane mentions something about a place called “Crow’s Nest.” Mike knows exactly what he’s talking about. That’s a hiding place he and Eddie had in the woods when they were young.
Mike treks out to Crow’s Nest alone with the only weapon he can find, a knife. On the way, he sees a person wearing a skeleton costume standing in the middle of the woods. Mike chases after it but loses him. However, he finds Katie, unharmed, sitting by a rock. He picks her up to bring her home. After he leaves, a human-shaped monster made entirely of teeth crawls out of hiding and takes some of Katie’s teeth that were sitting on the ground next to the rock.
Mike returns Katie. Suspicious of him, Gary locks him up for a little while but can’t hold him. He asks Mike to leave town. While in the police station, Mike recognizes a cop as someone he saw hanging around in the woods near his mother’s house.
As Mike packs up his things to leave, we see that he has the words “Mike Come Home” carved into the flesh of one arm. In flashback, we learn that he cut them himself during his mental breakdown. When Mike mentions ‘Candle Cove’ to his mother, she asks him whether he or Eddie first made it up. She says that ‘Candle Cove’ was never a real show. The boys used to sit and stare at a static screen for half an hour. ‘Candle Cove’ was just something imaginary they invented.
Mike leaves town but stops at a motel for the night. Out of the blue, he receives a call on the room’s telephone. On the line is the voice of young Eddie asking why he isn’t staying.
As the father of young twin boys, the premise of this show hit me especially hard. Anything involving a dead twin is going to leave me a little unsettled.
Even beyond that, however, the episode is very unnerving. Its slow, methodical pacing and deliberately affectless acting from most of the cast are reminiscent of early Shyamalan (before that director jumped his shark). The show eschews gross-out gore or simplistic jump-scares in favor of a sustained mood of dread. It works incredibly well in this context. This show that I knew almost nothing about going in may be one of the most promising of the new fall TV season.