Tuning in to Channel Zero

This past October I went through my annual horror binge. Horror is a strange genre as far as production goes, as it’s this sort of catch-all that covers all sorts of things. Since it’s an emotion (even romance is technically a verb), it’s incredibly subjective. The focus can be on gore, suspense, paranoia, religion, supernatural, body… The down side to this, which also crops up in other genre work like science fiction, is that the quality of output can vary wildly. Sometimes concepts can outshine budget and production, and sometimes it’s just gimmicky crap. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in television. Genre work in this medium can be amazing or embarrassing, so my horror marathons usually lean toward movies and books. But this past fall my television queue was running low and I decided to jump into something new. I had remembered hearing about the concept for Syfy’s Channel Zero, which adapts a different creepypasta each season in an anthology style show, and then very little media follow-up. But the first season had finished airing and season two had just begun, so if it turned out to be watchable then I had a fair amount of TV to keep me busy.

Season 1: Candle Cove

Season one turned out to be a bit disappointing. Based on the story Candle Cove, the basic idea is that there’s a local children’s show that is very odd, with a punchline about where the broadcast is coming from. I’d say that the creepypasta is a bit better than the television adaptation, and it’ll take just a couple of minutes to read. Among the issues are a fear of really digging into the style of a 1970s local access show. Perhaps with the time of it, and the concept of children facing evil, the show-runner feared too much comparison to IT or Stranger Things. Whatever the reason, the show suffers for it, feeling a bit too polished.

The plot turns into a mystery, but functionally this season becomes a procedural. There are creepy visuals that work and some that come across as laughable, but overall the show doesn’t click with this season. The threat, rather than growing with the developments that build, seems to become less thought out and more of just making something to service the immediate scene, regardless of how it fits into the greater scheme of the show. I actually found the creepypasta entertaining, and the places that they could have gone make Candle Cove seem like a let-down. What’s there isn’t bad, but it clearly could have better.

Season 2: No-End House

World-building is a double-edged sword when it comes to horror. Too little and the story feels like it’s just making things up as it goes along, too much and that creeping fear of the unknown is washed away. Candle Cove had too little established, which is odd considering how neat the original story keeps things. No-End House finds a perfect balance, though.

The plot of season 2 is taken from a two-part story, NoEnd House and NoEnd House 2. The concept of both the original stories and the season are that there’s a mysterious, yet normal looking, house in the suburbs. Within is a haunted attraction that supposedly no one has been able to complete.

Where the first season simply extended plot onto the end of the creepypasta, the second season adds far more layers and themes than the original story. The parts of the plot that fit in with the short stories are mostly covered in the first episode, with the remaining five digging into some really meaty writing. I don’t want to spoil what develops, but fair warning that I may drop some hints. Seasons one and two both end up looking at identity and self-reflection as forms of horror and suffering.

There’s also a strange beating heart in this show that’s largely absent from some other current television horror, such as American Horror Story. Where AHS revels in a cruelty, much of the horror in Channel Zero comes from a place of love. It’s an adult brother’s love for his missing twin that sends him back home to confront childhood horrors. It’s a young woman’s love for her deceased father that drives her to endure an unthinkable situation for moments of peace in season two. The common theme across the stories so far is not what terrible things can be inflicted on us, but what ghastly things we do to ourselves.

Pulling this back to the world-building issue, season two reveals quite a bit about the mechanics of the house. For an episode or two it was in danger of having revealed too much, making the house navigable and not much of a threat. But that’s the moment in the season when the character development pays off, and they become their own worst enemies. As much as the house takes and endangers people, it also appears to have something to offer. What is a Venus fly trap without sweet nectar to attract food. Similarly, the No-End House seems to have something to offer to the group of people who wander in, beyond a prize for completing the final room. The foreboding and unease that comes from the unknown is woven back into the story. If knowledge were drawn as a graph for this season, it would appear like a bell curve, first revealing things to the audience, and then pulling things away from the characters.

If I say more than this I’d have to start giving away major plot points. Suffice to say, season two is a vast improvement over something that wasn’t all that bad to begin with. I’d recommend skipping straight to season two and if you get hooked, circle back to Candle Cover to hold you until the next season comes out.

Season 3: Butcher’s Block

Season 3 will be based on Search and Rescue Woods, which you can read here if you want a jump-start on what’s to come.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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