'NOS4A2': TV Review

A frightful bore.
6/2/2019

AMC's adaptation of Joe Hill's supernatural novel buries Zachary Quinto under layers of latex and all attempted scares under layers of exposition and ill-considered plotting.

Conventional wisdom says that when adapting things to a new medium, it's smart to adapt source material with flaws. Tackle a classic and you're stuck living up to lofty expectations. Tackle a mess and you have latitude to make improvements (or can blame the original if you fail).

Joe Hill's 2013 novel NOS4A2 isn't exactly a mess, but its decades-spanning narrative presents myriad structural challenges, not least of which that its looming hook is a nefarious figure abducting children and taking them to a place called Christmasland — "It's a very special place where every day is Christmas Day and unhappiness is against the law!" — and then the book meanders endlessly and barely gets to Christmasland. Let's just say that the novel, probably the most Stephen King pastiche-y of the books by King's son, offers opportunities for refinement.

Unfortunately, although AMC and creator Jami O'Brien absolutely attempt tweaks on Hill's novel, the alterations are none for the better in the TV adaptation premiering Sunday. Through its first six episodes, NOS4A2 is a shockingly unscary horror drama prone to ill-considered detours and over-explained supernatural machinations, while wallowing in entirely too many blue-collar cliches and variable Massachusetts accents. A solid cast, some showy makeup and the occasional inspired bit of imagery all get the life sucked right out of them, the only way that the show's clunky pun of a title is at all worthwhile.

Ashleigh Cummings stars as Vic McQueen, an artist and high-school student who discovers she has a strange gift: If she rides her motorbike fast enough, she can travel through the long-since-destroyed Shorter Way Bridge and use it as a portal to locations near her Haverhill, Massachusetts, home and well beyond, where she's able to find lost things. That extends, kinda, to missing children, which gives her a psychic connection to the ageless Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), who lures kids into his vintage Rolls-Royce Wraith with the promise of Christmasland. Before they get there, though, the car or Manx or something absorbs their youth, turning Manx from a pile of geriatric latex prosthetics into Zachary Quinto in a chauffeur's costume.

The title comes from the license plate to Manx's car, but stop and think if it makes any sense. This is not a vampire story. Manx is not a vampire. The car's not really a vampire. It's more like the pompous British father to the killing machine from Christine. And if you were a vampire, why would you get a vanity plate announcing you were a vampire if your whole gimmick is the subterfuge of luring kids to Christmasland? It's like calling your dentist's office, "Sorry This Will Probably Hurt." Plus, the car is a Wraith, which is already a supernatural allusion to the undead. At best, then, the title is a hat-on-a-hat. At worst, it's an out-of-character winking joke that doesn't enhance the story being told in the slightest.

The series has done away with the protracted nature of the book's story, which starts with Vic as a child riding an ordinary bike, a mode of transportation and escape that becomes a trigger for powerful nostalgia in the same way King uses the bicycle Silver in It. It then stretches through Vic's young adulthood and marriage until we see how this ability she possesses has taken over and warped her life and impacted her relationship with her own child.

Here, everything has to be rushed into a condensed period with Vic as a teen, learning about her power and learning about Manx and moving toward a forced confrontation, without any urgency. There's indeed so little urgency to the added material that even as we know that Manx is kidnapping and, in his own way, devouring children, NOS4A2 spends an entire episode with Vic visiting the Rhode Island School of Design and lamenting that her parents — alcoholic veteran Chris (Ebon Moss-Bacharach) and perpetually sour cleaning lady Linda (Virginia Kull) — maybe don't pay taxes, so she might not be able to get financial aid. Huh? There's a monster. Stealing children. If you want me to care about your hero, a deep dive into the college admissions process is not the proper gateway.

I think Vic's college aspirations, as well as a limp love triangle with a rich boy who might as well not have a name and a poor boy who might as well not have a name, are meant to ground NOS4A2 so that the supernatural elements can be approached as a psychological response to trauma, the mind of a child constructing safe spaces to avoid the horrors of reality, with RISD as the embodiment of a real safe space and Christmasland as the ultimate violation of that safety. I get it. Making Moss-Bachrach and Kull, both very good actors, play boring variations on "Daddy drinks and mom doesn't care if I get an education" tropes, slathered thick with inconsistent Massachusetts accents and unconnected to the guy going around stealing children, is clumsy storytelling and prevents momentum from building.

It also doesn't help that another part of how NOS4A2 has been adapted is by over-explaining the powers that join Vic and Manx together, or at least larding up those powers with jargon. The need to push the premise's silly terminology — "strong creatives," "inscapes," "knifes" — is much greater than in Hill's book, which is exactly the opposite of how these things should normally be handled. Said terminology is better when read than when spoken aloud, usually by Jahkara Smith playing Maggie, an exposition device with purple-streaked hair. Note that Cummings delivers an intensity that the series can't generate any other way and she's easily the best part of NOS4A2, if you can excuse that the 26-year-old Aussie actress isn't at all convincing as the age she's playing, nor with her accent.

For Cummings, NOS4A2 is a big acting opportunity. For Quinto, it's an experiment or a stunt. Joel Harlow's aging makeup for Manx is ambitious and well-executed and even holds up in close-ups. You can still see and hear Quinto through the makeup and if Manx were scary, I think Quinto would be able to be scary. He's initially strange and then boring, especially when I think the series may want to imply that, at least in his own mind, Manx isn't evil at all, a shade of gray the series isn't able to illustrate. The show is a bit better at finding sympathy for Olafur Darri Olafsson's Bing Partridge, Hill's take on the mentally handicapped henchmen his father loves so much, largely through erasing all of the grosser aspects of his character from the page and leaving him dumb and deadly.

The series' directors, led by the normally great Kari Skogland, work in the muted colors of blue-collar condescension, punctuated by bursts of Christmasy reds and greens. The translation from ordinary bicycle to motocross bike is dumb and nobody has cracked a way to visualize the crossing of the Shorter Way Bridge as either literal or metaphor, but the bike least offers a visual point-of-view that's energetic. Every once in a while, Skogland or another director hits on a good and effective image and NOS4A2 works for a couple seconds, whether it's the no-brainer impact of a demonic child with razor teeth or the nicely haunting Graveyard of What Might Be in the second episode. Nothing in the mood or tension is cumulative, nothing between Vic and Manx feels like it's amping up and, through six episodes, Christmasland is still an unrealized thing that viewers are being teased with and probably won't care about reaching.

NOS4A2 was an opportunity for AMC, an assortment of promising literary kernels that could have really come to life in a different medium. Instead, it's a bridge to nowhere and the only not-so-magical escape is changing the channel.

Cast: Ashleigh Cummings, Zachary Quinto, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Virginia Kull, Jahkara Smith
Adapted by: Jami O'Brien from the book by Joe Hill
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (AMC)