'Truth Seekers': TV Review

Truth Seekers
Colin Hutton, Amazon, Stolen Pictures
A partial success.

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg bring their brand of genre-blending to Amazon with an eight-episode comedy about a team of unlikely paranormal investigators.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost know better than most how to find a middle ground where a spoof or satire works as both a send-up of a genre and a worthy entry in that very genre. Even if Shaun of the Dead were only occasionally funny, it would still be a well-executed zombie movie. Even if Hot Fuzz didn't embrace silliness at times, it would still be a well-executed action movie.

You can see a similar principle afoot in Frost and Pegg's new Amazon half-hour Truth Seekers, co-created and co-written with James Serafinowicz and Nat Saunders and directed in its entirety by Jim Field Smith. Truth Seekers is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek look at the TV ghost-hunting genre, but it simultaneously wants to creep you out. As shows aspiring to similar duality go, Truth Seekers isn't anywhere near as funny or scary as HBO's Los Espookys, but as single-agenda shows go it's still funnier than Fox's short-lived Ghosted and scarier than Hulu's likely-to-be-short-lived Helstrom.

Frost stars as Gus, ace broadband installer for a company called Smyle, run by Pegg's Dave. In addition to fixing wifi, Gus operates and stars in a woefully unsuccessful paranormal investigations YouTube channel, The Truth Seeker. When he isn't badly editing his underwhelming videos or tinkering with his possibly ineffective spirit-sensing technology, Gus is taking care of his grouchy father (Malcolm McDowell).

When Gus is paired with new installer Elton (Samson Kayo), a caretaker for an agoraphobic sister (Susie Wokoma) himself, incidents of unexplainable phenomena increase. Then they're joined by a mysterious stranger (Emma D'Arcy's Astrid), and a couple of perplexing oddities evolve into a vast and involved conspiracy that relates to all of their respective backstories.

Truth Seekers isn't very scary — then again, neither is The Haunting of Bly Manor, so your frightful TV options this Halloween all come with an asterisk — but it's got some solid, sustained spookiness and some effective comic misdirections. The visualization of what seems to be ghosts — whether we're dealing with actual undead entities or something more Scooby-Doo-y is open to debate, at least for a while — generates some paranoia, and the characters are constantly doing their installs at haunted inns, haunted hospitals and the occasional haunted stretch of countryside.

The show spells out what's happening in the second half of the season and, as so often occurs in this genre, the answers are less satisfying than the ambiguity preceding it. By that time, though, I had enough affection for several characters that I cared what was happening on their behalf well beyond the rather by-the-numbers "Oh no, somebody is opening up a portal someplace portals ought not go" narrative.

The humor is of a similarly muted variety, rarely going broad enough to generate big guffaws, aiming primarily for smiles of amusement at minor tweaks to genre conventions. Frost willingly plays the straight-man here, gruff and full of enthusiastic bluster, but grounded by grief about the mystery of his wife's passing. He cedes the silliness to Kayo, who delivers solid outsized reactions and then, in a key late moment, lands my biggest laugh of the series as a payoff to running jokes related to his name.

You'll probably think McDowell is overqualified for the role of the sort of crotchety character who becomes flustered by social media filters, but overqualified or not, he plays the familiar beats with expert precision. McDowell and Wokoma have a very charming chemistry as their characters form an unlikely bond, and the latter (whom American audiences probably would know best from Chewing Gum and a scene-stealing turn in Enola Holmes) is very much an actress on the verge of a well-deserved breakout.

Tertiary throughout, Pegg's part is restricted to a single location and very likely was shot over a day or two, with a set-up for more in hypothetical future seasons. The same is true of a guest actress whose first appearance caused me to emit a genuine small cheer, hence my maintaining secrecy about her identity in this review.

The eight-episode first season, with installments hovering around the 30-minute mark, puts Truth Seekers at a bit of a crossroads. It's admirable to want to explore these characters and the trauma that leaves each of them fascinated with the afterlife, but there has yet to be enough opportunity to honor that experience. Truth Seekers has just enough character and just enough humor and just enough eeriness to be watchable and involving, without any of those elements emerging as entirely satisfying. I wouldn't want to tell the show to find a lane, especially since Pegg and Frost know that there's no reason why you should have to choose, so I guess I'd root for each aspect here to become more confident going forward.

The show's partial success at a lot of things will keep me curious for a while more. Being wholly successful at one or two, however, is a better recipe for a rave review. Even blending tough genre elements, it's possible. Check out Los Espookys if you missed it last year.

Cast: Nick Frost, Samson Kayo, Emma D'Arcy, Malcolm McDowell, Susie Wokoma, Simon Pegg

Creators: Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, James Serafinowicz and Nat Saunders

Premieres Friday, October 30, on Amazon.