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If you’re of the mind that we’re living through uniquely hellish times, you may find something strangely relatable about From, a show that is in no small part about living through uniquely hellish times.
In the John Griffin-created drama, the horrors are very literal and probably supernatural: Its characters are unwilling citizens of a town they physically cannot leave, which is besieged by bloodthirsty monsters night after night.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 20 (Epix)
Cast: Harold Perrineau, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Eion Bailey, Hannah Cheramy, Simon Webster, Ricky He, Chloe Van Landschoot, Shaun Majumder, Corteon Moore, Pegah Ghafoori, David Alipay, Elizabeth Saunders, Elizabeth Moy, Avery Konrad
Creator: John Griffin
But the general feeling of exhaustion and desperation that haunts its characters might be familiar to those dealing with more down-to-earth struggles, as might their conflicting views about how to prepare for a future salvation that may never come. If, that is, you’re able to first get past the slowness at which all of these ideas unfold, and the unevenness of the characters and dialogue engaging with them.
From opens on an unnamed small town that looks ordinary enough at first glance, if a tad old-fashioned. As dusk falls, pedestrians hurry home past faded buildings and overgrown yards, greeting Sheriff Boyd (Harold Perrineau) while he walks the streets ringing his bell.
But it becomes obvious something is very amiss when, before the credits even roll on the first episode, a little girl and her mother are attacked by a monster coming through her bedroom window. The full extent of the carnage won’t be apparent ’til the next morning, when the bereaved father arrives home to see his family’s bodies ripped open and hollowed of their organs, blood streaking the walls almost to the ceiling. From does not skimp when it comes to gore.
Meanwhile, the Matthews family — mom Tabitha (Catalina Sandino Moreno), dad Jim (Eion Bailey), teenage daughter Jessica (Hannah Cheramy) and young son Ethan (Simon Webster) — are learning about the town’s other horrifying quirk the hard way. Having stumbled upon the town while lost during a road trip, they discover that no matter how carefully they follow Boyd’s directions to the highway, the road only circles them back to the town again — as Boyd knew it would. It’s the same experience he and everyone else in the town has had at some point, because anyone unlucky enough to chance upon it is stuck there indefinitely.
Who or what the monsters are, where they came from, why these people, whether they might find a way back out again: These are the mysteries driving From forward, and the series takes its time looking for the answers. Like its spiritual forerunner Lost — with whom it shares a star (Perrineau), two executive producers (Jack Bender and Jeff Pinkner) and a taste for hard-to-Google one-syllable titles — From appears to be playing a long game. Every new answer seems to yield only more questions, the eventual answers to which will surely yield more questions still. A fourth episode flashback to the bloody backstory of the town’s first and oldest resident, the vaguely unsettling Victor (Scott McCord), strikes an ideal balance between cryptic and clarifying, at least if the idea is to spin out this story for seasons to come.
For From to get there, though, it’ll first have to convince viewers to stick around for the whole ride. In that regard, the series’ deliberate pacing becomes a liability. After the four hour-long episodes sent to critics for review (out of 10 total for the season), From still feels like it’s just getting started on laying out how this world works, and who lives inside it. The size of its cast ensures that From will never be short on new avenues to explore, but also spreads the show’s attention too thin, so that even major characters like the Matthews family come off as generic stereotypes.
Eventually, the series does fit them with a sad history that makes them more sympathetic in retrospect. But Jim and Tabitha’s marital tension or Julie’s teen angst don’t hold much interest in the meantime. Less patient viewers may be tempted to skip out well before any payoff, and less optimistic ones may assume that payoff’s unlikely to ever come anyway. Given the long history of mystery-box shows better at teasing ideas than delivering them, such skepticism isn’t necessarily unwarranted.
And yet, From offers enough glimmers of promise that it’s tough to write off entirely. The brightest is Perrineau, whose performance as Boyd is so authoritative and so anguished that whenever he’s onscreen, none of the other shortcomings seem to matter. Near the end of episode three, Boyd silently tries (and mostly fails) to force himself to bear witness to a violent tragedy, and Perrineau conveys turmoil more vividly with his body language than most of From‘s other characters do in paragraphs of dramatic dialogue. Almost as compelling, if not nearly as intense, is Elizabeth Saunders as Donna — the no-nonsense leader of the community’s other main faction, who occupy a ramshackle mansion called Colony House on the outskirts of town.
Boyd’s town and Donna’s Colony House represent the two sides of a more profound conversation that From is reaching for — about both the necessity and the impossibility of learning to bear an unbearable situation, and about the different ways people might go about doing so. The theme is not a subtle one. Established citizens repeatedly tell newcomers they’ll need to adapt to the circumstances, or perish trying to cling to their old ways. Episode three explicitly centers around the newcomers’ choice between a life in town, where citizens try to make the best of things until they can they find their way home, and a life in Colony House, whose inhabitants put their faith in “living for today, because tomorrow is not guaranteed.”
Where From intends to take these ideas, however, it’s still unclear after four episodes. Perhaps the best way to approach it is much in the same way its characters do: Either you stick around to learn its rules, in hopes of better times to come or you try to enjoy it for what it is now — a slow-burn show that in its early episodes comes off more potentially intriguing than actually interesting.
The good news, in the case that From fails to deliver, is that leaving the town behind will be a lot easier for the viewers than it is for the characters. All we’ll have to do is reach out and turn off the TV.
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