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Of the eight installments of Hulu’s new regional horror anthology Monsterland, not a single episode is a complete success — which isn’t the sort of proportion one would want to boast about, even in a notoriously hit-and-miss format.
Trust me, nothing would give me more pleasure than to be able to point to any one of the episodes, adapted from Nathan Ballingrud’s North America Lake Monsters: Stories, and say: “Here’s where the intriguing pieces all come together.” Instead, there are episodes in which a star performance or two keep things watchable even if the spooky premise never solidifies. And then there are episodes in which the spooky premise sets a decent enough mood for nearly an hour, but nothing actually scary (or disturbing or, ultimately, provocative) materializes.
AIR DATE Oct 02, 2020
There are even one or two episodes in which something amusingly or shockingly gory happens, but it happens to characters we’ve been given no reason to care about. So while I say that no installment of Monsterland is a complete success, I don’t think any installment is a complete failure either — though there’s something perhaps even more disheartening in starting one episode after another with hope and enthusiasm but then knowing with increasing certainty that it probably won’t stick the landing.
In the most reductive of terms, episodes of Monsterland roam the country (with a particular concentration around the tax haven of Louisiana) telling ostensibly frightful stories in which the true nightmare is the American Dream and the true monsters are, well, us. And yes, Monsterland is attempting something very close to the genre-of-the-week approach to pulp fiction that Lovecraft Country is currently taking with some inconsistency but significantly more momentum and cohesiveness on HBO.
Monsterland, adapted for TV by Mary Laws, starts in Port Fourchon, LA, where a weary waitress (Kaitlyn Dever) is already coping with a daughter whose misbehavior could be horrifying in and of itself — and that’s before she has an encounter with a creepy stranger (Jonathan Tucker), who seems to be either a serial killer or something more supernaturally disturbing. Dever’s character is the only recurring figure in the series, popping up in the New Orleans-set third episode about a woman (Nicole Beharie) whose perfect marriage to a revered pediatric surgeon (Hamish Linklater) may be hiding some secrets and then again in a Newark-set hour that involves angels dropped to Earth.
The horror set-ups in other episodes range from the grounded, like a struggling Gulf Coast fisherman (Trieu Tran) who stumbles upon a feral mermaid; to the nebulously unnerving, like the blushing bride (Kelly Marie Tran) who discovers that the urban legends about a Michigan forest are actually true; to the operatically grotesque, like the Manhattan mogul (Bill Camp) whose pollution of the environment mirrors the pollution of his soul.
Individual episodes convey a knowing sense of their own horrific subtext, but tend to lack a comparable grasp on the actual plot. There’s unquestionably some fun in identifying the various topics explored, whether it’s the challenge of reinventing yourself (or forging a new identity) when you’re trapped by economic circumstances, the downward spirals of mental illness or grief, or the frustration of a young man (Charlie Tahan) being manipulated on conspiracy message boards.
But clarity in driving home certain points — nothing here is even vaguely subtle — isn’t the same as nailing a 50-minute story arc, and the worst of these episodes are 30 minutes of set-up, 10 minutes of horror and 10 minutes of people wandering around the dark yelling in questionable regional accents. The best of the bunch feel like the introduction to an X-Files monster-of-the-week episode but lacking the presence of Scully and Mulder to offer even rudimentary conclusions. It’s hard for me to tell if each installment would have been improved with structural overhaul from the top or if episodes might have been benefitted from the near-feature-length running times Hulu granted to its earlier horror anthology Into the Dark (which also is utterly inconsistent, but periodically comes closer to achieving its tone-juggling goals).
Certain Monsterland episodes at least give the actors a foundation to work with. Dever, who has fully cemented herself as an actress incapable of hitting false emotional notes, and Tucker, as reliable and strangely intense as TV character actors get, elevate a first episode that feels like it’s halted exactly when it should have gotten interesting. Taylor Schilling and Roberta Colindrez are quite terrific in what becomes a harrowing relationship dramedy, the episode that came closest to entirely working for me, except for a treatment of manic depression that, ultimately, felt too glib. Camp has blustery fun as a bellowing titan of industry, but his episode — think Succession if Logan was possessed by the devil instead of suffering a stroke — very rapidly devolves into grating and superficial satire.
I was more appreciative of the work done by the team of primarily indie feature directors, including Anne Sewitsky, Logan Kibens, Nick Pesce and Craig William Macneill, to give certain episodes a sense of place and insinuating atmosphere. That I’m not sure I experienced a single moment of visceral fright across eight hours is probably a function of some monotony in the directing — again, the stumbling-around-in-the-dark-while-shouting thing can’t even yield a single cheap jump scare — as well as the writing. There’s a general bleakness to the series — the Bill Camp episode is the closest to attempting actual comedy — but there are also chuckles in the Schilling/Colindrez episode that I appreciated.
That hour — “Plainfield, IL” — plus the premiere and finale represent the closest Monsterland comes to cohering. You don’t need to watch any of the others to understand those three episodes, and I don’t think I enthusiastically recommend them. But if you want to get a sense of what a second season might aspire to, they’re as good as Monsterland gets.
Creator: Mary Laws from the book North America Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Jonathan Tucker, Mike Colter, Bill Camp, Kelly Marie Tran, Taylor Schilling, Nicole Beharie, Adepero Oduye, Roberta Colindrez, Charlie Tahan and Hamish Linklater
All episodes premiere on Friday, October 2 on Hulu.
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