In the premiere episode of Fox’s new series Freakylinks, touted as “an X-Files for Generation-Y,” paranormal archivist and spook hunter Derek Barnes (Ethan Embry) is investigating some mystery or another at a low-rent strip club. Checking himself in a mirror on the way out the door, he momentarily sees a fast-motion wiggy monster-head where he usually sees his own disaffected, slack visage. In one of the show’s many inconsistencies, we never find out precisely why Derek has this vision, whether he is, or might be, one of the monsters he pursues. His twisty head trick is apparently inserted only for a little f/x dazzle. But it’s less than dazzling and more than tired.
Right off the bat, Freakylinks annoys. It feels schizophrenic, as if it’s never quite sure what it wants to be, or to whom it wants to appeal. Obviously, like most shows on Fox, Freakylinks aggressively courts a youth audience. And so, it appropriately rips off visuals and themes from The X-Files, one of the network’s longstanding audience faves, and which is usually characterized as “edgy” and “hip,” code-words for “young.” It’s hard to read this doubleness, as Freakylinks simultaneously asserts similarities to Chris Carter’s paranoia fest and assumes a generational distance from it. One simple possibility is that the show indexes both gen-y and The X-Files merely in order to sell itself as “edgy,” “hip,” and young, according to multiple commercial definitions. Trouble is, it’s none of these things, in any definitions.
Freakylinks follows the exploits of Derek and his Scooby-gang as they chronicle paranormal activities and post their findings on an eponymous website, presumably to disseminate “the truth” (there’s The X-Files again) far and wide. And really, that’s about all you need to know. Or rather, this premise makes the show seem much more intriguing than it actually is. The premiere episode, which labors to introduce us to the characters and their histories (most importantly, that Derek came to the occult research project after his twin brother Adam died under dicey circumstances [shades of Samantha Mulder]), also lamely tries to draw us and Derek into the continuing mystery of the disappearance of early settlers in the Roanoke Colony, and the second installment is a tale of ghostly justice and spirit possession that promises Rosemary’s Baby and delivers Mommie Dearest. Not so edgy as it seems to think it is, Freakylinks is actually rather preachy (about family, morals, tolerance, blah, blah, blah). The show offers no social or critical incisiveness; instead, it uses its youth “angle” (both in how it incorporates and appeals to youth) to reflect dead-center dominant cultural morals and family values.
Considering the show’s conservative vision of youth it is unsurprising that it portrays its young characters through weird (adult) fantasy idealizations or vulgar stereotypes of young people. As Derek Barnes, Ethan Embry looks about 16 years old, as do his sidekick Jason (Karim Prince), and his computer whiz-helper Lan (Lizette Carrion). Derek’s brother’s ex-fiancee Chloe (Lisa Sheridan) rounds out the team, reluctantly, as she is a clinical psychologist and properly skeptical of all this paranormal hoo-ha (read: Scully). Looking a bit older than the rest of the gang, Chloe nonetheless must have taken some pretty heavy course loads to finish school by the time she was (tops) twenty-four. In episode two, we see her preparing a paper for a psych conference in New York while lounging on the beach (the show is set in Miami) oooh, she’s smart and sexy!!
The characters aren’t just young in sexy-kids-on-TV ways, but also in undeveloped and immature ways: the actors’ sophomoric dramatic abilities are matched by the show’s juvenile attitude. Again in episode two, Derek watches a videotape he made of his latest clients, a hapless couple who believe they are being haunted by a demon: he rolls his eyes and giggles, as if to say, “Stupid old people.” (Of course, the couple is not at all that old, looking to be in their late-twenties/early thirties, but compared to Derek and his team, they are geezers.) In addition to such tired characterizations, Freakylinks also regurgitates now-totally-over stylistic devices. The show is dominated by jump-cut editing, chopped up dialogue, and shifts between hand-held video footage and film stock. (This last “hip” technique should surprise no one, as the show has been co-created by Greg Hale, who co-produced The Blair Witch Project, but it’s more annoying than cool). All this attention to slick surface effects suggests that the show is a little too desperate for youth cred, and comes off looking pathetic.
This stylistic business intrudes on plot such as it is in that dramatic moments and emotional outpourings are edited into a series of sound-bites, so that, for instance, a mother’s breakdown is reduced to jerky moans and self-recriminations, recalling Max Headroom’s truncated style of communication: “It was an accident ... I didn’t mean it ... I was just trying to hide my daughter.” Even the show’s soundtrack is tragically un-hip, dominated by newly minted slack rock acts like Econoline Crush and Trailer Bride, whose song “Graveyard” is featured in episode two for obvious “spooky” reasons. (And who are Econoline Crush? Imagine the Gin Blossoms or any other cookie-cutter grunge rock act, change the name and you have Econoline, that is, hardly the brand-new sound the show might use in its aspirations to hipness.)
The best thing about Freakylinks has to do with the show’s website and how it has traveled out into the “real world.” The site pretends in some earnestness to be the “real” website managed and kept up by Derek on the show, and so acts as a continuation of the show online rather than an obvious marketing tool. Of course, this too has been done before, in The Blair Witch Project‘s then-innovative web-promotional strategizing. Nonetheless, this past August, The Weekly World News ran a story featuring an “authentic” photo of union soldiers next to what appears to be the body of a dead pterodactyl, which, the paper breathlessly asserted, proves “prehistoric monsters survived extinction.” The photo was taken from the Freakylinks website. How clever of Freakylinks. Or better, how unclever of The Weekly World News.
But if the breakdown of distinctions between “fact” and “fiction” that the Freakylinks website instigates is certainly amusing, it is also as annoying as the show itself. Listen up, guys: it’s been done, everything about your show is, like, soooo five minutes ago. Ironically, perhaps, the Freakylinks site sums up the show and my opinion of it quite well, in its own attempt to be cynically self-knowing about its relationship to The Blair Witch Project. Our on-the-web-Derek Barnes writes of the film: “I hated this movie. I also hated how the filmmakers tried to blur the line between reality and fantasy. The success of this intertwining of fact and fiction only means we’ll be blessed with tons more of this type of crap in the future.” Yep.