Television

Channel Zero: Season 1, Episode 1 – "You Have to Go Inside"

M. King Adkins

In episode one, we meet Mike, child psychologist haunted by his own childhood trauma: a mysterious TV show, a series of unsolved child murders, and a teeth-stealing monster.


Channel Zero

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Paul Schneider, Fiona Shaw
Subtitle: Season 1 , Episode 1 - "You Have to Go Inside"
Network: Syfy
Air Date: 2016-10-11
Amazon

Channel Zero: The Syfy Network Eats Creepypasta

SyFy's new series Channel Zero generates a lot of comparisons with Netflix's Stranger Things (see, for example, Tim Surette's post for TV Guide, "Is Channel Zero the next Stranger Things?"). Such comparisons aren't entirely unearned. Like Stranger Things, Channel Zero focuses -- at least in this first season -- on the '80s. Both shows not only revisit the '80s, they cast an '80s patina over every scene, from the lighting, to the locations, to the very plot structures. Channel Zero's premiere episode, for instance, includes references to Poltergeist, Cujo, It, and Children of the Corn. Indeed, the commonality between this series and Stranger Things may have more to do with the (well-deserved) rise in Stephen King's stock as a writer than anything else.

It would be a shame, however, to dismiss Channel Zero as merely a clone of Stranger Things; Channel Zero has its own particular charms. To begin with, like American Horror Story and True Detectives, the series is organized as an anthology, with each six-episode season planned as its own stand-alone story.

In addition, each of these seasons draws its storyline from so-called "creepypastas": carefully crafted urban-legend horror stories, usually brief, placed on the web, and then allowed to grow and develop on their own. This first season, for example, comes from graphic artist Kris Staub’s 2009 story, "Candle Cove". Whether viewers will recognize this fact or not remains to be seen, and it may not matter to the ultimate reception of the show, but it's a fascinating new approach to the process of television-making, one that capitalizes on the way television has tried to keep pace with the artificial reality that lives online.

Much has been written in the last 15 years about how TV shows, and indeed whole networks, have chipped away at our notions of "reality". Take series such as Ancient Aliens and Finding Bigfoot: while neither show is "un-real", per se, the fact that they offer "speculative" history and science on channels ostensibly devoted to "actual" history and science (The History Channel and Animal Planet) respectively, helps erode the meanings of "science" and "history".

That erosion pales in comparison beside the pseudo-science of faux documentaries about mermaids and megalodons, both of which have popped up on Animal Planet in recent years. "Mermaids: The Body Found" reads very much like an authentic documentary and makes only minimal attempts to make clear that it isn't. It includes, for instance, "recreated footage", labeled as such and played against "actual footage", which, of course, is itself fictional. It looks and feels very much like the (real?) documentary "Hunt for the Giant Squid" right down to the underwater submersible footage. Run side by side -- genuine science, speculative science, fictional science -- and with no clear distinction drawn between any of them, these shows don't just call the definition of science into question: they work to undo the very nature of reality.

But where did this fuzzy reality come from in the first place? I could do a lengthy dissertation here on postmodernism and Baudrillard’s "simulacrum"; for now, let's go with a simpler answer: the Internet. The Internet was built to compile all human knowledge and to make it virtually instantaneously accessible, a job it does pretty well. You can find 1500 recipes for baked Alaska, or a dissertation on sun spots, all with a few keystrokes. The trouble is, "knowledge" is a sketchy term on the web: the Internet isn't merely the repository of all knowledge, but the repository of all un-knowledge as well. Sometimes that opens us up to being tricked; John Oliver had a nice bit not long ago on how few quote memes include actual quotes.

Sometimes the problem isn’t so much that we're deliberately tricked as that the sheer volume of available information creates side-by-side paradoxical realities. Want 500 web pages proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone? The Internet's got 'em. Want 500 sites that prove (beyond a shadow of a doubt) Oswald was part of a carefully constructed CIA plot to kill Kennedy? The Internet's got those too. If both sets of sites "prove" their cases, where does that leave reality?

In many ways, then, creepypasta is a literary genre born to make use of the Internet's advantages, the ways in which the Internet shifts and morphs to take in reality and un-reality as part of its knowledge and un-knowledge. Put a story out there that seems vaguely true and let it simmer until perhaps it becomes true.

All of which brings us back to Channel Zero. Its embrace of the creepypasta form works to bring the un-reality of the Internet to television in much the same way "Mermaids" does. That aspect of the show helps to explain some of its apparent weaknesses as well. The first of these is pacing. For instance, making main character Mike (Paul Schneider) a child psychologist is a thoughtful bit of storytelling: childhood trauma leads character to study childhood trauma. Yet where a good show like this one uses Mike's childhood trauma as the source of his career, a great show might have taken the time to set up a dilemma for him: rational psychologist springs from supernatural childhood experience. Unfortunately, Channel Zero doesn't have the time to develop Mike into a true scientist; there are teeth-stealing monsters to track down.

In short, the whole enterprise plays sort of fast and loose. Then again, maybe that's the point. Urban legends are always a bit sketchy; it's the missing pieces that, to some extent, provide the tingle for the spine. I suppose the issue to discover, then, is whether or not TV can adapt itself to this sort of storytelling. On the one hand, I'm driven to deride Animal Planet for failing to distinguish truth from fiction, for tricking us all into believing mermaids might exist. On the other hand, maybe Channel Zero could use a little more uncertainty. It's too obviously "fiction", which means it's asking to be judged by the standards of fiction. On that scale, its story gaps are a problem. Maybe in this case, selling the show as "real" might improve matters.

6

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