It’s generally acknowledged that we’re living in a golden age of television. We have been at least since The Sopranos first aired in 1999, with the trend having been kept alive long past the normal lifespan of high-water marks by streaming services that have changed the formatting of shows just enough to encourage experimentation, ambition, and investment. What’s less discussed is that we’re also living in a wonderful time for horror. The past few years alone have seen a resurgence of quality horror (It Follows, The Babadook, The Witch, Hereditary, Halloween, etc) the likes of which haven’t been experienced since the VHS horror boom of the 1980s. Occasionally, as with True Detective and Channel Zero, the two bull market trends meet and overlap and we’re left with binge-worthy horror television exemplifying high-quality popular cinema. Sometimes both the format and the genre are used to exceed entertainment and creep into the realm of middlebrow art.
Hulu’s recent series Into the Dark isn’t quite that. It is, however, a wonderful experiment in this blending of genre and format, even if it ultimately fails to achieve anything truly significant. The timing is right, for what it is: a monthly serial with each roughly hour and a half release being an independent story with new actors and a different director. It definitely utilizes the streaming format to full effect. Its failure is a failure of genre: it just makes itself too self-consciously timely to be good horror.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t entertaining. The first episode, which aired last October and was set on Halloween night, featured a British hitman struggling to recover a body from a squad of loathsome trust fund kids. Hard to go wrong with that. And the episode “New Year, New You,” which first aired on December 28, is a psychological free fall through the banal evils of internet blogger stardom and the inevitable resentment that follows in its wake. Like most of the other episodes, it’s thrilling and suspenseful without quite being scary.
The structure of Into the Dark isn’t necessarily a bad idea, and it achieves some successes. Having a sort of “holiday of the month” theme gives the show just enough continuity that it can experiment with cast, writer, and director shifts episode to episode. Where the show really shines is in its high-quality performances. Veteran actor Dermot Mulroney and newcomer Diana Silvers are able to sort of tag team the ratcheting up of father/daughter paranoia and violence in last November’s “Flesh & Blood.” In what might be the best episode, “New Year, New You,” Suki Waterhouse and Carly Chaikin engage in a tense psychological battle that, when it reaches its violent crescendo, could easily be something from a DePalma film. And the best performance comes unsurprisingly from Jimmi Simpson. Simpson has the range to play anything from a comedically louche half-dressed brother in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to the naive young searcher William in Westworld, so it’s really no surprise that in the episode “Treehouse” he’s able to convincingly play an Americanized, low-rent Gordon Ramsay character.
The problem with Into the Dark isn’t the acting. It’s the stories themselves. It isn’t necessarily that the show isn’t scary, a subjective category that even the most appreciative horror fan might find doesn’t cover their favorite works. The problem is that the show isn’t willing to sink down to the depths of myth. It stares too superficially at the present moment, focusing on the surface of our current social preoccupations (mostly perceived imbalances in power between genders, putting particular emphasis on men being rotten to the core) without quite being able to transform them into myth with a penetrating gaze. In other words, the show stays on the level of sociology. It doesn’t jar our expectations by introducing transcendent elements—there’s hardly anything supernatural in Into the Dark—and it doesn’t confront us with the abject powerlessness we have when faced with the facts of ultimate reality. Evil doesn’t win in Into the Dark because the show refuses to acknowledge its existence. At the end of most episodes, the stronger woman wins. Not because, as in the best horror, she has confronted and accepted the aspects of reality that remain beyond our ability to change, but because, you know, isn’t it about time?
The worst example of this failure is the episode “Treehouse.” It’s a time-stamped and self-congratulatory #MeToo thriller where an egotistical male predator is kidnapped by a coven of fake witches, drugged, and put through an hallucinogenic brainwashing torture session in which he’s made to realize the error of his ways. Why does this not “work” as horror? Because good horror gives us the stuff that resists timeliness. Instead, “Treehouse” is just the zeitgeist admiring itself.
Horror doesn’t necessarily need to feel surprising (in fact, some of the best horror tortures viewers with the predictably inevitable), but “New Year, New You,” released at the end of December, presents an incredibly taut plot which twist and unfolds in unpredictable ways and showcases up and coming episode director and co-writer Sophia Takal’s talent. Daniel Kurland wrote that “New Year, New You” is “a chilling story that only gets darker and more complex as it goes on. It also doesn’t shy away from an incredibly bleak ending that makes her point with eerie poignancy. Takal doesn’t try to overextend herself and this boiled down take on friendship and jealousy gone wrong is arguably the best addition of Into the Dark to date and hopefully just the start of Takal’s filmmaking career.” Without giving too much away, let’s just say that at first you think the episode is about surviving trauma before you think it’s about bullying before you think it’s about the lengths people will go to for internet fame before you think it’s about the particular derangement of an individual human soul. “New Year, New You” is good horror because its critique of human vanity uses the internet as a medium without reducing it to a cause. As William Burroughs said in another context, the evil was already there, waiting.
Overall, Into the Dark isn’t great horror, but it showcases such a broad collection of talent that each new episode is worth watching. And it’s a laudable experiment. As saturated as we might feel with binge-watching, we’re still in the early days of figuring out what new formats streaming services might allow. Into the Dark provides some measure of hope for the future of (what for some reason we still call) “TV” that streaming services are willing to continue to experiment with format and packaging in interesting ways. If only they would acknowledge the existence of true and unavoidable evil, then we’d really be in business.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.