By Peg Aloi
We are seeing some very fine horror these days. You can’t throw a (fire) stick without having it land in some rotting corpse, a spooky cave, or in a serial killer’s cup of coffee.
The world is, quite literally, on fire. And I know you’re there, like me, ranting about the world’s problems and our disastrous government and the weakness (or downright evil) of humans everywhere. Either over drinks in your local watering hole or on social media. And it doesn’t feel like you can do very much, so you retreat after your long working day to consume stories of people who are happy, fulfilled, in love or maybe, just maybe, having a much, much worse time of it than you are. Recent research shows us that many people enjoy consuming horror because it lessens their levels of stress. Who knows why this works? But it seems to, and so it must be said that some of my favorite television offerings this past year were in the realm of horror.
And we’re seeing some very fine horror these days indeed. From established networks like FX and HBO, to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and now Shudder (devoted exclusively to horror), you can’t throw a (fire) stick without having it land in some rotting corpse, spooky cave, or serial killer’s cup of coffee. With that in mind, I offer you my favorite new TV shows from 2019. If you didn’t get time to watch them last year they’re still around for your pleasure. They’re not all horror, mind you. Because, please remember, life is not all bad. Hang in there. Help others. Let’s make this new year a better one.
RUSSIAN DOLL. I still think about the finale of this show almost every day. And I suppose that’s good, because there is a second season in the works, despite it’s ending on a perfect New York note. Lesley Headland, Amy Poehler, and star Natasha Lyonne’s collaborative creation features a Manhattan coder (Lyonne) whose chaotic life becomes the stuff of a surreal jazz improvisation when she (repeatedly) experiences the moments leading up to her death. There are so many layers here, and the whip smart dialogue is almost too intricate to keep up with. It’s not quite horror but it’s often horrifying and occasionally disturbing and it’s definitely steeped in talk of death and dying. Watch this one again and get your year off to a good start. If you’re going in for the first time, resist the urge to binge all of these 30-minute episodes in one go; savor its brilliance and beauty and boldness.
DARK. Time travel, nuclear radiation, and general small town ennui: what do they have in common? In a small German community located by a nuclear power facility, an intriguing series of phenomena centers on a missing boy. Dark’s strange mix of the fantastical and the mundane makes it very compelling indeed. The series is brilliantly written, acted, designed, and directed. The second season dove more deeply into the metaphysics of it all, but theory is always grounded in very human experience. Do you enjoy intelligent, stunning television that commands your attention and pricks your heart with existential terror? If so, this one’s for you.
CASTLE ROCK. I waited too long to get into this relatively new Hulu series, but boy, am I all in now. Having been a rabid Stephen King fan from the time I was 15 or so, this show’s central conceit (tales set in the fictional small town in Maine that hosts many of King’s novels and stories) worried me at first. Would the references be too heavy-handed or corny? Well, at times they are, but for the most part references to the original texts are woven with great subtlety and ingenuity into this wholly new creation (think Fargo, but with a New England sensibility). Then there’s the stellar casting (Sissy Spacek! the late Sam Shepard! Tim Robbins! Andre Holland! Melanie Lynskey!) and letter-perfect period details (stories weave back and forth in time). While horror is at the heart of Castle Rock, the stories aren’t all supernatural or evil; there’s plenty of human drama in all of its ecstasy, pride, and pain. This isn’t just great horror TV, it’s great TV, period.
CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES. They say Americans are fascinated with serial killers, and maybe that’s why our recent television stories are filled with them (Dexter, Hannibal, You). But Ted Bundy was real, and this excellent documentary series explores the evil thoughts and deeds of the man who confessed to murdering several dozen women in the 1970s, some of whom were never found. Joe Berlinger helmed this one, as well as the 2019 fictionalized feature Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, (both for Netflix). No doubt his award-winning work on true crime documentaries (like the Paradise Lost trilogy) with partner Bruce Sinofsky led to this tour de force of compelling exposition, based on an archival interview with Bundy on Death Row. I binged this in one night and I’m not sure it was a good idea. True crime aficionados and lovers of crisply made documentaries, make sure you see this one.
MARIANNE. Netflix offers some terrific foreign language series (be sure to choose subtitles and not dubbing). France has been putting out some terrific horror TV in recent years, and Marianne is the latest Gallic offering that is bloody, horrific, and suspenseful, in roughly that order. A young horror novelist is haunted by her upbringing in a coastal town, and leaves her high profile book tour in Paris to explore why terrible things continue to happen to her childhood friends. There is witchcraft and evil at work, and more than a little provincial prejudice. This one genuinely freaked me out, so intense was its violence and gore. But I loved every minute of it. It’s one season and very binge-worthy. Warning: I’d leave the lights on if I were you.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.