With The River, a show with respectable horror credentials and an intriguing premise that still managed to fail spectacularly in its first two episodes, I’ve found myself thinking a lot this week about what makes a horror show work. I’m a person who loves horror media in every possible form: books, movies, comics, theatre - well, I’ll stop short of listing music here. I look forward to every horror show I hear about, never losing hope that I’ll discover a series that has the power to enthrall, frighten and gross me out on a weekly basis. I don’t believe horror should be more difficult to capture on television than in film: despite minuscule budgets and cheerful commercial breaks, shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files managed to be dark, suspenseful, gory and brilliant on a mostly weekly basis for at least half of their seasons. That may sound like faint praise, but most shows, unless canceled too soon, go on too long. It’s always either Freaks and Geeks or The Simpsons, so I certainly don’t hold it against two of my favorite shows for succumbing to the fade away method of television rather than burning out too soon.
I’ve watched at least several episodes of almost every horror series that’s aired over the past twenty years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the successful shows share one inimitable attribute: a sense of humor. Not to say that they’re all silly spoofs, but the best shows don’t take themselves too seriously. The moments that are bleak, dramatic and poignant are made more so in contrast to the often more frequent moments of levity spread liberally throughout the writing. Joss Whedon is the master of this: Buffy offers hilarity in nearly every episode, through the characters’ quips or often through the thematic irony that permeates the sharp writing by Jane Espenson, Whedon himself or any of the other talented writers they had on staff. But no one who has seen the series could say that Buffy is a wholly lighthearted show. Episodes like “Passion,” “Seeing Red,” or good lord, “The Body” pack a grave emotional punch. But for every scene like this (please, get out your tissues):
there are plenty of scenes like this:
When Supernatural is flying high, it can be an extraordinarily accomplished program. The show was intended by creator Eric Kripke to end after five seasons, and if it had concluded with that remarkable Season 5 finale - the little toy soldier in the car, Sam’s sacrifice, Dean on Lisa’s doorstep – well, the show would have been as close to perfect as any genre show, never without their problems, can get. The series has continued without Kripke’s involvement and I still enjoy it, but those first five seasons are truly wonderful. And while Supernatural never shies away from fully awesome gore and jump scares aplenty, not to mention a healthy helping of tragedy for those unlucky Winchesters, the series is at its best when the writers temper the blood and tears with the comedy they do so well. I’ll always think “Mystery Spot” is one of the greatest episodes of Supernatural, because the episode offers a perfect marriage of gore, tragedy and humor. Dean’s many ridiculous deaths handily provide the gore and humor for the ep – but it’s the toll this takes on Sam, witnessing his brother's death over and over in an endless loop, powerless to stop it, that makes “Mystery Spot” such a powerful episode.
On Twin Peaks, one of the greatest genre shows in history, David Lynch managed the balance of humor and horror better than anyone. The grief her friends and family suffer from Laura’s death, coupled with non-stop quirky townie action (and the talented yet unconventional methods of Special Agent and “strong sender” Dale Cooper) made for a show whose tone was never predictable, yet always assured. The X-Files, while more of a horrific sci-fi show, generally presented a very sober tone, yet Mulder and Scully’s banter and their little character quirks always offered the perfect amount of levity precisely when it was most needed. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Tales From the Crypt, The Outer Limits - each of these shows moderated their scares with varying degrees of humor. Sometimes (in the case of Hitchcock and Twilight) with merely an ironic tone; sometimes, as with Tales From the Crypt, with outright mirth. None of these shows may be perfect, but when they're playing at the top of their game, for my money, there's nothing more entertaining.
But recently, the trend for genre shows is headed in a very dolorous direction. The Walking Dead is possibly the worst example of this. Can you think of another show that takes itself more seriously? If it weren’t for Glenn and Daryl lightening the mood now and again, I don’t know if I could stand to watch. American Horror Story is at least funny, albeit unintentionally so. Given many interviews, I have no reason to believe that creator Ryan Murphy has the least sense of humor. The comedy in American Horror Story is due solely to unplanned absurdity and to Jessica Lange’s general perfection. And do you remember that show Harper’s Island? Oh, how I wanted to love that. I watched the whole thing, and it was shot quite beautifully and managed to maintain a fairly spooky atmosphere, but talk about dour. That show could have seriously used some light-hearted fun.
The River has so many problems that for me to point the finger at its overly earnest solemnity as the worst culprit, I would be neglecting at least a dozen more pressing issues. But it’s the one obstacle that I find most prevalent in unsuccessful genre shows. Pompous gravity offers no favors to fiction. Lighten up, everybody.