Feel that chill in the air? That’s the temperature dropping — or maybe it’s just all of the fall TV shows getting spookier!!!
It’s hard to say why this might be happening, here in late October, because it’s not as if there’s a holiday celebrating everything scary and creepy coming up soon or anything like that. But in the next few days, TV will bear the debuts of Legacies, the latest show to join The CW’s Vampire Diaries universe; Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix’s revamped spin on Sabrina the Teenage Witch; and the latest season of Syfy’s underrated horror anthology Channel Zero.
Oh, also, Sundance has a new season of its fabulously frenetic German series Deutschland 86, and Netflix has imported the British series Bodyguard, the biggest drama hit the BBC has aired in ages. Amazing!
Few of these shows are truly great, and as critics, we often have limited information on whether they’ll get better. (It’s rare to unprecedented for broadcast networks, especially, to send out many episodes for review beyond the first couple.) But there’s something in all of them worth checking out, especially if you’re a particular fan of their genres.
(A note: We typically only give ratings to shows where we feel we’ve seen enough episodes to judge how successful they will be in the long term. But this week, that’s most of them, as we’ve seen full seasons of Bodyguard and Channel Zero and the bulk of Deutschland.)
Bodyguard is thrilling, though it falls prey to some of the pitfalls of its genre
After Bodyguard premiered on the BBC in August, it quickly became the channel’s biggest drama of the year — as well as one of the biggest dramas of the last decade. As writer and director Jed Mercurio’s latest work makes the jump across the pond via Netflix, it’s clear to see why the program did so well. Despite an ultra-serious premise, the show is fun.
Richard Madden, best known as Robb Stark from Game of Thrones, stars as Sgt. David Budd, a British Army veteran assigned to protect Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) after impressing his bosses by foiling a suicide bomber threat. Hawes is terrific, fleshing out a role that could have been just a caricature of a career woman, and so is the rest of the cast (including The Terror standout Paul Ready). But the series is ultimately Madden’s, who handily proves he’s capable of much, much more than brooding as King in the North.
The stresses of Budd’s job and his past are tangible in his performance, as is the fact that Budd is more than a little unstable. When he obsessively replays a tape of Julia, in which she stands by her support of the war in Afghanistan, he looks more like a villain than the hero of the story. But Bodyguard doesn’t discount the ups and downs of his emotions; unlike most male protagonists, Budd is allowed to cry, to break down, without any shades of judgment cast by the camera’s gaze.
It’s an even-handedness that makes the show’s handling of the threat of terrorism feel somewhat strange. Political intrigue abounds, as per Home Secretary Montague’s position in the government, and it only falters when the show stoops to stereotypical portrayals of Muslim people, as TV series that have anything to do with foreign policy, such as Homeland, so often do.
It’s the biggest sore spot in the show, and persistent throughout the entire six-episode season. Just when you think the plot may have finally moved past it, it circles back, and leans into it in a way that ultimately pulls the rug out from under the finale.
The rest of the show, however, is a blast: It boasts terrific performances, unpredictable twists, and a stack of fanfic-favorite tropes (if the series’ title has you thinking of Whitney Houston, you’re frankly on the right track) executed with polish and flair. Though the thread of tension crackling at the show’s center doesn’t quite make it all the way through to the end, the journey is still enough of a roller coaster to make it well worth the ride. —Karen Han
All six episodes of Bodyguard are streaming on Netflix.
Legacies feels like exactly what it is: an attempt to keep the Vampire Diaries brand alive
For a few seasons there, The Vampire Diaries was one of TV’s most enthralling shows. It galloped when a walk would do, and it consumed wild plot twists like fire gobbling up oxygen. Like all shows that moved at such a frantic pace, it eventually became too ridiculous, but its central character dynamics were always so compelling that it could at least lean on those.
The same can’t really be said for its spinoff The Originals or, for that matter, for its grandchild, Legacies. Though Legacies is technically an Originals spinoff because it involves a character first introduced there, it is also set in Mystic Falls, the town where The Vampire Diaries was set, and it contains plenty of sexy teenage mayhem, just like The Vampire Diaries used to offer up on the regular.
Unfortunately, the pilot for Legacies feels more like a proof of concept than an exciting introduction to a TV show. Creator Julie Plec (co-creator of The Vampire Diaries and steward of this particular universe) has come up with an idea where Hope (Danielle Rose Russell) — the daughter of two Originals characters whose blood teems with vampire, werewolf, and witch DNA — starts attending a magic school that was set up in the Vampire Diaries finale. And who should work there but Vampire Diaries fan favorite Alaric (Matt Davis)?
That could be a charming premise, especially in the hands of Plec, who never met a dangerous hookup she couldn’t tease. But Legacies spends its first episode mostly racing around, trying to get everything in place for whatever nuttiness might lie ahead. By its end, you’ll have little idea of what the show looks like, beyond the vague sense that attractive 20-somethings playing teenagers will make out a lot.
Granted, there are worse reasons to make a TV show. And I’m not even all that concerned that “angst-ridden magic school” is already the premise of Syfy’s The Magicians, one of TV’s best shows. But Legacies will need a little more time in the oven before it can be as good as its grandparent. Then again, the same was true for The Vampire Diaries, which took about half a season to iron out its kinks. Maybe we should all check back in in March. —Todd VanDerWerff
Legacies debuts Thursday, October 25, at 9 pm Eastern on The CW.
Deutschland 86 is a kicky spy sequel with great action and sneaky depth
If you missed Sundance’s Deutschland 83 when it debuted in 2015 — becoming the first German-language series to air on American television — you missed a treat. The ever-so-slightly trippy tale of a young East German man pressed into service as a spy in West Germany, Deutschland made for an enjoyable companion to something like The Americans, brimming with the passions of youth rather than the muted tensions of adulthood.
It also had more action sequences, as well as a more direct portrayal of both sides of the Cold War, with multiple stories set on both sides of the Berlin Wall. The series won a Peabody and an International Emmy, and gained a surprisingly large cult following around the globe.
The follow-up series Deutschland 86 (give yourself a point if you guessed that it’s set in 1986) reunites most of the characters from the initial series, but it has the definite feel of a sequel more than it does a second season, perhaps because three years have gone by, in our reality as well as the show’s.
It’s shifted locations — though Berlin is still important, much of this season’s action takes place across several countries in Africa — as well as deepened its themes of loyalty to country, to family, and to friends. It’s reminiscent of John le Carré’s many books about George Smiley, the veteran spy whose perspective the great novelist used to dissect the end of the Cold War.
Through the first six episodes (Sundance made all 10 available to critics — a great sign of confidence — but I only had time to screen six), 86 sometimes strains to fit every single important issue and idea of the 1980s into its narrative. There’s a storyline about the AIDS crisis that feels a little tacked on, at least so far, and the expansion of the story to more fully involve the CIA similarly feels like the show is grasping for capital-I Importance just a bit.
And yet both Deutschland seasons are tapestries more than anything else. Where The Americans was intimate, Deutschland loves to lose itself in sprawl. On some level, both of these series are about how little the forces that run the universe — be they capitalist or communist — care about the lives of those living under their thumb. It’s telling that part of 86’s political storyline revolves around various countries’ response to apartheid in South Africa, a state-sanctioned creation of a permanent underclass that ostensibly democratic governments have to be shamed into denouncing.
But in the world of Deutschland, people are always sanctioning the creation of underclasses. It’s just something humans do. The series is at its best when it captures the small, human moments that play out amid these flashes of chaos — stolen kisses and thwarted connections and pitched hand-to-hand battles. It’s not perfect, but if it strove for clean perfection, it wouldn’t be nearly as good. —TV
Deutschland 86 debuts Thursday, October 25, at 11 pm Eastern on Sundance. It will then air two new episodes per week, on Thursdays and Fridays, for three weeks, before airing its remaining four episodes on Thursday, November 15; Friday, November 16; and Saturday, November 17. If that confused you, you’re probably best off just streaming episodes as they appear on Sundance’s website. Deutschland 83 is available on Hulu.
Channel Zero’s latest season explores the gory, terrifying heart of marriage
Syfy’s Channel Zero is one of TV’s hidden treats. Each new season of six episodes adapts a new creepypasta, those supposedly true, terrifying tales that lurk in backwater corners of the internet, like the subreddit r/nosleep. They usually take the basic idea of the story (a bizarre kids’ show, or a staircase appearing in the middle of nowhere), then filtering it through creator Nick Antosca’s sensibility, which means all three seasons of the show so far have indulged in rich ruminations on family relationships, alongside odd creatures lurching about empty suburban backstreets.
The new fourth season, The Dream Door, adapts a story by Charlotte Bywater whose premise is, more or less, “What if, all of a sudden, there was a door in your basement where there wasn’t one before?” Antosca and director E.L. Katz (who directs all six episodes) turn this question into an examination of marriage, of how little you might know about your partner, of what might be hiding behind their magic door that’s not hiding behind yours.
The two are ably assisted by Maria Sten and Brandon Scott as Jill and Tom, the couple at the story’s center, and by a terrifying demonic creation named Pretzel Jack, a contortionist clown drawn from Jill’s dreams and/or nightmares. He flings himself about the screen like a Slinky, knife in hand, all the better to stab anybody who might hurt Jill. And that number could include Tom.
If you’ve watched the other three seasons of Channel Zero, The Dream Door could feel slightly derivative, particularly of the second season, No-End House (still the series’ best). If nothing else, it only underlines how same-y so many creepypastas are. So many of these tales resemble the empty, modern homes they’re often set in, formed by the same cookie cutter but filled with ancient, primal terrors nonetheless, as if acknowledging that the scariest thing about modernity is how it numbs you in a way that distracts you from what you should really be scared of.
The Dream Door sags considerably in its midsection, but it ends well. And any time Pretzel Jack appears on screen, it’s understandable if you feel low-grade terrified. But should Channel Zero be granted more seasons (please, Syfy!), it might do the series well to leave the drab confines of suburbia that both it and creepypastas in general can feel trapped in behind. —TV
Channel Zero: The Dream Door debuts Friday, October 26, at 11 pm Eastern on Syfy. One new episode will air each night at 11 pm through Wednesday, October 31. Hey, that’s Halloween! Stream previous seasons on Shudder.
- PBS’s Native America (9 pm Eastern on Tuesdays) is a massive four-part documentary miniseries uncovering the history of Native Americans across the Western Hemisphere. If you have any interest at all in this subject matter, it’s well worth checking out.
- Paramount Network’s long-beleaguered TV miniseries adaptation of Heathers will finally air on American television, after several months of delay and the complete removal of one episode that was dubbed “too controversial.” It’s being burned off, two episodes per night, from Thursday, October 25, through Monday, October 29. You can also watch the whole thing on Paramount’s website. We weren’t offered screeners, but the reviews from critics who were aren’t promising.
- Netflix’s big launch for the week is its new version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch now entitled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Friday). Read our full review here.
- It’s Christmas movie season on Hallmark again, with the debut of Christmas at Pemberley Manor (8 pm Eastern on Saturday). Hey, we almost made it to Halloween before Christmas movie season started. Almost!
- Two brand new late-night talk shows launch on Sunday: E! and Busy Philipps’s Busy Tonight (10 pm Eastern on Sunday) and Netflix’s Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj (Sunday). We’ve seen neither, but we wish Philipps and Minhaj only the best.