Along with USA, Lifetime, and other veteran cable channels not known for chasing Emmys, Syfy unveiled an unusually ambitious roster of original programming last year. The Expanse, 12 Monkeys, The Magicians, and the Childhood's End miniseries were intricate serial narratives that signified a departure from Syfy's usual lineup. Each series prioritized humanism and interpersonal drama over budget prosthetics and technobabble. As Syfy president Dave Howe put it to TheWrap last year, the goal was "fewer, bigger, better"—and, presumably, to extend the channel's regular viewership beyond the ranks of one-time Babylon 5 enthusiasts and lovers of Sharknado-caliber kitsch.
The network's newest original series, Channel Zero , is evidence that, despite the modest-to-disappointing ratings of its ambitious 2015 offerings, "Peak TV"–era Syfy is still in its honeymoon phase. Channel Zero is Syfy's contribution to the still-burgeoning anthology series trend inspired by FX's American Horror Story. Each season (a second is already in development ) will be inspired by a different piece of "creepypasta"—that is, a web-circulated, usually-open-source horror short story or meme.
The series, produced by Chronicle and Victor Frankenstein writer Max Landis, requires nowhere near the "premium network scale" investment of interplanetary dramas like The Expanse or Childhood's End. Still, it remains to be seen whether such an esoterically branded show can be a viable commodity for Syfy—especially in a year in which the number of broadcast series is set to soar somewhere beyond 2015's all-time record of 409. The show's creative project is a difficult one as well: spinning five-and-a-half-hour narratives out of sketchy, thousand-word yarns.
The first season's inspiration—the story "Candle Cove," posted in 2009 by established internet horror writer and cartoonist Kris Straub—makes for particularly tricky source material, since its form contributes so heavily to its eerie appeal. In the tradition of stories by H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, and other seminal gothic horror writers, "Candle Cove" is written as a found document: a thread on a fictional message board about a mysterious public-access show. The commenters share memories of grotesque pirate puppets yammering cryptically while sailing toward a haunted cave, but there is an ongoing disagreement about whether they are remembering dreams or actual TV episodes. "And the camera would push in on [talking schooner] Laughingstock's face with each pause. YOU HAVE... TO GO... INSIDE," user "Skyshale033" recalls in Straub's story. "With his two eyes askew and that flopping foam jaw and the fishing line that opened and closed it. Ugh. It just looked so cheap and awful."
The first few times viewers see the definitely-cheap Laughingstock and his terrible cohort on Channel Zero: Candle Cove, the petrifying impact of Straub's description feels lost in translation. Quick glimpses of the show-within-a-show trigger melodramatic surges of string dissonance. Moments like these (including a would-be chilling description of dragging children's bodies out of the wood—"Minus their teeth, that is!"—fall flat.
But when Candle Cove's literal skeleton crew (watch out for that screaming, jaw-waggling Jawbone!) begins to seep into reality in the rural, geographically nondescript town of Iron Hill, the dread becomes more palpable. It's lucky that writer and creator Nick Antosca ( Hannibal) snagged a lead actor who can convincingly depict being constantly mortified. Paul Schneider stars as Mike Painter, a depressive child psychologist who is haunted by the 28-year-old murder of five boys in his middle school class, and the simultaneous disappearance of his twin brother Eddie, due to Candle Cove–related complications. Schneider shades his portrayal of fear in unusual ways, sometimes grinning faintly at unholy decades-old memories as if greeting an old friend instead of just recoiling in abject terror. Like Hannibal's Will Graham or The Leftovers ' Kevin Garvey, Painter is an unreliable, contradictory protagonist par excellence: a lightning rod for waking nightmares that threaten to swallow his whole reality—but he's also the person closest to understanding the series's central mystery. (His mother Marla—a surprising, convincingly American Fiona Shaw—isn't far behind him.)
Either despite of or because of its imperfections, Channel Zero succeeds as both Syfy's first attempt at horror television since its revitalization and as the first high-profile, corporate-funded creepypasta screen adaptation (the second, a Sony Screen Gems–produced "Slenderman" film, is due out next year). Antosca's protracted take on Straub's story feels pleasantly out-of-time, never basking in referentiality or overt nostalgia (read: Ryan Murphy). It makes clear that selling the apropos-of-nothing, absurdist chills of creepypasta requires pokerfaced commitment. A demented one-eyed first mate with a squirrel tail of a handlebar mustache and tall, pointy teeth named Horace Horrible? Sure! Channel Zero, once it settles, manages to let stupid-but-scary things be scary, depriving them of just enough logic and context without sabotaging the overall six-part story.
Its lopsided charm, though, reveals itself only when its shadowy storyline begins to peel off in weird, untoward directions. Who would have expected a show based on flash fiction, and Syfy in general—better known for fast-paced, episodic fantasias modeled after The Next Generation or The X-Files—to play the long game better than the short one? But similar to the channel's recent creative high-water mark The Expanse, promoting long-term investment through intricate storytelling is the order of the day, along with demonstrating knowledge of the human soul. Channel Zero does both, but only if cable viewers with too many cerebral dramas to choose from deign to wait around for Pirate Percy to edge Laughingstock slowly into the cove.