Make TV Scare Again: trick-or-treat eye candy

Is there any medium as creatively bankrupt as television? Is there any genre as creatively bankrupt as horror? As a rule, of course. We’re here for the exceptions. Here are a couple of recommendations for TV horror that wears its creativity with unique visual flair.

After the jump, a cartoon and a period piece

Chris Hornbostel: Gravity Falls
Let’s get this taken care of right off the bat: yes, I am very seriously recommending a Disney cartoon series, one that is played for laughs and sort of looks like Rugrats or some other kid-friendly nonsense, as a TV series to watch to get in the Halloween spirit. Come fight me!

During this time of year, its easy to get really deep into the woods on gloomy, heavy entertainment. Which can be great, because of the thrill and excitement we derive from freaking ourselves out a little. But seasonal entertainment this time of year can also start to feel like a weight if you overindulge. Gravity Falls is many wonderful things, including creepy. It’s never gloomy though, and at its peak it is some of the most wonderful television to have aired in the last few years. And yes, the show is perfectly pitched to the season. The titular town of Gravity Falls and our protagonist twins Dipper and Mabel Pines ares clearly in great debt to the influence of Twin Peaks and The X-Files.

We learn fairly early in the show’s two season run that things in the town of Gravity Falls are often very odd. Monsters lurk in the forests. The local 7-11 is haunted. There are zombies wandering around. All the townsfolk we meet have secrets. The 12-year-old Pines twins discover all this when they come to spend the summer with their Grunkle Stan at his cheesy tourist trap, the Mystery Shack. There are mysterious happenings every week, but the show also chains episodes together with intriguing breadcrumbs and callbacks as it builds to a three part series finale in the second season.

The way the show negotiates each episode, skillfully blending bits of nostalgia, creepiness, and a genuine affection for its characters is a big part of the magic spell it weaves. There is a sweetness at the core of the show, at times with a vibe not at all unlike Parks & Recreation. Like that comedy series, this show also builds itself creatively as it goes. If the first few episodes are merely clever, by the second season it becomes a tour de force. At that point Gravity Falls not only displays some of the best writing to be found in all of television, it also delightfully subverts conventions by playing with the animation styles and narrative constructions. When the series concludes, it feels like a star athlete retiring at the top of his or her game. There is no decline phase for viewers to suffer through.

Gravity Falls is the brainchild of wunderkind writer and animator Alex Hirsch, and owes a great deal to his vision for what the show would be (much of it based on his own real life with a twin sister and cantankerous grandfather.) Even so, the cast takes what is already charming and clever into something memorable. Jason Ritter is good as Dipper Pines, and Hirsch himself takes on the voicing of multiple characters. Kristen Schaal is the real hero here, though. Mabel Pines is the character she was born to play and Schaal makes her exuberant and funny and sweet while infusing her with surprising depth. Throw in Linda Cardellini–who should be in everything, because she is amazing–and some terrific recurring cameos from people like Nick Offerman, Patton Oswalt, J. K. Simmons and Will Forte among others and you’ve got a pretty unbeatable stable of voice talent taking the show to ever increasing heights.

I’m not sure Disney ever knew exactly what it had on its hands with Gravity Falls. It took them over a year, multiple time slots, and even a change in networks to air all 20 of the first season episodes. Their handling of season two wasn’t much better. Although the series is perfectly great as Mouse Network entertainment, it’s easy to wonder what might have been had the show found a more stable, older-skewing audience on Netflix or Adult Swim. Even so, the two seasons we did get are worth celebrating. This is a wonderfully funny, very sweet, and often spooky show that both parents and kids can watch together, each thinking the show was aimed squarely at their own age group.

You can watch Gravity Falls on Hulu.

Tom Chick: Penny Dreadful
Next summer’s Tom Cruise mummy movie is the start of a new franchise about old characters. Universal hopes to revive their old-timey movie monsters, using modern celebrities, blockbuster budgets, and a Marvel-style shared universe. But Showtime has already beat them to it, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. Penny Dreadful is an extravagant and energetic slurry of classic horror. Werewolves, vampires, witches, demons, Frankensteins, Jekylls and Hydes! The only thing missing is a mummy.

The key to Penny Dreadful is that it never smirks. It is deadly earnest. When it’s silly, it has no idea that it’s silly. It embraces its soap opera seriousness, and it’s going to serve up sumptuous production values to prove it. Oh, the sets, the costumes, and even the occasional non-terrible CG! These production values aren’t wasted. Penny Dreadful isn’t just a few-holds-barred period piece, lavishly realizing the time when horror itself was born as a genre. It has an artful eye for visual composition, palettes, and shadows, all of which complement its gleeful willingness to indulge in sex, gore, and profanity.

Penny Dreadful is at its best when it’s showing its feminine side. The men in the show are mostly just pretty faces. Josh Hartnett’s “aw, shucks” cowboy, Timothy Dalton’s dashing explorer, Reeve Carney’s droll and sleepy Dorian Gray, and Luke Treadaway’s scientist/skeptic flitter about the periphery like lace trim. And as much as I’ve enjoyed some of Rory Kinnear’s performances, he’s horribly miscast as a Frankenstein monster dressed like a Marilyn Manson cosplayer. No one has it as bad as Wes Studi’s embarrassingly token Indian chief in season three. “Do your people always speak so enigmatically?” he’s asked. “Yes,” he replies, without elaboration.

The women fare much better and frankly, they’re the reason to be here. The adorable Jessica Barden gets a delicious turn in season three. Patti LuPone gracefully introduces eminence and gravity. Perdita Weeks’ vampire huntress deserved more screen time before the show was cancelled. Penny Dreadful is at its absolute best when Helen McCrory is vamping it up in season two (you won’t soon forget her stroll through a field of cattle). It’s also at its worst when it’s pushing poor Billie Piper beyond the limits of her own melodramatics.

But this is Eva Green’s show. She takes to it with the seriousness of Peter Cushing in a Hammer horror film. She never wavers, she never underplays, she shows no vanity, and she never shies away from committing to the worst dialogue the series has to offer. “I’ve never liked trees,” she says, reminiscing darkly about her mentor burned alive while tied to a tree. “Not a one.” It is not written as a joke. Eva Green does not deliver it like one. You will truly believe she has never liked a tree.

So like most episodic television, it’s not exactly consistent. Apparently no one on the production stuff got the memo that werewolves are dumb, so there’s a lot of werewolf nonsense that’s supposed to be Important. But if you consider the first season as its attempt to find its way, and the third season an almost literal scattering to the four winds, you’ll still get a solid second season with some gorgeous visuals and standout performances. Penny Dreadful isn’t “lean forward” TV that demands your attention (stand by for this week’s Friday favorites!). But it’s certainly an eyeful for any horror aficionado.

Penny Dreadful is on Hulu and Netflix.

Tomorrow: where everybody knows your name
This is a part of out ongoing effort to Make October Scare Again!