For me, Syfy’s Channel Zero was one of TV’s biggest surprises of 2016. The series is a horror anthology based on “creepypasta” (spooky stories posted on the internet in hopes of keeping readers up at night), and while its six-episode first chapter, Candle Cove, didn’t quite nail every second of every episode, it came close enough — and featured such creepy imagery — that I gobbled it all up all the same. (If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s currently available to stream on Syfy’s website, with minimal ads.)
But the show’s six-episode second chapter, debuting this week, is terrific from stem to stern, taking a story that would seem unlikely to translate well to television and turning it into an eerie, Twilight Zone-style tale of suburban conformity, post-high school depression, and the inability to escape the legacy of one’s parents.
Subtitled No End House (which is technically the second half of season one; Channel Zero’s already-ordered second season will consist of the show’s third and fourth chapters), the six-episode story smartly jumps ahead of your expectations. When its two main characters, Margot (Amy Forsyth) and Jules (Aisha Dee), think they’ve escaped the titular house, in which each of six rooms is scarier than the last, viewers will immediately assume they haven’t, especially since there are more episodes to fill.
Channel Zero creator Nick Antosca knows this — and he’s right there, ready to anticipate your expectations and keep you from getting bored. Of course Margot and Jules haven’t escaped, and of course they (and the audience) will realize it. So Antosca is forced to get creative in how he keeps them trapped in this drab, suburban wasteland, which looks real but has a distracting, hollow feel. And in the meantime, we get to know some of the locals in this little neighborhood and witness their ... unusual ways of life.
There are bits and pieces of No End House that don’t entirely cohere with the rest, and the contents of some of the rooms in the house itself are pretty bland, all things considered. But the real meat concerns what happens when Margot and Jules try their best to escape their new reality — and then start to question whether they should.
No End House also features wonderfully unsettling performances from Forsyth, Dee, and John Carroll Lynch (who stars as Margot’s dead father, in flashbacks, though the fact that Lynch is such a well-known character actor will likely tip you off that his role will expand past those flashbacks). All convey the notion of reaching a place where reality just doesn’t feel real any more, even though you know it is. Forsyth, in particular, grounds so many of the series’ musings on memory and pain, and the ways they interweave in our brains.
Plus, director Steven Piet shoots Canadian landscapes with an eye for their empty grandeur. The more we get to know the world of No End House, the more it seems like our world, only different. Some series would exploit that sense of familiarity to muse on how you can never know what’s real, but Channel Zero uses it to consider all the ways we might find a path through the dark, to some new understanding of ourselves.
Channel Zero: “No End House” debuts Wednesday, September 20, at 10 pm Eastern on Syfy. The first season, “Candle Cove,” is available to stream on Syfy’s website.