“Lore” is a very successful podcast, but its televised adaptation does very little to earn the new medium. Yes, the six-part series pulls out every trick in the TV playbook in an attempt to make these factual explanations of urban myths visually stimulating: There are creepy animated sequences, choice bits of archival footage, and a number of live-action scenes performed by familiar character actors.
And yet its Aaron Mahnke’s blunt narration and gag-inducing sound effects that make up the best bits of the first three episodes, both of which stem from the series’ origins — and more effective incarnation, being audio storytelling.
“Lore” is an episodic anthology series, telling a different fact-based tale every episode. Each entry clocks in between 39 and 45 minutes, and opens with a disclaimer: “Everything you’re about to see is based on actual people and events.” The clarification proves necessary quickly, not only for the eerily wild events being chronicled but for how they’re depicted.
The premiere starts with a haunting account of a best friend who’s accidentally buried alive, before transitioning into a separate story about one father’s twisted quest to keep his sickly son from dying. (It also has a twist ending that almost justifies the rather dull preface.) The second episode focuses on asylums and a specific doctor known for performing lobotomies. The third (and final episode provided for critics) examines a condition where a person suddenly believes their friend or family member has been replaced by a “deceiver” — another person who looks exactly like their loved one.
Digging up dead bodies to cure the living? Spearing chunks of the brain through people’s eyes while they’re wide awake? Real-life “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”?! This is crazy stuff! “Lore” doesn’t diminish the ultimate appreciation of these historical lessons so much as its presentation lessons their impact.
The most problematic elements are also the most traditionally cinematic: the live-action recreations. Take the first episode, “They Made a Tonic.” Set in Rhode Island during 1882, the story of George Brown and his experimental methods to save the life of his son is told primarily with actors. They do a fine job, spouting expository dialogue and conveying believable emotional reactions, but any drama sustained within the characters is lost when Mahnke’s narration kicks in, talking over medical diagrams and old drawings.
it’s informative, yes, but it takes audiences out of the narrative. “Lore” tries to have it both ways, but you can tell its primary purpose is educational: This series wants to be informative. It can entertain with its information, but the audience has no investment in what’s going on beyond curiosity, and live-action scenes take you out of what’s happening more than it endears audiences to the real people.
In the second episode, “Lore” starts to feel like a legitimate horror show. These live-action scenes, where a doctor sticks long, thin rods up patients’ noses and through their eye sockets, are anything but boring. They’re a little redundant, but they’re pretty gross. It’s the first time and only time audiences will feel squeamish during the first three episodes, and it’s almost entirely due to the sound editing. If you do watch Episode 2, “Echoes,” try closing your eyes and listening: The squishing noises are what’s disturbing, and looking away doesn’t offer any reprieve from the heebie-jeebies.
Considering “Lore’s” genesis, it’s a little surprising the TV series exists at all. Such effective audio storytelling already left its mark on the podcast world, and the Amazon adaptation doesn’t elevate things at all. If anything, it’s less effective because you can’t watch it in your car or while out for a jog. TV shows have to justify taking up all your time and attention, and “Lore” doesn’t make the cut.
“Lore” Season 1 is streaming now exclusively on Amazon Prime.