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‘Channel Zero’ Is the Closest TV Has Come to Watching a Nightmare in Real Time

Across four seasons, the horror anthology became a beautiful vision of the subconscious monsters that can feel all too real.

CHANNEL ZERO: BUTCHER'S BLOCK -- "All You Ghost Mice" Episode 203 -- Pictured: Holland Roden as Zoe Woods -- (Photo by: Syfy)

“Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block”

Syfy

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch “Channel Zero: Shudder or AMC+ (all four seasons originally aired on Syfy)

There are times when living in the world of “Channel Zero” feels like a luxury. That may seem like an odd thing to say if you know that the four anthology seasons of the Syfy show were occasionally marked by brutal dismemberments, hypnotic cannibals, and childhood terrors made manifest. But even still, there’s an unusual calmness to how much of these seasons play out. Plenty of turmoil under the surface, to be sure, but “Channel Zero” was not a show prone to unnecessary chaos.

That’s particularly true of the opening season, “Candle Cove,” which sets a cross-generational story of childhood pain and uncertainty against the backdrop of a quiet town and a mysterious kids’ TV show. It’s often an eerie silence that sets over hospital rooms and woods and diner interiors, but a silence all the same. “Candle Cove,” like the three seasons that came after it, is based on internet-born horror fiction, and that idea of being detailed enough to unsettle and sparse enough to unsettle even more is carried out in each season after.

Arriving when the idea of someone directing an entire season of TV was still something of a novelty, “Channel Zero” also drew from having the cohesion that comes from having the same director for all six episodes. After Craig William Macneill on “Candle Cove” came Steven Piet on Season 2’s “No-End House,” which sees a group of friends entering a mysterious mansion and finding it almost impossible to leave. Arkasha Stevenson took the reins on “Butcher’s Block,” which tracks a pair of sisters in a new city drawn in by a mystical family living at the top of a strange, disconnected staircase. In the show’s final (to this point) season, E.L. Katz helped devise “The Dream Door,” a season tracing one couple’s attempts to outrun the secrets they’ve kept from each other.

These tales operate on their specifically calibrated sets of logic, where portals appear and the past becomes something you can see and even touch. It’s maybe the TV show that best represents what it feels like to live inside a nightmare, where something is noticeably wrong and the only solution is equal parts absurd and inevitable. Sometimes, it’s something otherworldly breaking through into some unassuming idyllic haven. The show also works in the other direction, when the people in focus are trying desperately to keep their humanity as some otherworldly realm tries to rip it from them.

That’s usually where the emptiness comes in. Abandoned buildings, vacant cul-de-sacs, wide open parks: The whole show plays out like a giant screen you can project your own insecurities onto. And aside from some climactic face-offs, “Channel Zero” is a show that withholds those big breakthroughs so that these characters can really grapple with the monsters they face. With such a specifically crafted atmosphere each season, it’s no wonder that creator Nick Antosca and the series’ writing staff kept coming up with ways to keep that bubble from bursting until absolutely necessary.

Some seasons are bleaker than others, and while “Channel Zero” isn’t exactly brimming with happy endings, it does have another nightmare-adjacent quality to it. Even through all the pain and viscera and decay, there’s a sense of resiliency that comes from emerging out on the other side. Eventually, you learn to teach yourself how to wake up when things seem at their worst. “Channel Zero” does that work for you, which makes it all the more worth going along for the journey.

Pair It With: The switch in source material makes it something all its own, but there’s an unmistakable thread of “Channel Zero” DNA in “Brand New Cherry Flavor,” a Netflix limited series that arrived earlier this summer. With Antosca as a co-showrunner alongside Lenore Zion (who wrote on “Dream Door”) and Stevenson directing the first episode, it’s easy to draw a connection between worlds where its characters are almost as drawn in by each new oddity as the audience is.

Other Fans: It feels like an oversimplification to call them “villains” but the various creature creations that pose trouble for the main characters are often season highlights. (They, in turn, made the human antagonists all the more sinister.) Troy James, the expert contortionist who gave life to Pretzel Jack, was a fantastic interview. (Maybe you spotted James in the recent episode of “What We Do in the Shadows,” where he plays a member of the wellness cult of reformed vampires that draws in Nandor.) Back for the show’s “Candle Cove” season, Bloody Disgusting spoke with Cassandra Consiglio, the person responsible for donning François Dagenais’ practical Tooth Child creation.

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