As vampire stories go, AMC’s adaptation of NOS4A2, from the novel of the same name by Joe Hill, marches to the beat of its own drummer. It's a beat that includes — among other things — the immortal Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), his Rolls Royce Wraith, a young aspiring artist with supernatural powers, dozens of lost children, a psychic bridge, a land of always Christmas, and more bad New England accents than you can shake a copy of Black Mass at. All of that is in addition to a series that swerves wildly between camp and horror, rarely sticking the landing on either.
Adapted for television by Jami O’Brien (Fear the Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels), the novel clearly presented a litany of challenges, what with its story requiring an extraordinary amount of explanation of its convoluted premise, the world it inhabits, and the specific rules to which its supernatural characters are beholden. O’Brien was tasked with making chauffeur fetishist Charlie Manx into a compelling villain when Manx kidnaps a young boy from his home in the middle of the night, luring the child into the aforementioned Rolls with a pile of Christmas presents, while his assistant (i.e., his Renfield) murders the boy's mother and the random dude she was sleeping with. More difficult yet is the challenge of watching Manx as he slowly Benjamin Buttons, feeding off the life force of the child he absconded with, all the while heavily promoting a magical place called Christmasland like he’s trying to sell the kid a timeshare.
Though Manx makes up a good portion of what drives the story, he’s barely in the first two episodes, ‘The Shorter Way’ and ‘The Graveyard of What Might Be.’ Instead, NOS4A2 spends most of its time wallowing in the sometimes brutal domestic tensions between the parents of Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings). Her parents, Chris (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, The Punisher) and Mr. Mercedes’ Virginia Kull as Linda (both of whom look approximately eight years older than their onscreen daughter) are complicated figures to say the least, and it’s understandable why O’Brien would think it necessary to devote so much time to them as a way of demonstrating who Vic is, both with and without her supernatural ability to find lost things.
Chris is a doting father who believes his daughter can achieve great things by pursuing art in college. He’s also an alcoholic who abuses his wife, and soon steps out on the family to take up with a woman name Tiffany (Jamie Neumann, The Deuce). Linda, meanwhile, doesn’t have her husband’s vices or violent temperament, but she doesn’t understand her daughter and passively aggressively asserts Vic’s life will amount to little more than cleaning the toilets of her wealthier friends.
As background on Vic, the deep dive into her family dysfunction deepens the audience’s understanding of her situation, even if it doesn’t necessarily do much in terms of furthering the plot. Instead, Vic’s story soon hinges on a psychic/supernatural covered bridge known as the Shorter Way. It’s essentially a form of fast-travel, like in a video game. The bridge also provides the answer to whatever she’s looking for in the form of graffiti spray painted on the walls. When Vic exits the other side of the bridge, she finds she’s been transported to wherever she needs to be. Her ability comes in handy first by helping her find her father’s missing watch, and later, her father himself, after he’s shacked up with Tiffany.
As with so many uncanny abilities, Vic’s fast travel and insight into lost things comes at a cost: she endures splitting headaches and her left eye looks like it was stung by a thousand bees. Sure, that’s bad, but it beats waiting in traffic or tossing your living room looking for your wallet. It also apparently puts Vic on Manx’s radar — or, more specifically, the supernatural radio in his Wraith. With the two on a collision course, Vic begins to use the Shorter Way with greater frequency and purpose after finding Maggie Leigh (Jahkara Smith), a librarian with a supernatural bag of Scrabble tiles, who enlists her in the search for the immortal man stealing children.
That’s a lot of setup to what is essentially an answer to the question: What if Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas went completely off the rails? In its first two hours, NOS4A2 feels top heavy and languorous, like O’Brien and his writers are hurriedly getting all the Vic stuff out of the way early instead of spreading it more evenly throughout the 10-episode season. And while the pacing gets off to a rocky start, the biggest issue with the series is really one of tone and execution. What should be a frightening story about a vampire stealing children to remain immortal comes off as a schlocky B-movie about a creepy old guy who’s hung up on Christmas and his (possibly) supernatural car.
Quinto delivers a fun performance and appears game to ham it up as Manx, following through on the sort of camp the series seems so drawn toward. But the level of exaggeration on display in many of his early scenes is noticeably incongruous from the issues of social class disparity and familial dysfunction the series is less successful at exploring, not to mention Vic’s burgeoning supernatural abilities that further distance one half of the story from the other. The disconnect is increasingly apparent the more NOS4A2 insists on hammering home the message that things are not all right in Vic’s home, and then cutting to a ridiculous scene where Bing Partridge (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) sees Manx’s visage wink at him in a full moon.
NOS4A2 proves too slow and plodding to generate much in the way of tension or genuine scare with regard to its unsettling premise. Moreover, its tonal inconsistencies reduce whatever horror elements are ingrained in Hill’s original story to little more than fascinating oddities, the potential of which are ultimately wasted due to the series’ inclination toward over the top theatricality.
NOS4A2 continues next Sunday with ‘The Graveyard of What Might Be’ @10pm on AMC.