The Creepshow reboot proves TV can still do more with less
The new horror anthology series showcases tight storytelling and is a welcome antidote to streaming bloat
Bite-sized television is increasingly difficult to come by amid a sea of overlong streaming shows. But Creepshow is here to help fill the void.
Premiering Thursday on the horror streaming service Shudder, this new series revives the franchise spawned by George A. Romero and Stephen King's 1982 film of the same name, again offering spooky stand-alone stories while emulating the experience of flipping through a comic-book like Tales from the Crypt. Its premiere gets the series off on the right foot with some refreshingly concise storytelling.
That's what many expected from the recent reboot of The Twilight Zone, seeing as one of the appeals of Rod Serling's classic series was the format. Its 25-minute episodes were ideal for short and sweet stories that played with a simple premise without unnecessary bloat. Yet in CBS All Access' 2019 update, bloat was The Twilight Zone's middle name, a symptom of a larger problem: streaming shows that know no restraint.
It took another few months, but the show The Twilight Zone could have been — one that stands apart in its succinctness — may have arrived. While 45 minutes long, the first episode of Creepshow consists of not one but two stories, meaning each goes by in a flash at just over 20 minutes. Hallelujah.
The debut segment, based on the King short story "Gray Matter," never overstays its welcome. The premise: a young boy arrives at a convenience store amid a dangerous storm and explains to the shopkeeper that back at home, something is terribly wrong with his father, who has "changed" in a way he doesn't specify. Two men, played by Tobin Bell and Giancarlo Esposito, go to his home to investigate, while back at the store, the boy explains more.
The efficiency with which "Gray Matter" sets up this intriguing premise immediately evokes the original Twilight Zone. It takes literally two minutes for the mystery to present itself, and the episode glides through the rest of the story at a brisk pace before concluding long before we've had enough. There's a sense of urgency here often missing in streaming shows, including the new Twilight Zone, which in its punishingly-long pilot was just getting around to the opening title sequence by the halfway point of Creepshow's first story.
The second story, "The House of the Head," similarly presents its hilarious yet eerie elevator pitch in about three minutes. A young girl discovers the dolls in her dollhouse are moving on their own, with a mysterious tiny severed head appearing inside it out of thin air. Any anthology inevitably ranges in quality from story to story, and "The House of the Head" is a bit of a step down from "Gray Matter," largely because it plays the same notes too often. Still, at 20 minutes, it's much easier to get away with an episode that's mildly repetitive for a brief stretch of time than it is at an hour.
Indeed, Creepshow's format allows for laser-focused concepts that simply couldn't work at a more extended length. Think, for instance, of the classic Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder," which takes place entirely inside a hospital and is essentially a long buildup to a single reveal. Had Serling that season been aiming for hour-long stories with tons of characters and plotting, the concept may have been discarded as not substantial enough, and we would have been deprived of one of television's all-time classic episodes.
The freedom that comes with existing on a streaming service often brings bloat, since there's no need to adhere to strict time blocks on a network's schedule. Yet Creepshow's breezy first episode proves that, for pacing purposes, those limitations are often a good thing, and it's great to see a series willingly pare itself down to the bare essentials. It very much was an intentional choice, as executive producer Greg Nicotero explained to Slashfilm, "there's a lot to be said in this day and age for bite-sized meals."
Creepshow's budget is also clearly fairly small, yet many of the all-time classic anthology shows were similarly minimalist, with entire episodes of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents taking place mostly in one location with only a handful of characters but having no problem keeping our attention. That's also true of both of Creepshow's first two stories; there are only nine significant speaking characters across the two segments, each of which is primarily contained to two main locations. With more resources, the premiere may have ended up too unwieldy, detracting from its ability to deliver a quickfire one-two punch of scares.
Anthology shows have grown quite popular in recent years, but rather than bringing short stories to life, many have sought to emulate movies, so much so that episodes of Black Mirror are actually considered films at the Emmys. Outside of anthologies, dramedies like Fleabag and Russian Doll have been rightfully praised for their tight, half-hour episodes, but those aren't typically distinct units and are clearly made with binge-watching in mind. A select number of shows in recent years have been carrying the half-hour drama anthology torch, including HBO's Room 104. But considering the format's effectiveness, and its growing appeal as an alternative to shows requiring more significant time commitments, it's rarer than it should be.
It remains to be seen if Creepshow can maintain its momentum and whether, heaven forbid, it might eventually start experimenting with longer stories. But this first episode is proof that sometimes in television, less is more.
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