So, apparently it’s now part of American mainstream culture that Mike Flanagan releases a new binge-able horror series every year around late September/early October. And if you read my last post, you’ll know that Midnight Mass ranks as one of my ten favorite horror things. Hence, what follows is a critique of the trend writ large, not Flanagan himself.
Burnt Orange and I watched the first episode of this year’s drug: The Midnight Club, a late-night, mildly haunting, ‘the real horror is mental health’ drama about terminally ill teens who live in a hospice waiting to die.
The title refers to a secret ‘club’ that the teens form, which is secret only from the adults – literally all the teens are in the club, since there are only eight of them. In this club, they share scary stories to cope with the fact that they’re dying. And they have a pact, where if one of them dies, they will make contact from the afterlife.
So… At the end of episode one, we both had an odd feeling. It was like we’d been drugged – we felt relaxed, a bit sleepy, but also like we wanted more, but not because the show was spectacular, it was just comfortable. But it was involuntary – like the show had pulled a fast one on our brains, and tricked us into thinking it was a TV show, when in reality it was just dopamine-bombs strung together and detonated at perfect intervals.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how most content works. Between the combination of sight and sound, story and silence, suspense and satisfaction, most movies and TV shows are nothing more than drugs. Which, not surprisingly, America is very good at manufacturing and distributing. Burnt Orange and I have been discussing this theory for a while now, and this latest series is a peak example of the principle at work.
For example: there’s something extra powerful about teen dramas – they seem to activate the part of our brain that longs for a more innocent, carefree, but still self-aware stage of life. The Midnight Club checks off that box. And it’s set in the 90’s, so it also checks off the nostalgia box – a tactic commonly used to induce familiarity and thereby comfort.
Then there’s the actual plot: the teens take turns sharing stories, so it follows that each episode is some combination of real-life drama, followed by at least one of them telling a story (if the format of the first episode is any indicator). Sure enough, doing a quick synopsis review reveals that, for the most part, that’s the general narrative flow.
Which means, there’s a hook to get you to watch the next episode. Sort of like how Thirteen Reasons Why hooked you with the mystery of ‘who will be the next person on the tapes?’, this hooks you with ‘who will tell the next story, and what will it be?’
On top of that, our brains have been conditioned to expect a new Flanagan ‘hit’ (pun intended) around this time every year. Something scary enough to qualify as horror, calming enough to not make you stop watching, and unique enough that even if the elements feel familiar, you’ll keep watching out of curiosity.
He even re-uses cast members, so it gives you an alertness as you look for cameos, coupled with a nostalgia burst when you find them. This is just a form of easter-egg hunting – an addictive tactic that he also utilized in Hill House when he had hidden ghosts throughout the episodes.
You add all that up, and what seemed like a wholesome, spooktacular show is really just your next dose of addictive entertainment. It feels great in the moment, until you realize you’ve spent ten hours of your life on something that, with a clear perspective, was actually very mediocre. Nothing more than a mash-up of generic horror tropes that’s manufactured to be as comfortable and addictive as possible.
Again, this is no fault of Flanagan’s. Midnight Mass has similar addictive qualities, but I’ll at least give it credit for it’s sheer originality. Which makes sense – it’s the only of his four series that is his original idea, not based on a book. So I felt like I was watching something genuinely new and fresh. Like eating a brand new dessert from a world-class chef: it’s addictive, because sugar, but if I’m gonna be addicted to SOMETHING, might as well be that.
But unfortunately, it’s easier for Netflix to make junk food. And The Midnight Club is like one of those sugar-blasted blueberry muffins that are amazing until you actually have to digest them. I understand that it’s a Mike Flanagan-approved muffin, so it’s a little better quality than average. And it’s hard to stop eating it, because in the moment, your brain tells you it’s delicious. But if you put it down and actually look at the ingredients, you’ll see that it’s generic, overrated, manipulative, and disposable. It seems artistic, but it’s all about the profit.
Rating: 4.4 / 10
Full disclosure, I stopped watching after episode 1. But on principle, I’d rather spend my addict-hours on something better quality like Midnight Mass. Or Twin Peaks.
Speaking of David Lynch: