Want to see a critic cringe in fear? Force me to watch Dina Lohan’s narcissistic celebreality atrocity, or another hour of Mark L. Walberg presiding ghoulishly over the Moment of Truth’s hot seat. By comparison, ravenous vampires, sadistic ghosts and spectral serial killers are almost welcome and charming company.

Not that charm has anything to do with the grisly stories told on Fear Itself, a horror anthology that should represent a welcome break from network TV’s summer reality obsession. Too bad watching the show is so oppressively unpleasant. I wasn’t so much scared by the three episodes I’ve seen as ultimately repulsed.

Suspense should be nerve-tingling fun, not necessarily punishing, and most of what I’ve seen so far has been about as enjoyable as taking a sledgehammer to the temple. And just about as cheesily predictable.

On the plus side, the show looks great, even when gross, and watching familiar TV faces get spooked has its pleasures: Friday Night Lights’ Jesse Plemons nervously canvassing a snow-cloaked fort and being led to his doom by quietly sinister sisters; creepy Eric Roberts as a boozy ex-cop/private eye led to an ironic doom by mysterious client Cynthia Watros (Lost); and in the best and only clever story to date, June 19’s “Family Man,” Eureka’s Colin Ferguson as a squeaky-clean husband and father who, after a car accident, switches bodies with a stone-cold killer.

His escalating desperation as he watches from behind bars while a monster takes over his life reminded me of vintage Twilight Zone. But Rod Serling probably wouldn’t have allowed the story to end on such a hopeless, sour note of doom.

Is there really a market for these feel-bad fables? And if so, why?

Fear Itself airs Thursdays, 10/9c, NBC

 

SIDEBAR: THE TENTH CIRCLE

Lifetime is getting downright Oprahesque in its raiding of the best-seller bookshelves. Following April’s successful adaptation of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the network now tackles Jodi Picoult’s domestic-tragedy page-turner that takes its title from Dante’s Inferno.

The 10th circle of hell, suggests classics teacher and unfaithful wife Laura (Kelly Preston), is “reserved for those of us who have lied to ourselves by pretending we aren’t hurting the ones that we love.” Then there’s the confusing hell of adolescence, which has so warped Laura’s lovesick daughter (Britt Robertson), she tells a lie that spins out of control, ruining several lives. “One wrong move and everything can shatter,” observes her dad (Ron Eldard).

The story isn’t subtle, but the emotions feel disturbingly real, and as played by a strong cast, it leaves you undeniably saddened.