In some ways it's difficult to write about Midnight Mass without spoiling it. A new limited series written and directed by Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Dr. Sleep), it is, like most of Flanagan's work, a horror story. That much would be evident even without Flanagan's track record. Apart from an opening sequence and a couple of brief trips to the mainland, Midnight Mass takes place within the shores of Crockett Island, an isolated fishing community 30 miles off the coast of New England. And all is not well on Crockett Island even before the story of Midnight Mass begins. It looks like a hollowed-out, run-down place, the result, we'll learn later, of settlement from an oil spill with devastating long-term effects. Things are bad on Crockett Island, but they're about to get worse. A title card lists the population at a mere 127. Over the course of Midnight Mass it's destined to shrink.
Here's where it gets tricky to avoid spoilers. While Midnight Mass falls squarely within the horror genre -- Flanagan invests Crockett Island with a sense of dread even before the story takes a turn -- the series doesn't reveal just what corner of the horror genre it's nestled in until the end of the third episode. But talking around that would only be a problem if that revelation was all it had going for it. Midnight Mass has a lot more on its mind.
Though a true ensemble piece in which a dozen or so characters play prominent parts, the series begins at the end of one Crockett Islander's attempt to make a life for himself away from home. Riley (Zach Gilford) has fled to Chicago where he's made a name and a small fortune for himself investing in start-ups -- and where his alcoholism has led to a fatal drunk driving accident that killed a young woman, the aftermath of which Flanagan depicts with harrowing intensity in Midnight Mass's opening moments. Sent to prison where visions of his victim trail him, Riley returns to Crockett Island four years later. He's met only by his mother Annie (Kristen Lehman), whose warm reception is unmatched by the guardedness of Riley's teenage brother Warren (Igby Rigney) or his father Ed (Henry Thomas), a struggling fisherman who's never forgiven his son and who appears to be in constant pain. It's the sort of homecoming that doesn't feel much like a homecoming at all, but Riley has no place else to go.
He's not the only returnee or new arrival. Erin Greene (Katie Siegel), Riley's lifelong friend and long-ago girlfriend, has preceded his return, taking up her late mother's job at the island's tiny public school and prompting whispers about her pregnancy. But it's nothing compared to the talk spurred by the appearance of Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a priest who takes over the church of the (mostly) devoutly Catholic island, stepping in for the aged monsignor who, after manifesting symptoms of dementia, took a sabbatical to visit the Holy Land. The islanders treat him with wariness. He's young and carries himself with an informal demeanor. He even wears jeans when not in the pulpit. But Father Paul soon wins them over with his innate kindness and with sermons in which that informal demeanor, slowly but unmistakably, gives way to fervor and rhetorical acrobatics -- sermons that begin mildly but take on a scary intensity. He's charismatic, both when leading a service and in the off-hours when he starts an AA chapter in the island's rarely used rec center to save Riley the hassle of traveling to the mainland. He might even be a literal miracle worker.
Midnight Mass is often scary and when it's not, it's seldom less than eerie. Flanagan's skills as a stylist are on display throughout the series. Where many contemporary television series seemingly feel obligated to work with a bright color palette, Flanagan's unafraid to bathe frames in darkness and expects viewers to pay careful attention to subtle details, like a pair of eyes that blink and then disappear, unnoticed by the characters who might be terrified if they knew what was lurking nearby. But he's just as gifted at staging the back-and-forth between two characters in a room, and making those back-and-forths ring with meaning. Some of the best moments in Midnight Mass involve conversations that edge into philosophical debates, as Riley and Father Paul trade thoughts on recovery and the need for a higher power or Riley and Erin, falling back into their old friendship, speak at length about what they believe it must be like to die and what happens after.
The series is equally as generous at giving memorable moments to others like Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), who left New York after the death of his wife and took the remote job as an attempt to escape Anti-Muslim prejudice that came to define his time in the NYPD. He tries to win the people he's sworn to protect over by gentleness and commitment to duty, but when his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) starts to fall under Father Paul's sway, he starts to question his choices. His confrontations with Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a zealot with a hateful self-righteousness to rival Marcia Gay Harden's character in the film adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist, make those questions even more intense.
Across his film work and Netflix series, Flanagan's developed a kind of stock company of players and Midnight Mass suggests the benefits of that approach. Kohli, Sloyan, Thomas, Annabeth Gish, and others are returning players. Siegel, a longtime collaborator (and Flanagan's wife), does fine, sensitive work as one of the focal characters. Gilford slips easily into the mix (and will stick around for Flanagan's next project). It plays like a case for the benefits of a creator working with actors already on their wavelength and for actors finding creators who know how to play to their strengths. If it's Linklater's work as Father Paul that gives the series an electric charge -- a revelatory performance that alternates between crippling self-doubt and the will-bending verbal dexterity of a despot -- it wouldn't be possible without those around him.
As magnetic as Linklater's performance is, however, Father Paul never takes over the story. He's more catalyst than central figure in a series interested in exploring ideas between scares as the narrative shifts between diverse perspectives. Midnight Mass ultimately sounds a warning against religious extremism but it also presents a spectrum of thoughts on faith, from a sensible argument for atheism to a rapturous description of the comforts of belief. Midnight Mass ultimately gives way to more familiar horror business as the threat to the island mounts but, until then, the scares usually seem secondary to the contemplative back-and-forth and the conflicts between ways of seeing the world. The frenetic final act, while well staged and designed to bring the story to a satisfying end, ultimately proves less memorable than what's preceded it, but what precedes it is thoughtful, gripping, and daring for reasons beyond the fear stirred by things that go bump in the night.
TV Guide rating: 4/5
Midnight Mass premieres Friday, Sept. 24 on Netflix.