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NOS4A2 Review: Muddled Horror Is Strictly for Fans of the Book

The messy, confusing series should have stayed a book

Tim Surette

So you just watched the pilot episode of AMC's NOS4A2 and decided to comb the internet to figure out what you just watched. Welcome to the club.

NOS4A2 is based on the Joe Hill book, and though Hill didn't take his father Steven King's name, he did take a lot of King's horror sensibilities -- small towns in the Northeast (Massachusetts in this case), odd villains who don't always outright terrify but pack a lingering creepiness (Zachary Quinto's Charlie Manx), supernatural plot devices that don't make a whole lot of sense (an abandoned bridge that doubles as a teleportation portal), and much more. I'm sure NOS4A2's story worked pretty well in the well-received book, but its TV translation is a confusing chore.

Zachary Quinto, NOS4A2

Zachary Quinto, NOS4A2

Zach Dilgard/AMC

Much respect to the creators for sticking to the slow burn of the story on the page (Season 1 is based on the first third of the book) and trusting viewers to stick around without any hand-holding through the story, but as television, it didn't compel. If you arrived hoping to see Quinto as a soul-sucking vampire nabbing kids and slurping up their life force like I did, then you barely got that. Instead, the episode focused mainly on Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), an aspiring art school student who can teleport to other places by crossing an abandoned bridge that only exists for her on her dirt bike, and Vic's backwoods parents' marital problems. Yep.

Elsewhere, Quinto's Manx drove his young victim toward Christmasland, his horrifying dead-end for the kids he takes, drains, and leaves for permanent stasis. And that's mostly what we can infer; it's not outright told to us. In another thread, a teen psychic uses custom Scrabble tiles and a Bag of Holding +2 to get advice from the spirit world. It's cool, but what does it mean? I have no idea.

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I like a show that makes the mind work more than most, but NOS4A2 enjoys hiding behind its mysteries too much, turning potentially good story into puzzle pieces that don't fit together and leaving us bewildered. Confusion isn't always bad for television -- Hulu's Castle Rock, which NOS4A2 reminds me of, was secretive and abstract, but it had a throughline to keep us watching before it eventually sputtered out -- but without thread to tie anything together or even a semblance of directive to tell us what we're watching, it's just confusion. You should be able to describe what a show is after watching the pilot. I still don't know what NOS4A2 is really about (and I've seen three episodes, and there's no improvement).

Direction and cinematography can overcome dull, fragmented storytelling, but there are a lot of questionable choices there, too. Vic's rides on her bike into the woods should evoke a feeling of escape from her awful parents, but the mounted rigs on the bike give it a visceral and present mood instead of that of a young woman taking charge of her life or moving toward the paranormal. The camera will blur, go upside-down, or even slip into slow-motion in an exaggeration of mood, which takes us out of the psychological horror it's trying to convey. And nothing the camera does is scary or even spooky, which is a problem for a show like this.

Ashleigh Cummings, NOS4A2

Ashleigh Cummings, NOS4A2

Dana Starbard/AMC

The only reasons to continue watching this is if you have to figure out what NOS4A2 is trying to tell us or who Manx is, but I wouldn't place a bet that it will (much like the aforementioned Castle Rock); the performance of Cummings, who is quite good despite the excess of unnecessary story surrounding Vic; and the makeup on Quinto, who does a great job as an old weirdo handing out broken candy canes and luring people to his goofy Christmasland.

Because most of television is based on existing properties, there's a misguided notion that everything has to be turned into a television show. But that's not the case, especially with NOS4A2, which should have remained only a book.

NOS4A2 airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on AMC.