Synopsis: Encounters with mermaids, fallen angels, and other strange beasts drive broken people to desperate acts in this eight-episode anthology series.
Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Jonathan Tucker, Charlie Tahan, Nicole Beharie, Hamish Linklater, Marquis Rodriguez, Bill Camp, Michael Hsu Rosen, Taylor Schilling, Roberta Colindrez, Adria Arjona, Trieu Tran, Kelly Marie Tran, Mike Colter, Adepero Oduye
Created by: Mary Laws
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Before this pandemic began the concept of binge watching was something that always sounded like a good idea to me and one that I only occasionally was able to participate in…but it had to be for the right show. Even then, I would motor through a 10-episode season over a long weekend and then emerge from those three days a bit dazed and not exactly sure what I had taken in. Had I really invested the time to let the story, characters, and ideas enter my brain and take root or did it just fly by as quickly as I clicked into the next episode? What’s worse is that by the time the next season of a show rolled around in a year, it had been so long since the last batch of episodes I blazed through that I barely remembered plot details.
Recently, I’ve found that I can do a sort of binge watch but stretch it out to make it like a long meal I am snacking on for a week or so. This helps me process and, if the show is good, extends the pleasure of the piece even further. So I have to say that getting the chance to see Hulu’s new horror anthology series Monsterland early was a treat but I wasn’t quite able to take my time with it like I was with other multi-episode shows that are released all on the same date. Working on a deadline, I watched the eight episodes in two blocks and while it helped me get to them all, it wound up easily exposing what chapters stood out from the rest and the overall weakness of the show in general.
When Hulu announced they were working with creator Mary Laws who was a co-writer on the 2016 film The Neon Demon and produced the cult-favorite TV program Preacher for AMC on a show based off of Nathan Ballingrud’s short-story collection “North American Lake Monsters”, there was considerable interest in what that partnership would yield. Produced by Babak Anvari and Lucan Toh who had already worked with a Ballingrud adaptation in the past, this seemed like an interesting path for Hulu to take. While the title of the book and show implies a creature feature this is more of a “monster within us” sort of deal with a healthy dose of the supernatural and mythological thrown in to spice things up.
Each episode is named after a town and while some of these anthologies don’t need to be watched in order, I would say there are a few chapters that do include a tiny bit of overlap (I won’t say what or which ones) so would suggest you go in order.
Things get off to a promising start with Port Fourchon, Louisiana featuring Kaitlin Dever (Booksmart) as a single mom working as a waitress that encounters a drifter (Jonathan Tucker, Charlie’s Angels) at her oceanside dead-end diner. We know he’s got a station wagon full of boxes labeled with the names of missing girls but what’s in them is…well, you’ll find out. Dever’s having a nice run of things lately and she makes this character a realistic entity struggling to make ends meet while dealing with her feral child that could be more dangerous than the stranger who takes a peculiar interest in her. The second ep features a lonely teen taking care of his ailing mother in a familiar plot that honestly almost feels irresponsible being recycled in 2020. I quite liked the third episode set in New Orleans, Louisiana that puts Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth) through a night of hell as a socialite who came from nothing dealing with her world crumbling around her. It’s all predicated on the question of if she knew about a secret involving her family from years ago and looked the other way just so she wouldn’t lose out on a life of privilege that was within her grasp.
It’s back to ho-hum-edness for the New York setting in episode four with Bill Camp (Joker) as a Trump-ian business mogul that gets punished for his evil transgressions by literally being possessed by a god-like figure (kinda tacky, IMHO) as his family and business team watches on in a mixture of horror and glee. This one is so obviously aiming its message at an audience of one that will never see this episode that it feels like you’re watching someone’s angry letter to the White House. The one thing about this episode that I found fairly entertaining is Tina Benko as a deadly serious medium brought in to communicate with the spirit that has taken residence in the businessman. Benko’s voice cements her being so hysterically committed to the role that I can’t tell if she was trying to be comical or if she really was attempting to be serious. Either way, she’s the gold star highlight of this drab episode.
Episode five features Taylor Schilling (The Lucky One) and Roberta Colindrez as married lesbians dealing with Schilling’s bi-polar disorder that eventually leads to a dark place, leaving Colindrez to literally pick up the pieces of her wife. Very strangely, when I checked just now this is the episode that has the highest rating from viewers so far even though I found it an oddly talky vamp on the zombie narrative. Which, come to think of it, is probably why it’s so popular. It’s the most straight-forward of all the tales in that deals with mental illness (a content warning precedes the episode) in a humanistic way…though it is essentially about learning to love your zombie wife.
After the first episode, Episode 6 and 7 are likely the star players of the lot. Taking place in Palacios, Texas, episode 7 finds a disfigured fisherman (Trieu Tran) who finds an injured mermaid (Adria Arjona, Life of the Party) on the beach and brings her back to his double-wide where he attempts to nurse her back to health. Trouble is, this is no fairy-tale mermaid and she has a craving for red meat and isn’t the friendliest fish in the sea. In all of Monsterland, my favorite tale by far was from Iron River, Michigan and it finds Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) as Lauren, a sweet bride preparing for her wedding day but still haunted by the legend of the local woods where her friend disappeared when they were teenagers. An opening prologue and flashbacks alter the storyline of the events of the vanishing, suggesting Lauren may have been more involved than originally thought. What starts off seeming like it will be a standard “Did she do it” becomes a simmering Grimm’s Fairy Tale and it’s by far the best of all the episodes. Which makes the bizarre (truly, bizarre) finale featuring Mike Colter (Girls Trip) and Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave) as grieving parents of a missing girl given the opportunity to heal thanks to mysterious “angels” that have fallen from the sky, that much more of a letdown. I was really put off by the ending, I have to be honest.
Wildly inconsistent from episode to episode with even the good ones having their own problems, Monsterland feels like an enormous missed opportunity. The production has gathered an intriguing mix of casts and directors that create dynamic work but the scripts didn’t serve any of these players well. Only a few of these episodes wound up being inspired by Ballingrud’s short stories and even then I know his work is more cerebral – so perhaps this was always the world Monsterland was going to create. My main beef overall is that I would have liked to see the episodes tied together a bit more. There is one connection that made sense to me but another that is of absolutely no consequence to anything else and that just felt strange. It’s as if the actor was just passing by the set that day and they decided to let them in the scene without thinking anything through. Linking these up in a more clever fashion would help give the overall breadth of the work a more finished feel.