Monster Of The Week!

Is there enough post-modern irony left to support a weekly face-off between demons and running characters?

It's monster time. Again.

In terms of TV horror, I don’t have a lot of time for the ‘Monster Of The Week’ format. Arguably pioneered as a network-viable prospect by Kolchak: The Night Stalker (USTV 1974), the idea that running characters face off against horrifying creatures on a weekly basis has at least three major problems:

a) All the principal characters are bound to survive (unless it’s the last episode and pay-rise negotiations have gone wrong).

b) There is unlikely to be anything horrifying enough to shock the little old lady in Godalming whose threshold for excitement dictates what everybody else is allowed to watch on network TV.

c) It’s all so fucking unlikely that it breaks what little suspension of disbelief that TV-bound horror is ever able to build up.

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The first objection has been mitigated in the last ten years by story-arcs and shifting casts in the likes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and in US TV shows in general. The 1970s/80s network show model was firmly built around a core cast, where the investment of suspense depended upon introducing single-use characters each week and trying to get the audience to care about their fate for 40-50 minutes. Since episodes needed to be rifle-shuffled by networks, you could be sure of a status-quo reset by show’s end (often with the weak-joke freeze-frame laugh ridiculed by Police Squad).

Though not yet entirely abandoned, this ‘flexible scheduling’ model gave way to story arcs and the thrilling prospect of characters being dumped mid-series for dramatic (rather than practical) reasons. This was arguably influenced by Steven Bochco’s ground-breaking Hill Street Blues (1981-87), the first US TV show to fuse the relative unpredictability of a mini-series or ‘TV movie’ with the narrative continuity of a soap, but in a bankable and sustainable network series format. HSB’s hybrid closed-story/story-arc model became a standard over the following twenty years, in concert with the use of larger casts, sub-plots and side-plots.

Whether this meant that characters such as James Marsters’ Spike in Buffy became extended guest-spots or reduced ‘running’ characters, it does mean that well-established/loved characters in your favourite show could suddenly find themselves on the slab permanently, just to wake the audience up.

My first point remains however. Core characters will be there next week, no matter how slimy the monster threatening them tonight may be, and that’s a bit of a thriller-killer. All MoTW shows from Kolchak to The X-Files to Angel and beyond have sought, with varying success, to defuse this predictability with humour and – particularly in the case of Buffy – gallons of post-modern irony, as well as non-genre love-story and other ‘development’ sub-plots, but the horror elements around which the show is based are often further diminished by these.

As for my second point: just as the top-speed of a London bus will never be faster than the slowest speed of the London cyclist in front of it, so will pre-watershed (i.e. potentially profitable) MoTW shows never be scarier or gorier than the thinnest-skinned, horror-hating pensioner might be able to tolerate during a channel-flip. Buffy garnered legions of complaints for everything from violence to alleged homophobia to sexual content, and its history with the letter-writing aggrieved is best summed-up by its vanguard position in this chart from parentstv.org.

My third point relates to the strength of anthological horror as opposed to MoTW shows with running characters: from Edgar Allen Poe to M.R. James, EC Comics and the Amicus anthologies, effective horror has always been built upon hermetic narratives, where the flow of the ordinary is interrupted by the shock of the horrific. Psychologically, this approach has an easy inroad to our deepest fears, since the kind of trauma and challenge for which monsters and monstrous events stand as a cipher are thankfully rare events in our lives – major surgery, death of loved ones, fear of crime, injury, false imprisonment, pain et al.

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We can invest emotionally in characters that find themselves thus unexpectedly challenged. We’ll buy a fight with one demon, but not a series of them. Buffy overcame this – at least in the early seasons – with a great comic sensibility, as did Angel likewise, whereas the set-up of The X-Files permitted far greater latitude to ‘sell’ outrageous MoTW scenarios – but even that success gave place to the same introspective soapishness that made later seasons of Buffy a turn-off – at least for me.

The two persistent problems with network TV horror’s ‘native’ form – anthology – is that it costs a lot in spite of not having really struck gold since the original Twilight Zone, and that if it regularly features any really horrifying content, it will inevitably be consigned to the low-revenue late hours.

This means low-budgets that are exacerbated by the near-impossibility of re-using sets (unless they are sets from other shows), and production values which are unlikely to entice the first-rate writers who must invent new worlds, characters and stories on a weekly basis.

TV genre-auteurs such as Chris Carter, Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams are the only ones who could potentially build on the work of Rod Serling and make TV horror anthology viable again, but the omens and odds are not immediately favourable. A network TV horror show of this type has not enjoyed any real popularity since the George Romero-helmed Creepshow spin-off Tales From The Darkside (1984-88) closed twenty years ago after a four-season run (Tales From The Crypt having been a pay-TV show). Although the first revival of Serling’s Twilight Zone (from 1985-89) also had a four-year run, it was less-acclaimed than its progenitor and dealt with horror themes less frequently.

Single-shot, effective short horror tales are neither thick on the ground nor cheap, and the only realistic prospect for a high-quality season of bite-sized chills is a short one of eight or thirteen episodes – yet another factor that limits the prospects for a green light.

But as someone who grew up on repeats of Night Gallery, Thriller, Tales Of The Unexpected and the originals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, I would appreciate the chance to once again get to like the main character in an episode only to see them meet an awful – and permanent – fate.

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Is that wrong?

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.