Monsters, Redheads and Darren McGavin
I don’t know about your part of the country, but here in Seattle, autumn is already a fact. The days are growing shorter, the rain is falling colder, and the sweaters and flannel pajamas are moving back to the front of the closet. Halloween candy is appearing in the grocery stores and nearly every magazine has a pumpkin, a witch, or a sexy redhead on the cover. The best have all three.
For some, these signs mean the end of summer, but for me, it means the beginning of Flannel Pajama TV Season. This is a time when it’s perfectly okay to veg in front of the boob tube with snacks in one hand and hot cocoa in the other, and to embrace the waning sunlight in the most appropriate way: by watching spooky TV shows.
Here’s a somewhat chronological list of moody, atmospheric TV shows I have loved — my autumn romances, as it were:
“One Step Beyond.” I must admit I’d not even heard of the show until I was in my late 30’s, and I bought the entire series on DVD based on an overheard conversation. Someone said, “…it’s what ‘The Twilight Zone’ wanted to be, but wasn’t.”
I can’t say for sure if that’s true, mainly because “One Step Beyond” claimed to be based on true stories, while “The Twilight Zone” was more of a morality play. But it really doesn’t matter; they were both shot in that Cold War-era, severely-lit black-and-white that’s best viewed in UHF. That high-contrast monochrome could make even the most wholesome of shows seem sinister.
“The Twilight Zone” came out at the same time, but had a slightly longer run and did better in syndication. This is really a love/hate show for me; I remember staying up well past bedtime to watch re-runs on our rickety B&W, and ultimately wishing that the show was scarier than it actually was. While the Marius Constant theme music alone was the stuff of nightmares — a truly portentous call to fright — the episodes were pretty dated, even when I got to know them in the late 1970s. Even at such a young age, I was figuring out that no matter how velvety and persuasive Rod Serling’s voice, I didn’t like the TV telling me how I was going to feel.
Right about the same time I was sneaking my late-night “Twilight Zone” fix, I was also watching Darren McGavin and “Kolchak: the Night Stalker” in prime time. I was really too young to get what the show was about, but it had two of my favorite things: cynical wisecracking reporters and low-budget monsters. Win – win. I think that my penchant for seersucker suits came from this show, too, but I can’t prove it.
In the 1980s, I didn’t have the right kind of cable to get “Tales from the Crypt,” and I was completely turned off by “Tales from the Darkside’s” theme music. (Seriously, how many minor chords can you squeeze into 30 seconds? Evidently all of them.) But I grooved on “Friday the 13th: The Series,” despite the fact that the show had virtuallly nothing to do with the movie franchise. (Okay, okay — both the movies and the show were produced by Frank Mancuso Jr. That is it and that is all.) While the movies were slashy and gory, “Friday the 13th: The Series” was almost charming in its attempt to be eerie; most episodes centered on a quaint antique store full of cursed artifacts and the proprietors’ attempts to get and keep them locked up.
“The X-Files” was part of my Sunday night routine for years and years, and for a few brief and shining seasons, the “X-Files” slash “Millennium” double-header was the best thing on television. Ever. While I loved the multi-layered story arcs of “The X-Files,” the deeply morose paranoia of “Millennium” is absolutely timeless, and probably worthy of a column unto itself. Hope Frank Black can sit tight for a while.
I am doubly shamed over “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” When it came out, I was rabidly and vehemently against it. I thought it was the worst premise for a show in the history of worst premises, and aforementioned less-than-stellar shows aside, I was not going to subject my eyeballs or my brain to this nonsense. Then I watched an episode — “Hush” — and I was hooked as if I’d been a fan all along. My other shame involves a not-so secret crush on Alyson Hannigan, and let’s not talk about that now, thanks.
And with “Buffy” comes “Angel,” which also fed my fetish for dilapidated buildings and dark rooms. Did it matter that the supposedly immortal main character was visibly aging and that the impossibility of vampire pregnancy was dealt with in an improbable fashion? Heck no; not at all. I was too busy enjoying the convoluted back stories, demonic romances and the absolutely wonderful soap-operatic feel of it all.
There are many other good, spooky, supernatural, eerie, moody, science fiction-y, atmospheric shows out there, I know. I can feel them lurking; hear them crunching about in the fallen leaves. The only reason I haven’t listed them here is because I simply haven’t had the time to watch them all. But there’s an entire autumn ahead of us, isn’t there?