Horror television is having a moment this year with Stranger Things taking bingewatchers by storm and Black Mirror finally giving us a new season. Syfy (Blastr's corporate parent - Ed.) was naturally going to board this train and their new anthology offering, Channel Zero, based on creepypasta Internet lore, will not disappoint you.
Channel Zero: Candle Cove follows Dr. Mike Painter (Paul Schneider), as he revisits his hometown after a long absence. The episode kicks off with Mike appearing on a talk show that takes a seriously uncomfortable turn. After the host fills us in on the backstory -- Mike's twin brother Eddie disappeared when they were 12 following a series of unsolved murders in their hometown of Iron Hill, Ohio -- he pulls out a phone, saying there is a 12-year-old boy on the line whose family also went through a tragedy. Since he appears to be a normal, feeling human who helps troubled children for a living, Mike thinks this is wildly inappropriate, but he indulges the host and talks to the boy who asks him, while weird kiddie music plays: "Why are you scared to go home?" Then, suddenly -- HUGE FLAME MONSTER SHUFFLING DOWN A HALLWAY.
Then Mike wakes up. It was all a dream. And as it turns out, he is going back to his hometown. There's clearly some reluctance, but he's doing it, and he must have a reason.
What's good about getting this information right off the bat is that there is definitely something bigger about to go down. The story isn't just the murders, and that's a relief because let's face it: murder is boring sometimes. But Channel Zero is giving us more than just murder, so let's follow Mike.
Upon Mike's unexpected arrival in Iron Hill, we're given a series of flashbacks from Mike's point of view that fill us in on his past. We're shown a brief glimpse of Mike in some very bloody distress as an adult and the Iron Hill crime scene that he witnessed: a number of dead children dangling from the branches of a tree. Mike is in Iron Hill to get more information about the crime. He tells his childhood friend Gary, now the town's sheriff, that it's for a book. But that feels like an excuse. Mike is digging for answers
So far, Mike seems pretty ordinary, at least for a guy who has suffered a horrific childhood trauma. He seems stoic and adjusted, so he's easy to trust...we think. He isn't literally narrating, but is Mike going to be our unreliable narrator? It's not abnormal to want information about an unsolved crime involving one's family, but something else is bugging Mike.
Gary invites Mike to dinner to meet his family including his wife Jessica and their two kids, Dane and Katie, who is watching a very creepy, '70s-style children's show on TV.
Anyone who was a kid in the late '70s and early '80s knows that burnt-out hippies were in charge of children's programming, and the result was the most unintentionally disturbing entertainment known to mankind. For some reason, LSD has a very adverse effect on puppet creation and the creatives forced the felt-and-plastic manifestations of their bad acid trips on the children of America by way of these extremely demented shows. It is not out of the realm of possibility that such a show would be part of creepypasta lore (N.b., I do NOT like puppets, man).
Mike runs into Katie during the dinner and she tells him about the show she was just watching. It spooks him, so he comes back to the table and asks the adults if they remember Candle Cove. They all remember Candle Cove, very well. Mike also reminds them that it wasn't on for very long -- just two months, September and October of 1988, when the Iron Hill Murders happened. The discussion becomes too much for Mike and he leaves. As he heads home, we find out in a flashback that after a terrible childhood incident with a bully, Mike and Eddie, sitting together in the aftermath, somehow summon Candle Cove to start playing on their TV, entrancing both of them.
That night, he has a nightmare about the show's very creepy grim reaper puppet after the TV turns itself on and off. He then sleepwalks into a field. Having a nightmare isn't really out of the ordinary, especially if you've been reminded of something that once freaked you out. Sleepwalking? That's kind of weird, but it still isn't unheard of. But summoning a TV show with your twin brother? That's definitely out of the ordinary.
Now. the weird-ball is rolling and we find out that Katie is missing. At Katie's search party, Jessica confronts Mike about the odd timing of his sleepwalking and Katie's disappearance. This is when Mike says that he believes the Iron Hill Murders are connected to Candle Cove because when the show ended, the murders ended. Not weird at all, Mike! Then Jessica provides another big reveal: Mike was just released from a psychiatric hospital three days ago. That shot of him bleeding from before? He was taking a knife to himself in front of his wife.
Mike is starting to look way less reliable than before. But even while he's compromised, he's now driven by the need to rescue Katie from whatever Candle Cove is doing, and that feels noble enough to still be on his side.
After hitting up Dane for clues on Katie, Mike finds out that she was heading for "the crow's nest." By the look on his face, Mike knows exactly what he's talking about. He goes to his mother's house to find his dad's gun because that's what a perfectly sane person (who sees grim reaper puppets in the woods) would do while seeking out a child. Mike clearly doesn't want to hurt Katie, but to everyone else, he knows way too much about the thing that is putting her in harm's way, and now he's getting a gun. As much as we're with Mike, it's not impossible to understand everyone's suspicion.
What has been effective about this episode is that we're constantly being given pieces of the puzzle from both sides of the story. And while the show is so still and quiet, it feels like a slow burn even while it's always moving and always providing hints. The near constant silence forces you to watch because something is always about to be revealed.
Our next big reveal arrives when Mike finds his way to where the Iron Hill Murders happened. We flash back again and see Eddie, something sticking out of his chest. Mike sees one of their friends throw himself off the ledge. The grim reaper puppet is watching them from a distance. Is the puppet making these kids throw themselves off a ledge into the tree below? Young Mike runs away from the scene, leaving his brother, whom he said was never found.
I think at this point we can be on Mike's side. This was a serious trauma for a young boy and it's still haunting him in a very visceral way. But he made it through college and medical school, became a successful author and child psychologist, and started a family. We are absolutely supposed to trust this guy. What Channel Zero is asking us to do is keep trusting him while he's falling apart and follow their breadcrumbs.
Those breadcrumbs come in the form of Katie's teeth, which are left behind when Mike eventually finds Katie and carries her off, then picked up by a brand new creature that is most definitely not a puppet. It was stated earlier that the dead children were found without their teeth, so this is a significant development.
Mike later admits to Jessica that he isn't writing another book, that he just wants answers. We get another flashback: Mike wasn't just cutting himself, he was carving "Mike Come Home" into his arm, seemingly against his will. He tells Jessica that Candle Cove was "calling" him.
Our final and most important clue comes from Mike's mom, who, when asked about Candle Cove, tells us that she thought it was something out of Mike's and Eddie's collective twin imagination. She only remembers them watching static for hours on end.
IT WASN'T A REAL SHOW.
The episode ends with Mike waking up to a phone call from the same boy in the opening scene. He asks: "Where are you going? We're just getting started again."
And that's a great way to get us ready for the next episode, but what about this whole "Candle Cove isn't real" thing?
We saw an entire group of adults talk about watching Candle Cove as kids, as we saw Mike and Eddie doing. We saw Katie watching it in the present. This isn't some twin magic thing because other people knew about it and remembered it vividly, and now it belongs to two different time periods (at least). Does the reemergence of Candle Cove mean that there could be more murders? That's certainly what Mike thinks, though he was able to get to Katie in time, minus a few teeth.
There's also the "crow's nest": After Katie is found, she told her father that the TV told her where to go. But Gary wants to know how Mike knew where to go. Mike explains that he and Eddie used to go to the same location and they called it the "crow's nest," so when he heard "crow's nest" from Dane he followed that lead. Honestly, that doesn't seem all that suspicious. Mike wasn't going on anything supernatural; Gary's own son provided a clue straight from Katie's mouth that was related to something Mike knew as a kid. And there was a sign in the woods that said "crow's nest," so while Mike is clearly disturbed, it's not as if he got this clue from the ether.
It would make sense if Mike is the only adult who can see that sign, but the "crow's nest" seems to be something right out of the pirate-themed Candle Cove, which is a show all these people have seen.
And what was with that flame monster from the beginning? It was literally never mentioned by anyone else, so we'll add that to the list of open questions for the next five episodes.