The horrors of television

Last updated 08:49 09/04/2013

Horror shows have become something of a trend. American Horror Story has been a success (and returns to Four at some point soon), Supernatural has a cult audience, The Walking Dead wrapped up its third and most successful season, and The Following has been ticking along on One with a new twist every week. True Blood is still one of the most popular shows on HBO. Shows like Criminal Minds, Grimm and Game of Thrones have their fair share of scares, too.

20130409The trend is going to continue, too. American channel NBC launched Hannibal last Thursday, set before the events of The Silence of the Lambs and starring former Bond villain Mads Mikkelson as the cannibalistic Dr Hannibal Lecter. Hostel director Eli Roth has developed Hemlock Grove, a horror series being shown exclusively on Netflix. Lost producer Carlton Cuse is in the horror game with Bates Motel, a prequel to legendary horror flick Psycho.

The question is, why? And do any of these shows actually make for good TV?

The Walking Dead sure has its moments. Despite the disappointing finale, the third season was (at times) a masterpiece of tension building, and a couple of scenes - Carl and Michonne venturing into an abandoned café to collect a photo, The Governor stalking Andrea around a warehouse - were thrilling to watch.

The Following, meanwhile, seems as though it's directed by a teenage girl who is terrified of scary movies. The show boasts the hallmarks of a horror-thriller - a charismatic serial killer, words written on walls in blood, lots of closeups of long knives - but it all feels a little overwrought, as though they're only there because someone thought they should be there. The same could be said of American Horror Story: entertaining shows, but jammed with so much cliché it gets distracting*.

Even worse, the best parts of these shows often don't involve any of the horror elements they trade in. The Walking Dead was at its best during the more dramatic moments: The Governor facing off with Rick in the abandoned barn, or Rick trying to understand what Morgan had gone through - those were the highlights of the season, for me.

New shows like Bates Hotel and Hannibal are getting acclaim for their dramatic sides, and the strength of their performances, rather than for any flashes of brain-eating or shower-stabbing.

Few horror shows actually revel in being horror shows. American Horror Story devolves into cliché occasionally, but it is a legitimately scary show at times too. Supernatural has a lot of fun with its scarier content, breaking conventions while also having a laugh at itself from time to time.

And say what you want about True Blood, when that show decides it wants to go into full bloodbath mode - vampires exploding left and right, beautiful naked people covered in goop - it can be morbidly fun to watch.

Of course, the shows that actually enjoy being horror shows, that play up to the title of horror, rarely have the kind of dramatic gravitas to be considered among the crème de la crème of the time. Nobody is mentioning True Blood in the same sentence as Boardwalk Empire. If they are, they're wrong.

I'm starting to think there is no middle ground. You go either full horror or full drama. No in between.

What do you think: is there a sweet spot for horror shows, a way of deftly balancing both the dramatic and horrific aspects? Which, if any, shows do you think manage to do both drama and horror well?

(*) I'm actually out on The Following, I think. I've been watching each week, but after every episode I'm wondering why on earth I still watch this show. There are only so many "Oh, s/he's a cult member now too?! Come on!" revelations one can handle before throwing one's hands in the air and screaming at one's television.

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