With a plot that includes mediums, supernatural happenings and a place called “Christmasland,” I was surprised NOS4A2 was even adapted from Joe Hill’s novel of the same name. The book felt almost too weird to make into a TV show, where you can’t leave a world to the imagination and it must be shown on screen. But summertime is the perfect time to premiere a genre show with a slightly complex mythology that reminds people to be grateful for warmth instead of a lifetime of winter. And NOS4A2 is a solid TV show that’s ripe to watch when you need a day inside to take a break from the heat.
It’s refreshing in a TV landscape full of complicated antiheroes that the characters with the most interiority in NOS4A2 are the good guys. The hero of this story is Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), and she has a big heart, and big sad eyes. She has complicated relationships with her family and friends, and her choices and relationships are treated with surprising nuance. In her personal life, there is no one who is all good or all bad, and yet she loves them anyway. Her main goal is to get out of Haverhill, Mass., where her working class parents have lived most of their lives. Vic’s poor family is never treated as a joke, though the difference in her upbringing and opportunities compared with her wealthy friend are clear.
The Boston accents on NOS4A2 are noticeable in a way that accents should not be, and the dialogue is sometimes predictable—at least once I said a character’s lines before the character did. But the acting is solid, and that’s what grounds the show, even when it explores the supernatural and worlds of make-believe.
Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto) is unequivocally the big bad—no nuance there. Manx has powers that allow him to create a world in his imagination that he can then make real. He uses his powers to kidnap children and take them to Christmasland, where they remain children forever but lose their souls and transform into something monstrous. To go between the real world and his imagination world, he uses his car, a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith that has magical powers he can harness. In his mind, he is saving the children from a bad home life and taking them to a place where they have the joys of Christmas forever. But his motivations are never portrayed as sympathetic; he is a monster that Vic needs to stop, and the children are clearly worse off with him than they were before. Quinto’s sharp gaze is a great contrast to Vic’s emotional, tear-filled eyes, but Quinto is better when he’s wearing less makeup and you can fully see the hardness in his expression. With that said, when Manx and Vic finally meet, it’s magnetic.
Vic discovers her own similar powers in a desperate moment when she’s riding her motorbike and comes across a bridge that can take her to find lost things. With the help of her friend Maggie, a medium with powers of her own, Vic attempts to figure out how she can use her bridge to find the lost children.
Although the use of mediums being able to intuit what’s happening comes close to feeling like a plot device, it still fits within the show’s logic about how these powers work. There is a danger of NOS4A2 falling into clichés of a small-town girl trying to escape her small-town life—and Vic’s mom especially has dialogue that could come from any Worn Down Mother. But because the show allows Vic to have a strong interior life and complex relationships, her story at least feels fresh instead of rote. The one character who feels particularly flat is another bad guy: a janitor at Vic’s school that she befriends and who Manx hires as his assistant.
There is a point when Vic is speaking with police and she is leaving out certain parts of her story that have to do with the supernatural. In other shows, she may continue lying, causing the plot to come to a standstill with the police always on her back and no way forward. But instead, Vic tells the truth. It’s a nice reminder that NOS4A2 has some surprises in store, and it’s a relief not to fall into the common trap of hiding the truth for increasingly unbelievable reasons.
The show does include stereotypes about medication for mental disorders dulling the mind and senses—a disappointment when it otherwise treats Vic’s emotions and pain with complexity. As the show continues, I hope it makes more surprising, fresh choices that highlight the depth of Vic’s character and friendships. Part of what makes the show feel refreshing is that the most interesting characters with the most agency are women. As long as NOS4A2 focuses on those relationships, it will remain interesting and possibly rise from solid to great.
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Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut and Hazlitt, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson