“The Shorter Way” gets AMC’s adaptation of the Joe Hill novel off to a plodding start, with a wavering tone and very few scares.
This NOS4A2 Episode 1 recap for the episode titled “The Shorter Way” contains spoilers.
Adapted for television by Jami O’Brien (also responsible for Fear the Walking Dead, which isn’t a good track record, let’s be honest) from Joe Hill’s same-named novel, AMC’s NOS4A2 is, after one episode at least, a surreal, plodding disappointment. Stephen King’s eldest son, Hill (has a child ever looked more like their father?) penned a book full of ageless vampires, lost children, magic bridges and endless Christmases, and those things are all present and correct in “The Shorter Way”, but any sense of cohesion isn’t. With its aimless, dreamlike pace and wavering tone, it’s a curious show that seems like it would have benefitted from a surer sense of identity, along with, I suppose, a surer sense of suspense, tension, horror, storytelling, and a couple of other things besides.
That isn’t to say it’s terrible; there’s some promise here, and the underpinnings of the story are rich with scary elements that could be pretty effective if they were better employed. As things stand, the decision to stretch out the source material to ridiculous proportions keeps everything feeling thin and empty, with nothing all that interesting to fill the extra space.
In traditional King family style, Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) is a superpowered teen with dysfunctional parents who, after fleeing from a fight between them, discovers a supernatural bridge in the woods that allows her to find lost things — a watch, a credit card, her father, and so on. Its use also attracts the attention of Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), a vampire who drives a Rolls Royce Wraith with the license plate NOS4A2, and who also lures children with the promise of an endless Christmas so that he can use them to retain his youth.
The best description I’ve ever heard of Stephen King’s work is this: “B-movie ideas with War and Peace execution”, which is to say that he imbues his worlds and characters with an immense amount of detail and authenticity, despite the inherent silliness of, say, a rabid St. Bernard or modern-day vampires. There’s a bit of this floating in the background of NOS4A2; much like his father, Hill is interested in abuse, particularly that committed by parents against children and each other where children can see it; Manx’s whole motivation is that he only targets children whose lives would probably be improved by being taken away from their abusive homes. This isn’t inherently a bad idea but it’s extremely thin in “The Shorter Way” and amounts to virtually nothing.
It’s not the only problem; it’s not even the biggest. That honor probably goes to the show’s tone, which veers wildly from absurd camp to drab seriousness without any real warning or reason. And the knock-on effect of that is that the show’s attempts at seriousness fall flat while it’s wackier elements feel distressingly mundane. Manx, with his wrapped presents and candy canes, just feels like an old weirdo, providing no supernatural menace or otherworldly threat. The whole show is sedentary because of it, with no lingering dread whatsoever — quite an issue for what’s ostensibly a horror, especially one that marries Bram Stoker with perpetual pervert Christmas. Not weird enough, not scary enough, and not good enough, at least not after “The Shorter Way”, NOS4A2 feels like a major misfire.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.