One of the under-appreciated success stories of the Syfy network in recent years has been its success in cranking out a series of increasingly odd and distinctive Grindhouse-style original series. While shows such as "Z Nation" and "Channel Zero" are very different programs, they share a similar approach to their material. Hyper-stylized acting, strange juxtapositions of humor and violence along with a willingness to carve out a unique place in this era of Peak TV. These shows are television's answer to the classic B-movies of the 1950s and early 1960s. Artistic and odd shows that are light on pretension while filled with quirky, goofy fun.
If this genre of television has a "Godfather," it's the gloriously insane "Ghost Wars," which airs Thursday nights on Syfy. It's a difficult show to explain without the use of a huge whiteboard and a box of colored markers. But I recently described it on Twitter as a "drunken mash-up of 'Poltergeist' and 'Twin Peaks,'" and I stand by that take. This is one crazy-ass show. One which logically shouldn't be anywhere near as entertaining as it manages to be each week.
"Ghost Wars" is set in a remote Alaskan town that suddenly finds itself overrun with a bunch of very angry ghosts. They're first spotted by local outcast Roman Mercer (Avan Jogia), who is accustomed to seeing spirits. They used to be friendly, but following an explosion at a local scientific research center, they're now pissed off and resentful. The first episode begins with a bus crash that kills everyone onboard except for Roman and what follows over the next few episodes is an orgy of evil hauntings, revenge-seeking spirits and a bunch of terrorized and sometimes dead townspeople. The spirits have somehow isolated the town from the rest of the world, so every building becomes a killing field for whatever entities woke up on the wrong side of hell this morning.
I told you, this is a difficult show to describe.
What separates "Ghost Wars" from just another weird-ass series about angry ghosts are the sharply written characters. when a series revolves around the supernatural, the temptation is to let the spooky stuff do the heavy lifting in most scenes. But this series includes some memorable characters and some acting that manages to deftly walk the line between unsettling and campy.
Vincent D'Onofrio plays Reverend Dan, a minister who battled dwindling attendance and a lackluster congregation before the explosion. Now, he's one of the few voices of reason. Which is a scary prospect coming from a guy who sports a ponytail and a body shape that most closely resembles an early 1970s Marlon Brando. D'Onofrio has always been gifted at portraying men just on the brink of breaking and he's chewing up the scenery like a moody weed whacker in every scene. His voice is just a whisper, in a low register that sounds more creepy than soothing. And yet, he's often the person most likely to benefit from the town feeling as if its very soul is under siege.
It's an indication of just how screwed up this show can be that the one likable character is Maggie (Elise Gatien), who happens to be Roman's best friend. She's also a ghost - and a friendly one. Think Casper, if he was a cute college-age female townie. Not only is this spirit the only normal person in town, the writers manage to seemingly get rid of her a few episodes into the season. I'm telling you, this show is nuts.
There are a number of actors I could highlight, ranging from Meatloaf's troubled and angry Doug Rennie to Kim Coates' portrayal of the slightly charming scoundrel/scam artist Billy McGrath. Nearly everyone seems to get their moment to shine, as the show cycles through each of the characters while still progressing the underlying story of a secluded town under psychic siege.
If you're reading this far into the review, you probably haven't seen "Ghost Wars" yet, so I won't give away too much of the story that's unfolded so far. But it's a rare show that leaves me wondering "What the hell just happened?" after every episode. "Ghost Wars" is a gloriously deranged mess of a show that creatively reminds me of that old Ed Sullivan Show performer who used to balance spinning dinner plates on the top of a series of flimsy sticks. The joy in seeing that trick was losing yourself in the experience of watching someone frantically attempting to keep all those plates spinning.
I get the same feeling watching each episode of "Ghost Wars." Good writers know how to make things seem more unplanned and spontaneous than they appear to be in the final product. And this show must be jammed with good writers because each episode is this glorious mix of foreshadowing and semi-random violence. It's all a tribute to creator Simon Barry (best known for "Continuum"), who seems to be simultaneously spinning a couple of dozen plates full of plot points each week.
"Ghost Wars" is unlike any other show on television right now and given the number of new programs on the air every week, that's an impressive feat. I can't promise you'll love the show as much as I do, but I can promise you won't be bored.