Death Valley debuts tonight on MTV at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
A proposal: TV shows are only as good insofar as they can get away from their premises as quickly as possible.
Granted, this probably isn’t always true. Some shows have premises that inherently keep them from doing certain things. Mad Men is a great show, but it’s never going to be a show where Don Draper pulls out a cell phone and says, “I’m actually from the year 2003, and I’m here to stop the Vietnam War.” At the same time, that was a show that realized its premise, which should combine the words “’60s” and “advertising” in some form, was the sort of thing that could be expanded upon and danced around. The central advertising agency no longer really working as a device for stories? Well, blow that up. Blow up marriages, relationships, character dynamics, etc., etc., etc. Whatever it takes to keep the ball rolling.
The only reason this comes up is because this summer has been a rank, awful one for TV. It’s a summer dominated by shows that don’t realize that restating the premise over and over or repeating the pilot endlessly doesn’t make for good TV. Good TV comes from expanding the ensemble of characters, from making sure everybody gets development, from building up the setting and world of the show. The two best shows of the summer, Louie and Breaking Bad, are a show that doesn’t have a premise at all, beyond the vague idea that following a stand-up comedian around New York might be kind of fun and a show that dutifully follows its “regular guy becomes drug lord” premise around, but only under immense protest. A good portion of this season has been all about mocking Walt’s dreams of ever being as good at being a criminal as his boss is.
All of this wraps back around to MTV’s new show Death Valley, which is created by Spider One and is an agreeably goofy mockumentary until it launches into a credits sequence that explains the premise. What is that premise? A year ago, zombies, werewolves, and vampires invaded the San Fernando Valley. No one knows where they came from. No one knows what to do about them (other than the fact that they mostly seem to follow classic monster “rules”). And no one knows why they’ve been incredibly localized to North Hollywood, from the looks of the location footage. But they’re there, and now the camera crew is going to follow around a bunch of cops as they wander the night and try to contain the monstrous scourge. It’s a very strange blend of Reno 911! and something like Supernatural. It even veers strangely between goofy mockumentary and somber mockumentary, often within the same episode.
It also has a bad, bad habit of over-explaining who everybody is and what is going on. At this point, does anybody need to explain the rules behind this sort of story? Does there really need to be both a credits sequence and an opening briefing scene where the characters talk about how these beasties have wandered down into their neighborhood? Do we really need lots of dialogue about who everyone on the film crew is and why they’re following the cops around? Don’t take this the wrong way: There are moments here where Death Valley shows a version of itself that would be a very strong show, one that took the premise and used it as window-dressing for a strange horror comedy with lots of gore. (There may be more gore in this show than in any other half-hour comedy ever, though this isn’t a very high bar to clear.) But there’s also way too much exposition in all of these episodes. The audience gets it, show. You can probably just go about your merry mayhem.
In general, the cast here is mostly enjoyable. Stand-up comedian Bryan Callen might be my favorite thing here, turning the role of a dumb police captain—the sort of thing you’ve seen a million times before—into something vaguely interesting just by putting unexpected twists on some of his lines. Tania Raymonde, probably best-known as Alex back on Lost, turns up here as a character who’s pretty ill-defined, but she seems to be having quite a bit of fun. Charlie Sanders’ Stubeck is a big mountain of a guy who seems uniquely impervious to the monster mayhem, not even succumbing when most other men would be felled by the wave of ghouls. And Caity Lotz turns another stereotypical character—the sweet, small town girl who’s tapped by the cops for an undercover mission and is darker than she seems—into something more winning and fun. There’s a good cast here in search of better material.
And there are plenty of moments when it seems like Death Valley is going to throw off the shackles of its premise and just start having fun. In particular, the latter section of tonight’s pilot involves a moment that more or less lets the show get away with being a mockumentary this week but not even bothering with it next week (though it curiously doesn’t bother changing the shooting style all that much), the better to let the series do things like, say, follow that sweet girl on her undercover mission. (At the same time, the show's opening credits continue to insist the camera crew is an integral part of the show, even as there's essentially no way that would be possible or make any sense whatsoever. So this may be a case of giving the show too much credit.) And there are some funny gags and nicely gory moments when the show can slow down enough to deliver them. In particular, a subplot in next week’s episode about the various monster factions warring with humans over a bunch of mobile blood banks is fun and provides the cast with plenty of room to do silly stuff.
But the show is ultimately felled by the fact that, well, it can’t leave well enough alone. There’s an attempt to toss a mythology on top of everything else, a crazy backstory that will almost certainly point the way forward to the “answers” about why the Valley is suddenly infested with dark creatures. And, yes, this is the sort of thing that shows like this will often have, but it lends a strange, strange tone to future episodes, where scenes with Callen in the squad room, doing stupid shit, are paired up with a more elaborate, darker storyline about Lotz’s character getting in over her head and being tempted by the dark side. It doesn’t help that the jokes, as written, aren’t very funny, with every one relying entirely on the cast’s delivery to sell it. (There’s a runner in next week’s episode about whether two characters will have sex that’s clearly supposed to be cheeky but is more super-familiar and, thus, bland.)
There’s plenty to like in a theoretical version of Death Valley that’s more tonally consistent. But the version that exists now veers so wildly through a long stretch of things and takes so long explaining things that don’t need to be explained that it’s ultimately a disappointment. MTV’s been on something of a roll with its new series this summer, and it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing ever if Death Valley turned things around with that cast. But at some point, the writers of these things have to learn that TV can be a lot more fun when there’s not so much of a strain to justify every element of their premise. At some point, you have to settle in and just let things be.