There’s a loopy sense of anything-can-happen abandon that starts to set in sometime around the third episode of Brand New Cherry Flavor, Netflix’s new limited series starring Rosa Salazar and Catherine Keener. Maybe it’s the tiny houseplant that has somehow shot massive tendrils up the window and through the floorboards of the main character’s apartment in a matter of days, leading to some awkward residential concerns. (“Hi, it’s your neighbor from upstairs! Strange question: Is there a vine growing through your ceiling?”) Or possibly the worrisome case of spontaneous combustion at a party in the Hollywood Hills. It’s definitely present by the third time someone vomits up a small, newborn kitten, mewling and conscious. In other words: This isn’t your usual Hollywood noir.
For those who recognize the name of Brand New Cherry Flavor co-creator Nick Antosca, none of this will come as a surprise. Antosca is the former Hannibal writer responsible for creating and showrunning Channel Zero, the eccentric anthology horror series that ran for four seasons on Syfy. That show was more interested in the dream-logic and dark imagery of nightmares than in traditional narrative coherence and structure, and Brand New Cherry Flavor very much continues that tradition. Despite its ’90s Los Angeles setting, the entire thing seems to take place in the reality of a Lynchian daydream, where characters and conversations are ever-so-slightly off, giving the impression of being caught between the real world and an hallucinatory underbelly. Despite being based on Todd Grimson’s novel of the same name rather than a creepypasta story, this plays for all intents and purposes like a fifth season of Channel Zero. Add to that tone a story which sends up Tinseltown—where the first question after a promising young director dies gruesomely isn’t, “What happened?” but rather, “Who’s taking over his picture?”—and you’ve got a narrative primed for unusual choices.
And boy, do those choices get weird. Salazar plays Lisa Nova, an ambitious young filmmaker who arrives in LA and crashes with old friend Code (The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto) while she tries to break into the business via a striking short film made under mysterious circumstances. Almost immediately, she’s taken under the wing of an acclaimed director and producer, Lou Burke (Eric Lange), who sees promise in her film and agrees to help her get financing to expand it to feature length. This being Hollywood, Burke quickly betrays Lisa and gives the project to another director; furious, Lisa seeks out a strange woman named Boro (Keener) who had approached her at a party and offered an unusual service: “For you? I could hurt someone.” Lisa wants her movie back, and to damage Burke. Boro agrees to curse him—but as anyone who’s ever seen a supernatural bargain struck knows, curses don’t come without ramifications.
Lisa’s revenge bargain seems to cost her almost as much as it does Burke. Along with the aforementioned kitten-vomiting, she’s soon having terrifying visions of a scarecrow-like creature intruding upon her everyday reality, developing strange abilities, and seeing trapdoors materialize in the floor of the apartment she’s just rented. “This, I’m certain, was not here before,” she says flatly; Salazar possesses a superb knack for straight-man comic delivery with much of her dialogue. And after days of this, the payoff has yet to really appear—the biggest inconvenience Burke develops is a nasty case of the hiccups. (“Fucking hiccups?!” an incredulous Lisa asks of Boro. “Hiccups suck!” the witch responds.)
But it’s not long before things start getting darker and more disturbing, and once they do, the show presses its foot firmly on the accelerator, rarely letting up as it starts piling on the bizarre plot developments and narrative curlicues. The show happily follows the path of “episodes only as long as they need to be,” with one installment clocking in at just 36 minutes. Antosca’s overstuffed his stories with too many subplots in the past, and while that trend continues here, with meandering arcs involving Burke’s family among others, this is overall a more streamlined version of his weird sensibilities. Plus, he and fellow co-creator Lenore Zion have wisely revamped large aspects of the source material, particularly in jettisoning all of Grimson’s regressive identity politics. And one of the best sources of absurdist humor comes from the strange relationship between Lisa and a famous actor (Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Jeff Ward, a Channel Zero alumnus), in which the latter just accepts whatever weird shit the former proposes, culminating in a mid-series sex scene worthy of David Cronenberg.
Speaking of actors, everyone here seems to be having a ball. Rather than camping it up, Keener’s eyes practically twinkle as she prosaically underplays her supernatural witch character from start to finish, adding a nice slice-of-life realism to otherwise wildly outrageous situations. And Salazar, so good as the rotoscoped lead of Amazon’s Undone, digs into the bizarre goings-on with straight-faced abandon, never once pausing to react as though any of this is even slightly unbelievable. It takes a certain type of actor to be able to mesh well with this kind of left-of-center material, but everyone from Lange to Jacinto to Patrick Fischler, who wafts in for a killer appearance late in the series, nails their respective roles.
While it’s certainly not of the caliber of a David Lynch movie, Brand New Cherry Flavor operates with a similar sensibility of intentional distancing, meaning it isn’t for everyone, especially those who prefer stories with relatable characters who don’t sometimes make utterly inexplicable choices, simply for the sake of pushing the narrative somewhere stranger. And there are some genuinely unsettling sequences—occasionally gory, sometimes strikingly unnerving—that keep the show firmly in horror-noir territory, even as it can also be deadpan funny. But for those who don’t mind the loopy, meandering not-quite-real-ness of it all, Cherry Flavor makes for an engagingly offbeat affair. And no, that title is never once explained nor justified.