What’s the Deal with FROM? An Appraisal of the YouTube Red-Turned-Epix-Turned-MGM+ Series (As of Its 13th Episode)
Slightly over a year ago, in early 2022, as Omicron ripped through the populace, as millions of protective masks were freely distributed two years too late for a very unfashionable pandemic just in time for the mask mandate to be rescinded mere days later, and as almost everyone everywhere was confused and having a lame life-experience, I noticed an apparently unassuming little TV show named after a preposition, and began enjoying it. The show was and is called From, and, sans influence from anybody or anything except being able to watch it if and when I’ve felt like it, I’ve become conversant with its first “season” of 10 episodes (these days, that’s a standard or even comparatively lengthy “season”), plus a few more.
From is pretty cool. Unlike critics on the payroll, I haven’t been offered the first five episodes of its second — okay, fine — season (one actress suggests that things get really scary in the sixth episode), but at the time of this writing, I’ve seen the first three, for a total of thirteen, thirteen episodes, ah-hah-hah! This feels like adequate viewing to offer some pointed yet ultimately irrelevant observations about the show, for my own protracted amusement and possibly for yours. Note the date (From S2E4 broadcasts tomorrow), and don’t complain about misapprehension later when the complete box set is released, and/or the producers do some course-correction.
Going in, you should know that I grew up during a happier time when terms such as “spoiler” did not exist in the oppressive form known today. People were free to communicate. Nobody screeched and wet their pants if somebody mentioned a few details from some entertainment product somebody else hadn’t yet consumed. Even as children, we weren’t babies. In keeping with this, I write as I please. Also, I’m immune to hype, so I’m not an “OHMYGOD OHMYGOD HAVE YOU SEEN — ” tweaker. Really, I’m not obsessed with TV shows about which we’re harshly ordered to be obsessed. I just like what I like.
I like From. But this could change. Depending on its behavio(u)r. TV shows don’t merit unconditional like. So far, we’re good.
From is currently promoted as being from some executive producers of Lost. To me, that’s not a selling point. Lost was hardcore hype; and look what it got you. (The fanaticism over Lost segued into the fanaticism over Game of Thrones — a.k.a. “Dirty Tolkien” — repeating the pattern of Mania-Addiction-Disappointment. Some people never learn.) As hype for Lost intensified, I briefly tuned in to a scene from one episode somewhere in the middle, and observed some B-level TV actors scrutinizing an obviously random peculiarity, and I instinctively surmised that the show’s honchos were making it all up as they went along, and I immediately returned to being not dependent upon such things. (I’m also the guy who greeted Twin Peaks with, “I’m David Lynch! Look at meeeeee! I’m weeeeeeird!!!” [Ol’ Dave did better work on The Cleveland Show.]) Years later, I found Lost’s pilot episode(s) on DVD for a buck at a library sale, and enjoyed that bit for what it was: the only thing J.J. Abrams has directed (that I’ve seen) that’s not embarrassing and/or offensive. That’s praise. But no, I felt no pull from Lost, except that it was probably fun to make, and fun to profit from. Suckas.
From spanks a bit differently, although its premise is, at least initially, similar to Lost. In this long, gleefully unwieldy paragraph, I’ll tell you about it. From focuses on the unwilling inhabitants of a teeny-tiny town in Canada (where all American television and movies are actually produced), though in the context of the show the town is ostensibly in America, or at least in a Twilight-Zone version of America that lifts large scoops out of Stephen King’s sandbox, that Stephen King lifted out of Bradbury’s and Lovecraft’s respective sandboxes. (This continues a tradition of “American” horror produced in Canada: from “Maine,” British Columbia in 1990’s It, to “Maine,” Ontario in 2017’s It, to “Maine,” Nova Scotia in 2021’s Chapelwaite [Epix], the last of which seemingly set a production precedent for From.) Much like Lost (as I understand it), the people stuck in From-town find that they cannot find their way home to wherever they were, er, from (notably, an onscreen map reveals that they’re all from America — that’s not even all of North America, but strictly the increasingly not-United States: national borders being one of many puzzling elements of the show, which may or may not pay off). The reluctant townsfolk all seem to have arrived in From-town during some sort of emotional whoop-de-doo or trauma in their respective lives (relatedly, I formerly suffered an editor who refused to learn what “respective” means, so these days I use it frequently, sprinkled with scorn), and suddenly they’re stuck on a road which does not allow them to escape: attempting to drive out of town simply and maddeningly leads them back into town. Oh, and each night the beautiful surrounding forests unleash upon the inhabitants some monsters (they call them that: monsters) who look and talk like people but take their pleasure in morphing into razor-toothed-and-clawed vampire-like creatures, which cheerfully make bloody, eviscerated, practical-effects husks of any and all regular humans caught outside after dark. The monsters delight in capturing, torturing, and cruelly “playing with” their victims before disemboweling them; basically they’re cats.
That’s the setup. It’s fun. There was a show kind of like this when I was a kid, and I won’t tell you what it was because everybody steals ideas, but this has similar appeal to that, and I never missed an episode of that. It sure beats most of today’s shows, focusing on the drudgery of public servants and crime-scene sniffers (though it includes whiffs of that stuff — From’s good, but it’s still TV — kept to a tasteful minimum).
Thirteen episodes in, I can say that From offers thrilling lo-fi sci-fi and in-your-face horror as compulsively watchable television. (There’s your rave. Have at it.) The writing of these shifting yet interconnected storylines keeps the drama tight, and the ramshackle town (apparently custom-built and custom-distressed for the production upon the foundations of a burnt-out “mid-century” government pocket community) pleases the eyes, at least these eyes: which quickly weary of looking at the same big cities, or rather the same big cities pretending to be other big cities. From-town also could be perceived as the sort of backward backwater crawling with rednecks, where Sidney Poitier might get embroiled, but instead, by design, by decree, or both, the producers have populated it with the casting equivalent of a Benetton ad. From (actual word: from!) its multiculti townsfolk to its rustic appeal to its natural environs to its conveniently located diner with twee tunes on the juke, From (the show) emerges as the intermittently vicious yet surprisingly nuanced flip-side to Northern Exposure: the most recent live-action show I’ve adored, frankly. (I’m picky with my television.) The difference being that, except for one, the inhabitants of “Cicely, Alaska” actually wanted to be stuck there.
Topping the bill is Harold Perrineau, who focuses the show with his charismatic presence and thoughtful, layered performance. A skilled veteran, including bouncing in and out of Lost, he’s largely new to me, as I opted for the “spotless mind” treatment after the Matrix movies. Mr. Perrineau plays Sheriff Boyd, which prompts me to ask when the captives of From-town got it together to hold an election, but as the authority figure with the large and iconic hand-bell (and where did they get that?), he literally sets the tone for the whole series. He’s very convincing, as an understandably bewildered and wounded family man who nonetheless refuses to give up, and watching him take charge, especially in complicated moments (see for yourself) is truly impressive. His blend of courage, dread, and vulnerability won’t soon be forgotten. He won’t get an Oscar for this, as it’s not a feature film, but by all means give him a nice assortment of other awards.
So Boyd’s the lead, but From also delivers an excellent ensemble, including Catalina Sandino Moreno and Eion Bailey as spouses and parents put to the test by From-town, trying to protect their determined little son, played by Simon Webster, and their impassioned daughter, played by Hannah Cheramy, with this role unabashedly busting out to greater renown. Also exceptional are Chloe Van Landschoot and Ricky He as From-town’s doctor and deputy, respectively. And there’s plenty more talent on the roster. Everybody here sells the premise quite effectively, but From would be a different and lesser show sans Perrineau. Not sure I buy him as a Lyle Lovett fan, but they cast the right guy.
The “rules” of From, as of the tenth and final episode of its first season, could be thusly defined: Once people enter the town, there’s no practical way for them to leave. Night brings the shape-shifting vampiric creatures (which a character in the second season refers to as “the tip of the spear”; amusing metaphor: is the rest of a spear particularly dangerous?) For reasons as yet unexplained, these monsters cannot enter any structure with its doors and windows closed, as long as one of several stones engraved with primitive runes (“talismans” — essentially modified mezuzot) is hanging inside near the doorway (this convenient contrivance also works on a tipped-over RV, and in season two on a semi trailer that Boyd claims to have seen a dozen times, yet implausibly never thought to investigate). Oh, and some “farway trees” in the region act as teleportation stations, sending objects and even people who enter them to an apparently arbitrary new location, though still within this locked-down region.
In addition to these strictures, stressors emerge among the characters, whether through familial disputes, romantic attempts (including a tricky love triangle and, tragically, a monster crush), a waitress psychically instructed to kill (wish fulfillment?), plus tensions between two distinct groups: town-dwellers; and those who choose to inhabit the much more bohemian “Colony House” (see: tragic romance). Minus the crazy milieu, these melodramatic conflicts that provide paychecks for TV actors and actresses could devolve into merely more soapy sludge, but they’re craftily handled here. The show’s got logistical issues à gogo, but the seasoned writers on each episode — including Vivian Lee, series creator John Griffin (who writes the lion’s share), and Lost alums Jeff Pinkner (also Exec Producer on Lost and From) and Javier Grillo-Marxuach (long résumé)– keep the people stuff poppin’.
As one example, there’s a dude named Victor (Scott McCord), who’s apparently inhabited the town since he was a child in the 1970s (he still carries a “Disco” lunchbox), and he knows and sees more than most, in a rather creepy way most find disturbing. He’s more interested in cookies than nookie, but he keeps everybody on their toes, including us. He’s a strange catalyst in this microcosm, and it’ll be satisfying to see how he plays out.
I’ve told you that I like this show, and that’s true, so now let me tell you about aspects of it that may bug, that may stick in one’s craw, that may (or may not) eventually prompt me to tune out. From is cool, present tense, however there may be a limit to how long the show can keep dropping loose ends without tying anything up. (There’s lots of stuff I’m not mentioning here.) Intrigue is tasty but it has a limit, and eventually it must be paid off. Dig, if you will:
Just like people who use “lots of moving parts” as a feeble excuse in life, From is, indeed, composed of Lost — oops — lots, and lots, of moving parts, many of which, up to this point, prove incongruous, or impossible, or possibly just annoying. But maybe they’ll fit together, who knows? We’re firmly shown that From-town is, within the show’s context, a real, physical place. And yet its closed-circuit road couldn’t exist in the real world. Similarly defying laws of physics, its mysterious source of electricity (the lights work) is also revealed to be impossible: live wires which lead into the ground and then stop, connecting to nothing. The aforementioned magic rocks inexplicably keep out the vampire creatures like so much garlic — but if the town’s been hosting captives since long before Boyd arrived and found the talismans, why aren’t all the structures smashed and razed by the monsters, and how did anyone survive long-term? These are but a few examples of big-time WTF. If you watch the series, you will notice more.
Maybe the smaller details bug more. Where do these characters get pancake batter — that’s a pretty specific grocery item! — let alone an endless supply of alcohol? We’ve seen no evidence of extensive horticulture or husbandry — a dinky greenhouse with store-bought kale, and Boyd gets jazzed about a goat — yet the diner somehow serves the town’s population all day long. Not sure if the vintage soda machine works, but coffee? Tea? They grow these in the Maritimes? Seems like more of a potato place, yet not a lot of spud talk to be heard. And how about running water? The denizens of From-town complain a lot, but never about shower pressure or a clogged drain — not to mention other bathroom unmentionables. In the short term, these inconsistencies are merely perplexing, but depending where the show goes, they could become damning.
Of a more supernatural bent, some characters are directly psychically harassed by an unknown entity or entities: they can make a waitress’ forearm blister to spell the words “kill the boy,” but they can also answer a makeshift CB radio distress call (the climax of the first season — a communal life-or-death prospect notably entrusted to the skills of a little boy) with an unsettling line such as, “Your wife shouldn’t be diggin’ that hole, Jim” as if they’re just some omniscient guy, er, hamming it up. Who does that?
Well, apparently the same sort of person (or entity) introduced at the beginning of season two as “Martin”: a silly-looking medieval prisoner straight out of Monty Python (or “the Spook” from The Wizard of Id) who’s also somehow a modern Marine, who’s also mysteriously aware of the town, the “farway trees,” even Boyd’s wife’s name, and despite his emaciated frame from being chained to the wall for many years (where others’ corpses are displayed; and who feeds him, etc.?), he suddenly summons enough strength to slash Boyd’s arm and infect him with a blood disease, which gives the CG artists a chance to make icky subdermal slugs reminiscent of the scarab beetles from the not-classic and also mercifully-not-Kurtzman Mummy movies. It’s that kind of show.
Like many cable offerings, From’s dialogue could use a rigorous polish, as most characters default to shouting like a third-grade bully. “You have no idea” is a popular and irritating phrase, and a blitzkrieg of F-bombs rains down in every episode, probably at the behest of the producers, unfortunately making the writers and the characters sound childish and lazy, not badass as perhaps intended. Seriously, once or twice, great, effective; but everybody constantly yelling “fuck” threatens to tip this solemn show into laughable stupidity. From what I’ve observed (e.g. The First Lady, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, over on Showtime) it’s a premium-channel epidemic. I’m not afraid of the fuck-word, but, you know, we do have other words. Lighten up, Francis.
While the characters’ conflicts are compelling as noted, in terms of dialogue it’s also irksome that most of From’s characters answer vital questions by asking unrelated questions or making stray comments, instead of staying on topic, focusing together, and solving problems, as most adults in an extremely dire situation would probably do. (Oh. Real-world pandemic. Whoops. Read that as ironic?) This dialogue dissonance occurs constantly. For example, Martin: “Sometimes you get trapped — that’s when they get you.” Boyd: “Who?” Martin: “You have a kind face. What’s your name?” Ugh! Or Victor: “Did you find what you were looking for?” Boyd: “What are you drawing?” Gah! Of course I get it — people, talking — but communication’s really not a strong suit in From-town.
Boyd’s son Ellis (Corteon Moore) even makes a big deal out of picking wildflowers for his girlfriend Fatima (Pegah Ghafoori), and he does so, then he neglects to bring them along when he proposes to her in the diner. There’s considerable WTF here that’s caused by erratic and inconsistent plotting, not by the creepy town. As one rare exception, early on in the first season, Jim assertively coaxes his frantic family to write their observations and questions on the wall of their borrowed (and flimsy) house, but soon this getting-down-to-business ‘tude is eclipsed by an avalanche of new peculiarities. I’m starting to scan each frame for waterskis, in case somebody suddenly decides to leap a huge, deadly fish.
During From’s first season, I enjoyed futzing with these disparate elements as a sort of mental Rubik’s Cube, idly twisting its planes to see if I could solve it. But during its first ten episodes, From is insoluble. The clues don’t add up. Last month, with its second season imminent, I dreaded the same sort of irritation endured during the first four Scream movies or Prometheus (PrometheASS!): haughty-yet-idiotic writing slapped together so the viewer cannot figure it out, the screenwriting equivalent of Eddie Murphy’s classic bait-and-switch: “Want a lick? Psych!” (Attention, clever expectation-subverters: it’s only entertaining when he does it, like that.) If this show doesn’t pay off its lengthening laundry list of loose ends, I may have to dismiss it, the way one cuts loose one of those guys who makes up his own rules to a game only so he can lord it over you and win. Dipping into season two, this show is starting to play a tad like that guy, alas. Yet From is so well produced and directed that thus far I’m still on board.
Will this dalliance continue? We shall see. As with any relationship, if one party jerks the other around too much, it may end. Having viewed the first three episodes of From’s second season, what started out as a nifty long-form episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits has begun to emit a whiff of shaggy dog. An entire “bus” (it’s a not a “bus”; it’s a coach) of new characters has arrived in From-town, but matters were already complicated by plenty of characters (a couple of whom would be welcome to spend the night outside). Series creator John Griffin stolidly states in a brief featurette that the key word this season is “escalation,” but honestly tensions were already turned up to eleven.
Yet From’s sneaky, convoluted plot isn’t even its primary appeal. The show’s got atmosphere — you can look up the credits to thank each artisan, but everybody involved gets it. Jack Bender (also of Lost, etc.) directs with his usual aplomb, and other directors such as Alexandra La Roche bring onscreen elegance to the material (a tall order, that, when showcasing a “Kelly-kebab”). Some people might like the miserable opening-titles cover of “Que Sera, Sera,” featuring the Pixies guy pretending he’s at Nick Cave karaoke nite — hey, the visuals are darkly enchanting. Oh, and somebody decided to dress all the comely actresses in low-cut tops, and to have them prance around a lot, hallelujah, namaste, à ta santé. Narrative aside, the show has its own, er, feel.
As this second season began, then eleven episodes deep, I decided that there are only two possible solutions to From: 1) The physical: From-town is a real, tangible place ruled by some supernatural overseer(s) with malevolent designs (thus a rural riff on Dark City); or 2) The metaphysical: From-town is an individual dream or collective hallucination, symbolizing some spiritual state of unrest (note: although COVID Testing Coordinators are credited, From was created prior to the pandemic, so that reading is out). Perhaps the show’s thousands of producers have some other tricks up their respective sleeves, respectively, but with those two solutions achieved, I made early peace with From by thinking outside the idiot box, and arriving at a third:
Like its delightful Salvation Army set dressing, From is a bunch of amusing debris, much of it certainly derivative (I noticed everything from The Mist to M*A*S*H, the diner resembles the one from Friday the 13th including a rainstorm, and the show owes plenty to The Prisoner, and to Stalker, and obviously to Night of the Living Dead), being parceled out from some hipster geek’s careworn notebook. That’s the real solution to From. (A few hints in the dialogue suggest that its hidden agenda could be some culty trash about being forced to relive trauma, but let’s hope not.) With its second season underway and its third season in active development, From may eventually reach a satisfying resolution — perhaps it can “stick the landing” — however given TV’s track record, it’s reasonable not to expect that, but rather to enjoy the lowjinks along the way. And to puzzle over why nobody clears the dry motel pool of that crashed car and fills it up with the water they somehow get from nowhere, so everybody stuck in From-town can have a convenient alternative to the ol’ swimmin’ hole, for taking a nice dip while they wait to see how many seasons get greenlit.
13 May, 2023