Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories – an anthology series based on the work of the English author – doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves. Not only is it from the writer of texts that were made into popular movies like Stardust and Coraline, Gaiman has also recently given us Amazon’s critically acclaimed American Gods. All episodes are directed by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard (the duo behind 20,000 Days on Earth, the mystical docu-drama about Nick Cave) and its anthology format is similar to buzz worthy shows like Black Mirror, Room 104 and the upcoming Philip K. Dick inspired Electric Dreams.
Streaming on horror platform Shudder (a specialty subscription horror site that is just $3.99/month) the four-part show is definitely aiming to evoke chills. Its pilot episode “Foreign Parts” is a creepy tale about Simon, a man addicted to Internet pornography who catches an STI despite not having had sex in three years. It hooks the viewer in immediately, particularly with its older style approach to horror (an emphasis on atmosphere as opposed to gore and jump-scares) blended with a tale of contemporary relevance. Also worthy of praise is Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay whose physical performance makes Simon’s affliction feel all the more tangible.
Following this, the show shifts gears to the Poe-like “Feeders and Eaters”, where young man, Eddie (Tom Hughes), becomes infatuated with an older woman (Rita Tushingham) harbouring a dark secret. The central storyline is intriguing but what’s equally impressive is the way it’s presented with Eddie, looking disheveled, recounting his experience to cafe waitress Joyce (a charming Montserrat Lombard), a friend from his past working the late-shift in a cafe.
Joyce’s narration anchors the episode, describing how such a story is just one of the many strange anecdotes she hears from her customers. This – along with the concluding two episodes “Closing Time”, centring upon a group of struggling writers (Johnny Vegas, Monica Dolan, Paul Ritter) in a pub trading fables and “Looking for the Girl”, starring Kenneth Cranham as a photographer recounting his search for a mysterious model who never ages – establishes Likely Stories as a show about the act of storytelling.
“There’s truth in every story told. We all come into this world unfinished and spend the rest of our lives trying to find a sense of fulfillment”, Vegas’ character states in Closing Time. To Gaiman and co, stories are a means of “understanding others and trying to figure out our own lives”.
For fans of shared universes a la American Horror Story, Likely Stories does something original with the concept. Essentially, every episode features a lead actor (MacKay, Hughes, Vegas, Cranham). Meanwhile, a cast of performers (Dolan, Ritter, Lombard) appear in each entry as radically different characters. Although the tales and the characters share no connection with each other, the viewer is left with a sense of continuity. The feeling is best summed up by Gaiman himself, who appears in each episode on radio and televisions (often setting up the themes of story). He states: “In my head, all of my stories take place in different places but they all join up out the back. They have a car park around the back where they can cross from one to the other”.
Likely Stories’ biggest flaw is its brevity. There are only four episodes and each one lasts about 21 minutes. Viewers will consume it in one night and then want more. Yet, that too may not be a bad thing. Lord knows so many current shows could benefit from a trimming and perhaps Likely Stories’ blend of imagination and compactness may draw people towards Gaiman’s literature. If Black Mirror feels a little too portentous and self-important to those reading, this will serve as a pleasant counter-balance.
And a note For Jarvis Cocker fans, he has created the series’ soundtrack.
Stephen Porzio (twitter@porzfolio) covers noteworthy television and film for DISARM Magazine. An Irish writer, Stephen also contributes to the sites Headstuff and Film Ireland and is an editor for Cold Coffee Press.