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Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020’s Horror Television in Review: New Discoveries, Returning Favorites and Cancelled Gems

No matter how the year panned out, at least horror was bountiful. Just a precursory glance at the most notable genre series that released in 2020 indicates an overwhelming selection.

Spread across multiple platforms and streaming services, the sheer content available meant a staggering number of brand-new series, limited runs, returning favorites, and shows that were canceled before they could even find their footing in the vast sea of competition.

Here’s the densely packed 2020 television slate in review.

The Discoveries

This section belongs to series that premiered in late 2019 and found renewed interest on streaming, or they spread by prolonged word of mouth.

Evil (CBS)

The 13-episode inaugural season of this CBS show premiered in September 2019 and ended in late January. Evil received a home release in June, but its Netflix drop in October generated the most buzz. The series follows a skeptical psychologist (Katja Herbers) enlisted by a priest-in-training (Mike Colter) and his tech specialist (Aasif Mandvi) to investigate miracles, possessions, and extraordinary cases. What makes Evil so special is its unique ability to dramatically shift between tones, from absurdist humor to genuine scares, with organic ease. Also impressive is how the series incorporates technology and psychology to cover all aspects of the supernatural. Of course, the creature/demon design is a significant plus.

Servant (Apple+)

Like Evil, Servant premiered in late 2019 and wrapped up its first season in January, leaving viewers desperate for more. Created by Tony Basgallop and executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, Servant follows Philadelphia couple Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell) mourning the tragic loss of their infant. Dorothy’s profound denial results in her belief that her reborn doll is real, and the couple hires new nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to care for it. There’s something extraordinary about Leanne, however, and their lives will never be the same. A psychological horror that keeps its secrets close to its vest, Servant’s distinct atmospheric style will keep you hooked—season two, rumored to lean harder into the supernatural, premieres on January 15, 2021.

Gone Too Soon

The graveyard of fallen shows that received cancellations after their season run this year, many of which still cut deep. Consider this section a celebration of these genre series and a reminder to support your faves while it counts the most.

I Am Not Okay with This (Netflix)

This short 7-episode series premiered on Netflix in February and was the first of the year to explore the coming-of-age tale through exploding teens. Sophia Lillis starred as Sydney, a teenage girl navigating the trials and tribulations of high school while dealing with her family’s complexities, her budding sexuality, and mysterious superpowers just beginning to awaken deep within her. As heartfelt as it is bloody, with a fantastic supporting performance by Wyatt Oleff, I Am Not Okay with This was a critical darling and worthwhile adaptation of a YA novel. What was a shoo-in for renewal instead became a severe casualty of the pandemic.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (Showtime)

Four years after Penny Dreadful’s far-too-soon wrap-up, creator Josh Logan introduced a spin-off set in 1938 Los Angeles. Detective Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) and his partner Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) become embroiled in a gruesome murder case that serves as the connective tissue to a broader tale of history, social issues, and Mexican-American folklore. Despite familiar faces from the original series and a new, complicated set of supernatural characters, City of Angels failed to resonate and received a cancellation after its 10-episode run.

Helstrom (Hulu)

This standalone Marvel series followed Daimon and Ana Helston (Tom Austen and Sydney Lemmon), two estranged siblings with unique gifts. Through very different means, the pair tracks down humanity’s worst while trying to solve the broken family’s demonic mysteries. The 10-episode inaugural season failed to impress critics, though it did land with viewers- just not enough to earn a second season renewal in a year where the competition was fierce.


Series creator Jami O’Brien expanded upon Joe Hill’s novel for season two in a big way, opening up the world of inscapes to introduce more characters and superpowers. The second season also expanded upon Charlie Manx’s (Zachary Quinto) backstory and his history with daughter Millie (Mattea Conforti), while continuing his battle with protagonist Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) and her family. The good news is that the season successfully wrapped up the story arc from the novel. The bad news is that we’ll miss out on future visits with Christmasland and creepy new villains of the inscape world due to cancellation.

The Outsider (HBO)

An adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Outsider followed the investigation of a boy’s gruesome murder in the Georgia woods and the mysterious force surrounding the case. The 10-episode series was a major hit with critics and viewers and boasted an impressive cast led by Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, and Jason Bateman. The Outsider originated as a limited series adaptation. While HBO bought and launched it as a drama series, the network ultimately decided to keep it as a limited series after hearing the pitch for season two. So, The Outsider exists in that weird space between limited series and a canceled series, with King having reportedly given his blessing for the Season 2 storyline.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix)

Series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa adapted his comic books to create a very different vehicle for the teen witch. In a dark coming-of-age story, Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) navigates humans and occult worlds while confronting the evil forces that threaten her loved ones. She’s been to literal Hell and back and encountered demons and witches of all types over the three seasons that have aired so far. Netflix announced that it would not renew the series ahead of its season four premiere on December 31, 2020, but at least it seems fans will receive closure. It’s a small comfort for a series that opened its doors to all types of horror, including the Lovecraftian terrors teased in last season’s finale.

Limited Series

If you’re worried about getting too attached to shows in fear of cancellation or you’re just plain short on time, the limited series tells a complete, self-contained story without much commitment necessary. These series won’t extend beyond their initial runs, allowing you to binge and enjoy at your leisure without worrying about the future.

Dracula (BBC One/Netflix)

The year kicked off with a bold take on Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, one not too interested in adhering faithfully to its source material. The feature-length, 3-episode run followed Dracula (Claes Bang) from his Eastern Europe origins to his battles with Van Helsing’s descendants and beyond. Dolly Wells threatened to steal the entire show as the feisty Sister Agatha Van Helsing, but the gore certainly helped quite a bit. If you thought you’d grown tired of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this series shook things up in a surprising way.

The Third Day (HBO)

For fans of Midsommar and similar folk horror, The Third Day followed a man and a woman’s separate journeys to a mysterious island off the British coast. In the first half of the 6-episode series, Sam (Jude Law) discovers a group of islanders dead set on preserving their way of life at any cost. Their secrets and bizarre rituals force him to confront his trauma, and he finds himself unable to leave. The second half follows Naomie Harris’s Helen, a woman who comes to the island determined to find answers. Instead, she finds herself in a perilous fight for survival. The Third Day does offer a familiar entry in folk horror, but it’s well-executed and full of enchanting mysteries that engross you anyway.

The Stand (CBS All Access)

The limited series adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novel has only just begun on CBS All Access. A new reimagining that shakes up the story in structure, featuring flashbacks within flashbacks, expect storylines to get cut while others get expanded upon in unique ways. Well cast, this iteration puts its characters first over the stakes in the ultimate battle of good versus evil. How it all shakes up, in the end, remains to be seen, but it’s interesting how creators Benjamin Cavell and Josh Boone skip over the pandemic setup and any hand-holding for The Stand novices. In other words, this is likely a limited series best suited for Constant Readers.

The Returning Favorites

In which we celebrate the sophomore efforts of beloved favorites.

The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix)

Mike Flanagan bid adieu to the Crain family and skipped across the pond to reimagine the literary works of Henry James. Netflix’s new season uses The Turn of the Screw as the main story, in which a young American nanny (Victoria Pedretti) cares for orphaned children in the haunted Bly Manor. Look for several of James’ ghost stories woven into this Gothic romance that will pull at your heartstrings by season’s end.

The Boys (Prime Video)

The second season of Eric Kripke’s The Boys upped the ante on the violence, gore, and complicated character arcs without losing its irreverent, biting humor. Sure, it’s not horror in the traditional sense, but its gleeful use of splatstick puts it firmly in the realm of genre that horror fans will love. Season two slowed down its release strategy, dropping the first three episodes at once before settling into a weekly format. The ire it drew from fans who couldn’t wait to see the next is another sign of how addictive the show is. Season two ends on some surprising revelations and cliffhangers for a new season, and luckily, it’s already been renewed for season three.

What We Do in The Shadows (FX)

What We Do in The Shadows didn’t just avoid the sophomore slump; it blew past it with such infectious style, humor, and heart, setting a new bar for perfection. Vampires Nandor, Laszlo, Nadja, and Colin Robinson made us fall even harder in love with their charm and hijinks throughout their encounters with rival vampires, witches, and trolls. Guillermo grappled with his place in the house amidst the revelation that he descended from Van Helsing. Throw in even more surprising guest stars, and you have a show that makes it impossible not to love.

The New Class

These are the brand-spanking-new series that premiered in 2020. These shows showcased how diverse the genre can be while drumming up a lot of engagement, viewership, and discussion. Mostly, though, they brought a lot of fun.

Cursed Films (Shudder)

Jay Cheel’s documentary series explores the myths, stories, and legends surrounding some of horror’s most notoriously cursed productions. Over the inaugural 5-episode season, Cheel assembles a variety of talking heads, candid discussion, and footage to expose the truth behind the curses of The ExorcistThe OmenPoltergeistThe Crow, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. The result is an oft-heartbreaking realization that behind superstition lies a human cost.

Ju-On: Origins (Netflix)

Like the film franchise that inspired it, this 6-episode origin series followed an ensemble cast across time – all tethered to the infamous house. Even by season’s end, it’s not entirely clear what the story is about or where it’s headed, save for its rumination on the horrors that men inflict on those around them. Still, it’s a bold entry that eschews the franchise’s most popular characters in favor of forging new ground. Most of all, it brings about some unnerving and visceral horror via practical effects, courtesy of Screaming Mad George.

Locke & Key (Netflix)

The 10-episode inaugural season kickstarted the Locke saga from Joe Hill’s popular comic series, finally, after many failed attempts in the past. After their father is murdered under mysterious circumstances, the three Locke siblings and their mother move into their ancestral home, Keyhouse, which they discover is full of magical keys that may be connected to their father’s death. While it makes some significant departures from Hill’s source story, Locke & Key successfully invokes the comics’ imagery. It goes heavy on the fantasy-horror. If you’re a fan, you’re in luck as it was just renewed for a third season ahead of season two’s premiere.

Lovecraft Country (HBO)

The series with the biggest buzz belongs to this adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel by series creator Misha Green. It follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) in his quest to find his father during the 1950s, a time of segregation and social upheaval, but with many Lovecraftian beasties and terror thrown in for added complications. While Lovecraft Country has a lot to say, it’s also winsome for its cast, monsters and cinematic visuals.

Monsterland (Hulu)

Based upon the short story collection North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud, this anthology series runs the gamut in style and tone. Mostly, though, it’s bleak as hell with a stark reminder that humans remain the worst possible type of monster. In other words, it’s not a series you want to binge unless you’re in the mood for despair. Like most anthologies, episodes will vary by taste and quality.

Raised by Wolves (HBO)

From executive producer Ridley Scott, Raised by Wolves centers on two androids tasked with raising human children on a mysterious virgin planet. It’s highly ambitious, cerebral sci-fi that feels very much at home in the Alien universe, though entirely unconnected. Raised by Wolves may feature an alien planet, gruesome deaths, and even some alien lifeforms, but expect this to instead get heady with its ruminations on religion. You can expect the weirdness to continue, as the series received a second season renewal.

Warrior Nun (Netflix)

This pulpy occult action series gives a fun twist to demonic possession and Vatican conspiracies based on a comic series. A singular, silly Hero’s journey with a witty teen antihero transforms into an epic, ensemble story that’s refreshingly ballsy and mature in the way it tackles oft controversial subject matter. After waking up in a morgue, an orphaned teen discovers she now possesses superpowers as the chosen Halo Bearer for a secret sect of demon-hunting nuns. In other words, expect an action-heavy series that will appeal to Buffy fans. Season one ended on a major cliffhanger, but luckily season two is on its way.


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