As long as there’s been fiction there’s been flash fiction, history’s most bite-sized form of storytelling that packs theme, character development, and world-building into as small a word-count as possible. It’s an art form that’s evolved over time—from the earliest fables to “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn”, to Snapchat stories and that 280-character tweet about the good dog you saw at brunch—but in recent years its thrived in a spot pretty much tailor-made for the form: the attention span-deficient world of online horror. From that community comes The CW’s Two Sentence Horror Stories, based on the internet’s attempts to tell tales of terror using just, you guessed it, two sentences; one to set ’em up, the other to knock ’em down. (A classic: “My daughter won’t stop crying and screaming in the middle of the night. I visit her grave and ask her to stop, but it doesn’t help.”)
Nothing in The CW’s take on the two-sentence material is going to set the world on fire—at least nothing in the two episodes I’ve seen—but there’s an endearing, old-school talking-around-the-campfire quality to it that reminded me, of all things, of a more modern, mature Are You Afraid of the Dark? In a world that pretty much ignored the return of the actual freaking Twilight Zone, I do love that we’re still making room for short-form anthology horror, two sentences or otherwise.
Created by Vera Miao (Best Friends Forever), Emily Wiedemann (Creative Control) and Chazz Carfora (Stories From The Felt), Two Sentence Horror Stories translates its source material’s odd format to TV with a pretty clever conceit. Each 20-ish minute episode starts off with your opening sentence, and then fades to black with a second sentence that, hopefully, makes you reevaluate everything you just saw in a very Twilight Zone-ian way. The series comes out of the gate with “Gentleman”, written by C.S. McMullen and directed by Natalia Iyudin, which follows an overworked single mother (Nicole Kang) whose polite new fling (Jim Parrack) has a sinister interest in her daughter. (Opening sentence: “She was stiff and cold in my arms.”) Episode 2, “Squirm”, both written and directed by Miao, revolves around an office assistant (Tara Pacheco) who wakes up after a Christmas party with no memory of her night, menacing notes left around her apartment, and the feeling that something is living inside her body. (Opening sentence: “I felt my skin crawl.”)
I really love the idea of the show; it highlights that funny way horror and comedy are so similar, how they’re both games of anticipation, tension-building, and then surprise. But unfortunately, neither of these stories pack enough of a gut-punch to be memorable. “Squirm” is the better of the two episodes, featuring a great, increasingly unhinged central performance from Pacheco, some appropriately squirmy body horror, and an ending that’s satisfying in the way a woman getting revenge on an abusive asshole will always be satisfying. But there’s nothing earth-shattering or soul-crushing enough quite yet to turn TSHS into a pop culture phenomenon on the level of, say, Black Mirror. They’re well-made, cleverly told slices of ghoulishness and not much more.
And again, that’s part of the appeal of something like Two Sentence Horror Stories for a certain audience, myself included. Sometimes you just want to quick, freaky yarn, man. I can’t really imagine coming back week-to-week but there is a reason I will gladly scroll through a Reddit page of two sentence horror stories for hours on end. The excitement is in the form itself, the quickness of it, the surprising ways someone can play with those limitations and, occasionally, use them to their advantage. In that way, Two Sentence Horror Stories is more a storytelling experiment than a consistent anthology show. Whether that experiment is truly a success still remains to be seen.
Two Sentence Horror Stories debuts on The CW on Thursday, August 8.