There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
“Sarah,” a third-season episode of the supernatural drama Haven. Based loosely on the Stephen King novel The Colorado Kid, the series stars Emily Rose as Audrey Parker, an outsider to the Maine island community of Haven, who has the ability to recognize the dangerous anomalies that the more acclimated locals no longer notice. In “Sarah,” Audrey spots subtle changes to her reality, which alerts her to a crisis back in 1955, where her policeman colleague Nathan Wuornos (Lucas Bryant) and her friend Duke Crocker (Eric Balfour) have just been mystically transported by an elderly Haven resident. The episode cuts back and forth between the past, where Nathan and Duke are trying to find this man’s younger self, and to fix what they’ve inadvertently broken, and the present, where Audrey races to ascertain the meaning of the altered timeline, and to bring the boys back home.
Why watch now?
Because the first three episodes of Hulu’s new series Castle Rock debuted this week. (Future episodes of the 10-part first season will post every Wednesday.)
Unlike other Stephen King TV adaptations (such as The Dead Zone, or Under the Dome), Castle Rock isn’t based on any particular pre-existing novel or short story. Instead, it’s set in the same cursed Maine town that King has returned to repeatedly in books like Cujo, The Dark Half, and Needful Things. André Holland stars as Henry Deaver, an attorney drawn back to the hometown he once eagerly fled, after locals began spreading rumors that he killed his adoptive father.
While Henry investigates a strange incident at the nearby Shawshank State Penitentiary, he also renews his acquaintance with his former neighbor Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), a struggling real-estate agent who relies on illegal narcotics to dampen her psychic abilities. Produced by J.J. Abrams, and created by Manhattan writers Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, Castle Rock makes passing references to characters and events in King’s stories, but spins an entirely new narrative.
The show starts getting good around episode three, once it cuts back on the direct King swipes and becomes more like a wholly original novel, exploring some of the author’s usual thematic concerns and character types. Similarly, Haven improves the more it diverges from The Colorado Kid. The book is a slim, digressive mystery, in which veteran journalists swap anecdotes about the bizarre case of a corpse that had no business turning up in their town. The TV show periodically returns to this same mysterious dead man, but uses him primarily as a way to explore the secrets of Audrey Parker, as she gradually discovers she has a connection to Haven that may stretch back to before she was born.
“Sarah” deals a little with Audrey’s hazy past. The title character is a nurse in 1955 who looks like Audrey, and who could help her find answers to questions about her family, and about her reasons for being drawn to Haven. Mostly though, this episode spins off from one of the series’ core ideas: that Haven’s citizens are plagued by a condition called “the Troubles” which causes freaky things to happen in their vicinity (such as people nearby being whisked back in time). “Sarah” is beholden to the “tall tale” aspect of King’s work, and his fascination with American folklore.
Who it’s for
Fans of lighter-toned “strange small town” shows, like Eerie, Indiana or Picket Fences.
To answer the most pressing question: No, viewers don’t need to be fully caught up on Haven to understand what’s happening in “Sarah.” The show has ongoing storylines, but its basic structure is episodic, with the characters dealing with a fresh oddity every hour. When Nathan and Duke arrive in 1955, they encounter people whose names and situations will undeniably have more resonance to viewers who’ve watched the previous 30-plus episodes. But the primary plot is introduced and wrapped up between the opening and closing credits.
The first season of Haven was a little rocky, but by season 3, the writing staff had figured out the show’s proper tone, which was generally closer to a playful “monster of the week” X-Files episode than something as dark and mind-bending as Twin Peaks. “Sarah” is credited to co-writers Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, who also worked on Fringe, and it has a sense of puckishness and genuine awe in common with that science fiction TV classic. It also serves a little like a prequel to some aspects of Haven, digging back into the town’s history.
Unlike Castle Rock, Haven’s “Sarah” doesn’t have much of a Stephen King feel. But its own breezy way, the episode does internalize a lot of King’s fatalism. As Nathan and Duke wander around the Haven of old, they encounter younger versions of their own family members, and create little time-loops, wherein the objects and notions passed down to them by their ancestors get passed right back. The characters end up casting the very shadows they’re trying to escape.
Where to see it
Netflix. All five Haven seasons are available on the service. For another good standalone “alternate history” episode, try season 4’s “The Trouble with Troubles.”