“Why does Midnight Mass exist?” was a question I repeatedly asked myself through all seven episodes of this miniseries. That may sound mean or overly critical, but I found myself asking it because this limited series doesn’t know what it wants to be. Religious horror? Monster horror? Family drama? Religious drama? A kitchen-sink drama, with every possible social issue thrown in for good measure? Midnight Mass doesn’t know what wants to be, and even when it gets a hint of what it could be, it yanks it away.
The reason I asked to review this show, despite my lukewarm feelings on both The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, was 1) because I had hoped that Mike Flanagan, free of any trimmings of adaptation, would spread his wings and really fly and 2) because Rahul Kohli is a good actor, and I wanted to see if he got something substantial to do here. Rahul Kohli does get some great things to do here, and he does them admirably; if Flanagan gets another series order from Netflix, and I suspect he will, hopefully, Kohli gets to actually play the main character. Unfortunately, all of Flanagan’s worst instincts come into play here, along with some very muddled thoughts on religion.
First and foremost, the monologues, oh god, the monologues in Midnight Mass; there’s so many per episode on this show that it makes the head spin. They’re not fun monologues or monologues that have any drop of the individual characters’ traits in them, except maybe for Father Paul’s (Hamish Linklater), but his are bombastic, over the top, and completely clueless on what his brand of theology would probably be. Father Paul’s messages are more evangelical territory as opposed to Catholic territory, I say that as someone who was raised evangelical, and who’s been an atheist now for some time. Maybe if you were raised in any denomination of Christian and eventually turned atheist it’ll be a universal experience, but somehow, I don’t think so.
Everyone on the show is trapped on this little island, except they’re not really trapped because they could leave at any time on one of the two ferries. I suppose the idea is that you always get called home sooner or later, but at the same time…people could just leave this depressing little fishing village and go to the vague “mainland.” I have so many questions about this little island: is there no library, does no one read anything other than the Bible? Why would Kohli’s character come here, even in the face of the racism of the big city? Wouldn’t the racism of a small, ultra-Catholic island town be worse for a Muslim father and son? Why does a woman like Bev Keene (Samantha Sloyan) have such power if the whole island hates her deplorable guts? Sloyan does a good job with an unredeemable character, but some of the things Bev says are so nasty, so beyond the pale, that rooting for her death really isn’t an unacceptable thing to do. She’s this island’s version of Kai Winn or Dolores Umbridge, for a more mainstream example of a lunatic fanatic.
At a certain point in Midnight Mass, everyone seems really, incredibly stupid. I won’t go into it, but there’s a point where being irrational just becomes being stupid as all get out, and this show crosses that line with most of its characters extremely quickly once the time for the real “horror” to begin. The first few episodes of the show are slow, methodical, and all about building character. The last episodes are a bad roller coaster ride, from start to finish, each one more ludicrous than the last. Maybe my dislike of this whole miniseries is because horror has to have some grounding in reality for me to really like it.
Midnight Mass might have been doomed from the start; any series that tries to do so much when it could just be a fun horror romp usually is. That Flanagan has aspirations beyond being fun isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it comes bad when the writing around topics like religion and race gets muddled beyond anything recognizable as something from our world.