“Are You Afraid of the Dark” meets “The Outer Limits” in the best way in “Dimension 404”

 I have a soft spot for the cheesy, the campy, and the whimsical. I also enjoy speculative fiction short stories and anthology horror TV shows. Dimension 404, a new anthology sci-fi series currently streaming on Hulu, combines the best of both.

 Dimension 404 caught my interest from the first time I saw it pop up on Hulu’s dashboard, but it wasn’t until this past week’s episode, “Polybius”, that I actually made it a point to watch. After finishing that episode, I found I had to watch the next one, and the one after that. Fortunately, only four of the six scheduled episodes are available for streaming, so I was able to finish and get to bed at a reasonable hour.

 Dimension 404 is a co-production between Hulu and RocketJump. In an age where cable channels have found surprising competition in streaming services and are thus even more likely to cling to known formulas, streaming services have given unconventional shows a better chance than they ever could have hoped for under the restrictions of ad-and-executive restrained television networks. Stranger Things has already proven that a streaming service gambling on something that doesn’t fit the traditional mold (in ST’s case, blending a cast of children, a mourning yet determined mother, and a jaded small town cop in an 80s-based sci-fi adventure story) can pay off. And I wonder if Dimension 404 will see some of the same interest.

 Many familiar with YouTube personalities will likely recognize Freddie Wong, a content creator who has used the YouTube platform to create professional-grade projects such as Video Game High School. In Dimension 404, a combination of professional film-making and cavalier whimsy blend together in an entertaining way. And narration and even an appearance in one episode by Mark Hamil certainly help. (Seriously, I never knew I wanted to hear Hamil take a stab at a Serling-esque narration until I watched this series. He does a phenomenal job.)

 And that’s what drew me to Dimension 404 and kept me watching. “Polybius”, the first episode I watched and the fourth overall, reveled in that cheesiness. Following its own interpretation of the urban legend about Polybius, an arcade game rumored to have popped up in a small town in Oregon in the early ’80s with psychological effects on those who played it, the show embraces something between “Are You Afraid of the Dark” and “The Outer Limits”. The characters are lighter in tone than in average series depicting teen protagonists, even as they encounter bullying, perceptions of homosexuality in the 1980s, and ultimately a murder, and sometimes it breeches that boundary of being over the top and goofy, but I kind of liked that aspect. There was something oddly endearing about it.

 The protagonist of the episode, Andrew, is the teenage son of a father (parents? His mother is never shown) who, in his few lines, is revealed to be very heavily involved in his Christian beliefs, and expects his son to be as well. Andrew is good friends with a boy named Jessie who works at the arcade, though he hopes that there’ll be more to their relationship than that. Frustrated by his home situation and his alienation at school, Andrew longs to become a video game journalist and escape the confines of small town life. On the day that he discovers the Polybius machine, a raucous and geeky girl named Amy barges into Andrew’s life, hoping to make friends in her new town. As I mentioned earlier, the episode skates between “Are You Afraid of the Dark” and “The Outer Limits” in how it handles the story of the demonic arcade cabinet, and it often left me feeling that the tone was too light and that any minute, things were just going to hell in a hand basket. But I enjoyed the way it played out and its conclusion. It’s an odd match that works somehow. And the actors play this awkward cast of characters perfectly.

 The odd, but enjoyable tone of the episode intrigued me, so I cued up the first episode in the series – “MatchMaker”, a tale of online dating taking an unexpected turn. This episode veered again more towards “The Outer Limits” edge of the spectrum, but again, the playful blend of the dark and the whimsical left me laughing in scenes that directly followed a scene that was darker or more violent in tone.

 I really liked the characters in episode 2, “Cinethrax”, particularly Uncle Dusty. Again, another blend of horror and humor that veers much closer to the light, like an episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark”, but it still has its own blend of poignant moments. The same goes for episode 3, “Chronos”, which, as a fan of both sentai and 80s cartoons, I had a soft spot for and found the main character rather relatable. The episode honestly felt like it could have fit in a primetime incarnation of Power Rangers.

 And that brings me to the real curiosity of Dimension 404 – who is this intended for? Who is the intended audience? A lot of care went into this show – its actors seem to be having fun and as cheesy as it is, there are actually some poignant moments. And while the tone is light, there are violent scenes, mature themes, and strong language. It’s an odd blend, but it isn’t one that I dislike. I’d be curious to know the answer though but, perhaps, in this new era of streaming services over content and demographic specific cable channels, maybe the answer is “anyone”.

 Either way, I’m looking forward to the last two episodes of Dimension 404. Episodes 1-4 are available now on Hulu.

 

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