Netflix’s algorithm doesn’t quite have a handle on what I might like, and I am constantly surprised by its steadfast insistence that I will enjoy the lesser works of James Franco, particularly the ones about porn and sex. I can’t quite figure why. But for the past two weeks, Netflix has been recommending that I watch The Hollow, an animated mystery series that debuted on June 8. The family-friendly series, from Canadian producers Slap Happy Cartoons, the creative force behind Cartoon Network’s Unikitty, tells the story of three teenagers who awaken in a strange fantasy land with no memory of their past lives and must work together to survive. I successfully avoided the show for two weeks, but I finally gave in and tried it for one reason: Episodes ran under half an hour and fit in my schedule this week where Netflix’s bloated dramas and their hour-plus episodes did not. I’m glad I watched it, but man, oh man, was the ending disastrously bad.
Most of you reading this probably think that I watch TV shows simply to hate them. That’s not the case, and I go into every show with the assumption that I’m going to like it. This leads to a lot of disappointment, of course. But in this case, I was so pleasantly surprised by The Hollow for the first three quarters of its season that I fully expected to give it an enthusiastic review.
Fair warning: If you click through to the full blog post, I will be discussing the show’s ending. If you haven’t seen the show and plan to watch it, you may want to wait and read this post after you’ve finished the ten-episode series. Most of my review will be spoiler-free and can be read safely as a complete review on its own. I will mark where I dive into spoiler territory near the end.
The Hollow is the brainchild of Vito Viscomi, a longtime TV writer (Nerds and Monsters, The Andy Dick Show) whose years of experience show in the rapid pacing, confident storytelling, and deft characterizations that set The Hollow apart from some of its less inspired competitors. The relentless forward momentum of the series and the overriding sense of joy that permeates the show are infectious, particularly in an era when even children’s programming veers toward the dour.
The story opens by introducing us to three teenagers who awaken in a windowless, door-free room without memories and know each other only by names written on slips of paper: Adam (Adrian Petriw), Mira (Ashleigh Ball), and Kai (Connor Parnall). They solve a puzzle to escape the room, only to find themselves in a strange land laden with supernatural puzzles. A fast-talking but generally unhelpful guide provides some cryptic advice to push them along their way, and soon enough they are on an epic quest across a series of colorful and beautifully rendered landscapes of startling variety, ranging from a desert full of crashed spaceships to an icy wasteland and even a floating island full of demons. Each episode represents a minor achievement in their quest, on route to what they believe will be the way home. Along the way, the characters speculate about whether they are dead, in a parallel universe, or even trapped inside a virtual world.
The setup owes more than a little to the “mystery box” narrative style of J. J. Abrams, and there are echoes here of high-concept staples of the current century like Lost, Wayward Pines, Westworld, and especially The Maze Runner, with which it shares more than a little DNA—the lost memories, the threatening but highly structured world, hidden powers, etc. The storytelling in The Hollow is, of course, simpler than its antecedents, since it is aimed at kids and teens, but the presence of a serialized mystery helps to tie the episodes together and push the story forward. With each episode, we learn a little more about the world around our heroes, and they discover new things about themselves, including superpowers. Late in the show’s run, they encounter another set of superpowered teens much like themselves, and the tension between the two groups drives some decent, if somewhat cliché-ridden, debates over trust, cooperation, and utilitarian ethics.
The three heroes’ characters are also clearly distinguished. Adam is a stoic and practical leader. Mira is compassionate and inventive. Kai is impulsive, funny, and insecure. These traits are handled deftly, differentiating the characters with only a few words and actions, but making clear how they complement one another, and how they fail when apart. However, the initial episodes set up stories that never quite come amount to anything—suggestions of conflicts that never arose, or romances that withered on the vine. (It seemed like they wanted to have a unidirectional equilateral love triangle but lacked the courage of their convictions.) Overall, however, the voice actors do some great work giving life to their characters, even if Viscomi’s attempts at humor don’t quite rise to Looney Tunes levels of drollery. Quite a few jokes fall flat.
But what helps to set The Hollow apart from other shows in its genre is the rather beautiful 2-D animation, with some spectacular background design and a fluid style that is functional, minimalist (well, simple and stylized, if not technically minimalist), and also visually appealing. The surrealist landscapes and saturated colors drew on classic science fiction imagery, with elements that reflected everything from Flash Gordon to Scooby-Doo to Myst. It’s no secret that I find a lot of modern animation to be rather ugly, particularly modern animators’ insistence on focusing on unsavory and unpleasant details—bloodshot eyes, snot, stains. The Hollow is closer to the classic style of twentieth-century cartoons, though interpreted through a decidedly modern idiom. It’s a pleasure to look at.
The first season—and as of this writing, the only announced season—follows Adam, Mira, and Kai on their quest from beginning to the presumed end. It tells a complete story. But that ending….
Here I will remind you that the rest of this review should be read only after you’ve watched The Hollow.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Did you finish watching? OK. Great.
I was already a little wary when the characters came into agreement that they were inside a video game because that’s a pretty awful cliché about one step up from “it was all a dream.” The trope is so old that Batman: The Animated Series had its heroes trapped in a virtual world more than 25 years ago, and of course Tron did it a decade before. Both DuckTales and He-Man had similar episodes, and TV Tropes has not one but two tropes devoted to being stuck in a virtual world. But by this point the series had earned enough goodwill that I assumed that there would be a payoff to the story that would justify the rather uninspired choice of making the weird and wonderful world the show created be fake.
After defeating the game, the Adam, Mira, and Kai wake up in a game show studio. The whole thing was a game show. And to make this reveal doubly worse, Viscomi and his directorial team of Josh Mepham and Greg Sullivan switch at this point from 2-D animation to badly lit live-action, with a breathtakingly bad decision to have the live action actors, who are dressed and styled to approximate their cartoon counterparts, dubbed over with the cartoon voices. Minimalist cartoon characters do not translate well to full flesh-and-blood humans, nor do exaggerated voice over performances translate well to live-action.
The ending rendered the whole series moot. The characters were never in danger, and their character growth was erased by leaving the game. The show negated itself. But even that might have worked as a setup for further adventures if they had stuck with 2-D animation. As it is, the choice to translate to live action created a number of insoluble problems. Just in terms of plot mechanics, it asks us to believe that the three heroes accepted that they were cartoons and didn’t think that was weird at all. (There’s also a huge plot hole about “collapsing” code I won’t get into here.) Worse, either (a) the heroes moved through a 2-D environment as though it were 3-D or (b) they were in a 3-D animated game that inexplicably the game show and The Hollow perversely chose to present to us in 2-D. And nobody noticed or cared! How does a 3-D person live in a 2-D world? This isn’t Flatland.
But at the level of entertainment, the viewer suspends disbelief when watching a cartoon and can accept the animated characters as “people” so long as their world is consistent. The context makes them “real.” Stripping that context away by asking us to identify the cartoon versions of the characters with three previously unseen actors, in a cheaply assembled soundstage, creates such an unfortunate juxtaposition between the versions of the characters the viewer identified with and cared about throughout the series run and the new people standing in for them that it breaks the suspension of disbelief by calling attention to the artificiality of the cartoon itself and therefore to the very artificiality of both character and narrative as elements of storytelling.
That ending was so stunningly awful that it nearly ruined the series for me. The only saving grace was that a brief hint in the last seconds suggested that the live action world is also a false reality. This leaves a window to correct in a potential second season by reestablishing the cartoon world as baseline reality for the series. Perhaps they could cycle through a Claymation world or a Lego world en route back to cartoon reality. Whatever they choose to do, fundamentally altering the compact between viewer and show without a really big payoff squanders the capital good storytelling established. South Park tried it as a gag once in 2014, in what as pretty much the same plot as The Hollow, replacing the cartoon kids with real-life child actors, and it worked because it was a joke. As drama, however, I’d have a hard time buying it.
When I finished watching the show on Tuesday, I really hated the ending and thought it ruined the whole show. After stepping back for a day, I now just hate it, without the intensifier, both because I can sort of see what they were going for, though they failed, and can imagine a few clever ways out of it, which, if they use one in a second season, could at least minimize the damage.
All told, the first six episodes or so are great fun, the next three are a little less so with each mystery that gets solved, and the last episode almost pulls off a thrilling climax in its generally excellent first three-quarters before shooting itself in the foot, cutting its own legs out from under itself, and then hitting itself in the head with a shovel until it’s good and dead. And I really wanted to give this show a full-throated endorsement. It came so damned close.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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