Hulu’s Monsterland may be one of the most underrated shows of 2020. Featuring monsters, human and supernatural, this show will leave you disturbed at the darker parts of America, and inside yourself.
Horror anthology shows have seen increased popularity over the years, such as Black Mirror, Hulu’s Into the Dark, and the reboots of The Twilight Zone and Creepshow. Given the title, I went into this show expecting schlocky CGI monsters with a lackluster plot, but this show flipped both of those expectations.
Don’t get me wrong, the monsters of Monsterland are there, including zombies, demons, and even scary mermaids but more often than not they serve as the background characters to the humans who are the real monsters. Considering the episode titles, which are named after specific cities in America, the show insinuates that it’s America that is the Monsterland.
Created by Mary Laws (writer for The Neon Demon and Preacher) and produced by Annapurna Pictures, this series came to Hulu in October 2020 pretty much under the radar of most.
The show is adapted from Nathan Ballingrud’s short story collection, North American Lake Monsters: Stories, and like the book, every episode is a different disturbing story featuring a different “monster.”
It features a list of stellar actors, such as Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black, The Prodigy), Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi), and Nicole Beharie (Shame, Sleepy Hollow).
The episode directors are equally talented horror directors, featuring Nicolas Pesce (The Grudge, The Eyes of My Mother), Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow, Wounds), Kevin Phillips (Super Dark Times), and Craig William Macneill (The Boy (2015), Lizzie).
As can be expected from an anthology show, some episodes were amazing and some were… not. They don’t rely on jump scares or the overuse of monstrous creatures, and instead focus on bringing a well crafted but deeply disturbing drama to the table that will have you staying up and reflecting on how messed up these stories are.
And while the title may sound a bit silly, the stories are anything but, often telling extremely bleak and upsetting tales that happen across America every day. Tonally, the show is similar to Black Mirror but uses horror tropes and monsters instead of sci-fi to tell its stories of the darker nature of humans.
Below, I’ll go more in depth in every episode and rank them so you can see what episodes rise above the rest or may pique your interest the most.
Ranking the Episodes of Monsterland
1. Plainfield, Illinois
If this episode was a movie, it’d probably be at the top of the year for me. This emotional and terrifying zombie story of a strained and tense relationship will have you laughing, crying, gasping, and maybe feeling sick.
Taylor Schilling and Roberta Colindrez both give incredible performances as the married couple, Kate and Shawn, who met in their college debate team. Kate has long suffered from mental health problems that challenge her wife’s ability to care for her along with their child together. The tension culminates in a horrifying action caused by a moment of weakness for Shawn that she has to live with for the rest of her life.
While overall a tragic love story, some aspects of this episode are downright disturbing, and works completely with the two leads. As an unconventional zombie story, it definitely shines amongst the other episodes.
2. Port Fourchon, Louisiana
This is the first episode of Monsterland, and doesn’t waste time slapping you in the face with some trauma. Toni (Kaitlyn Dever) is a young single struggling waitress raising a brain damaged child. She struggles to balance working her low-income job while also finding someone willing to babysit her problem child, which is when she meets a mysterious stranger at the diner she works at.
The stranger, passing through town, asks Toni if he can stay at her house for one night for $1000 due to the lack of hotels nearby. Over that night, the stranger offers Toni a reprieve from her trapped life that changes her perspective.
Dever’s performance as a young woman feeling like she’s trapped in life and a job is chillingly accurate and relatable and steals this episode. The mysterious stranger’s “trick” that he shares with Toni is both horrifying and unexpected.
On the other hand this episode has a lot of plot and doesn’t get to the supernatural elements quickly. And when it does, it feels a little half-baked. Other than that, this episode crafts a tense and intricate story of a young mother with a shockingly disturbing ending.
3. New York, New York
This episode is one of the most inventive demonic possession stories I’ve seen. An oil company CEO tries to deflect blame for an oil spill caused by his company. His assistant, trying to work within the company to change harmful environmental practices, grapples with the choice to leak information to the press that would show the negligence of the company. While under pressure from the press, the CEO becomes possessed by a mysterious religious entity that warns of the imminent apocalypse.
If climate change is a touchy issue for you, this episode will definitely resonate. The possession scenes are genuinely chilling and the questions the episode brings up are extremely bleak.
4. Iron River, Michigan
Kelly Marie Tran steals the show in this tense episode of Monsterland as the socially awkward Lauren, who deals with her best friend’s mysterious disappearance ten years prior on her wedding day. It doesn’t help that Lauren is getting married to her former friend’s boyfriend, and has seemingly stolen her entire life, including her mother.
This story twists and turns, having you sympathizing with the main character then questioning what hand she really had in the disappearance, culminating in a… wait for it… twist! The only downside is that it’s not until the end of the episode that any supernatural elements are introduced, so it feels a bit like an uncomfortable thriller for most of the runtime.
5. Newark, New Jersey
A couple struggles to reconnect and move on after the abduction and disappearance of their daughter a year earlier. In the midst of this, the father finds a fallen angel in a dumpster and nurses it back to health. You heard me right. An angel, from heaven.
While I wasn’t a huge fan of the use of angels in a horror film, as they are pretty hard to make scary, the design of the angel was pretty cool for what it was. Resembling more of an iridescent reptilian alien than a cherubic religious figure, I was willing to forgive, at least a little.
Still, this episode is pretty out there and the best parts are definitely the drama between the couple and their grieving over their horrific loss.
6. New Orleans, Louisiana
Out of all the episodes in Monsterland, this one disturbed me the most, but for reasons you might not expect. Be warned: this episode might be hard to watch for many viewers, as it involves, without spoiling anything, very strong themes of child sexual assault.
Nicole Beharie plays Annie, a mother who married into wealth. She must confront a dark secret of her past that uncomfortably reveals the lengths that people will go to achieve success in life.
Honestly, this episode may have been better if it did not rely so heavily on such traumatic real world atrocities. The highly disturbing nature of this episode made it both good but very hard to watch.
7. Palacios, Texas
I give this episode bonus points for being the most interesting “killer mermaid” horror movie out there. It’s a bold move to go with the mermaid, but it’s definitely a creature I wish was more explored in the horror genre.
A fisherman who was both physically and mentally disabled by the effects of falling into chemicals during an oil spill (yes, the same one from the New York episode) struggles to make a living in a town where he can no longer do the work he loves and is mocked by his former friends.
One day, he finds a mermaid washed up on the beach from the oil spill and takes her back to his house. When the mermaid revives, Sharko sees her as a potential friend in his loneliness, while she has ulterior motives. Think The Shape of Water but less romance and more horror.
The biggest problem with this episode was once again that it involved very little action and a lot of talking. While I overall liked it, I found it to be the most boring of the episodes.
8. Eugene, Oregon
While I have this episode in the lowest spot, that doesn’t mean that I dislike it or that it’s bad, just that it had a lot of elements that didn’t work for me. I really enjoyed the themes explored, but honestly, the parallels being made were too bizarre for me to get behind.
Charlie Tahan plays an unpopular teen, Nick, who has to drop out of school to provide for his mother who has stroke-induced brain damage that leaves her unable to work or care for herself. Nick barely can afford to pay for his mother’s necessary medicine, which as the episode opens has just been dropped by his mother’s health insurance.
Following an incident where he’s fired from his job at a fast food restaurant, he starts seeing shadow creatures in his house. He reaches out to an “online community” that has had similar occurrences and gets involved in a “war against the shadows” while becoming friends with the people online.
This episode is clearly using the shadow creature as a metaphor for lonely teens finding friendship in online communities that radicalize them, specifically to be shooters. I really liked the dissection of themes in this but was not a fan of the execution.
Overall, the biggest problem that flaws Monsterland is that the episodes tend to be bold, long-winded, focusing on the drama of situations and taking time to get to the horror. But when they do get there, they go hard.
The themes are more than relatable in a horrifyingly disturbing way and the supernatural monsters in it are used in creative and new ways. But more importantly, the human monsters are more than fleshed out and make each episode engaging.
Monsterland is the perfect horror show for 2020, tapping into uncomfortable truths that Americans deal with every day around the country.
However, those looking for extensive stories of supernatural monsters or jump scares, you might be left disappointed.