From Review: Two Very Okay Puzzle Boxes In One

The new horror series "From" begins with the ominous ring of a bell. A sheriff, played by Harold Perrineau, walks through his small town, clanging the instrument with the near-boredom of someone who's done it hundreds of times before. Townsfolk emerge from diners and gathering places, walking home with some urgency as darkness starts to fall. It's all very mysterious, but this perfectly average high concept show from the executive producers of "Lost" makes a point of not keeping its secrets for long.

It turns out, there are a few problems plaguing this roadside town, and only one can be solved by the ring of a bell. In the show's pilot, which is directed by "Lost" alum Jack Bender, viewers quickly learn that folks here make a point of hurrying home to avoid violent, nocturnal human-like beings that will prey upon anyone they encounter. Much of "From" comes across like a so-so network genre show, but the Epix program doesn't skimp on the gore. Early on, we see the aftermath of one of these seemingly supernatural attacks, and it's not pretty. It's weirdly refreshing to see some viscera in a series that otherwise follows in the footsteps of less-is-more sci-fi mysteries.

So Far, It's Stephen King-Lite

The town's second problem, which is more conceptually interesting yet seems wholly unrelated, is that everyone who arrives there is unable to leave. The series picks up when two vehicles carrying strangers — including the seemingly wholesome and typical Matthews family — crash on the road at the edge of town. The passengers are dazed and shocked, while the jaded townspeople aren't in a rush to explain the whole "you're trapped and there are monsters" conceit.

"From" has an intriguing enough premise, although it often feels like two distinct premises braided loosely together. The show's geographical purgatory and the inclusion of Perrineau, Bender, and showrunner Jeff Pinker make "Lost" comparisons inevitable, but the series so far seems to mine more of its inspiration from Stephen King. Its boxed-in setting calls to mind the horror master's microcosm-examining works, like "Under the Dome" or "The Mist." The series even includes plenty of King character archetypes: precocious and killable kids, sad parents, town weirdos, and religious and authority figures trying to make sense of it all.

Unfortunately, the series doesn't establish any unifying theme or through-line like King's best works do, at least in the four episodes that are available to screen. The town in "From" has its rituals and moral dilemmas, and there are plenty of backstories to build on, but nothing here sinks its hooks into you. The series seems more than idly interested in religion; some characters pray outright, and the seemingly ghostly guests call to mind biblical parables about hospitality. Yet any motifs are low-key enough that it's easy to watch several episodes and think the show may just be a surface-level puzzle with a "live together, die alone" undercurrent.

Perrineau Saves The Show

If "From" rises above the level of basic mystery box storytelling in any way, it's thanks to the presence of Perrineau. The actor, who is electric in everything from "Romeo + Juliet" to "Oz," elevates every scene he's in. He plays lawman Boyd Stevens as a leader without easy answers: the guy who's tired of being the person people come to for help, but who also can't seem to stop helping others despite himself. It's the kind of reluctant lawman role that could've easily been handed to someone like Timothy Olyphant, but "From" wisely knows Perrineau is more than capable of making it feel new.

Unfortunately, the lead actor's gravitas only underscores some other wooden performances among the cast. It's unclear whether the ensemble falls flat due to acting decisions or directorial choices, but "From" is overrun with less-than-convincing performances that in combination become the series' greatest weakness. The family of newcomers, the Matthews, includes two kids and two parents who are lamentably reminiscent of the stilted suburban family from M. Night Shyamalan's "Old." The series opener is thrilling as far as pilots go, except when awkward line deliveries make crucial moments fall flat.

"From" isn't explicitly bad, but it doesn't make the strong impression it aims for, instead evoking other, stronger works that have come before it. It's like any number of imaginative genre mysteries that have aired in the past decade; intriguing enough to keep watching, yet easy enough to forget if it gets canceled after one season. Still, the show has enough going for it that I really want to like it. With a ten-episode first season already promised, it still has time to course-correct on its ominous road to nowhere.

"From" premieres February 20, 2022, on Epix.