There’s Always Room for One More Freak in ‘Midnight, Texas’

The theme from NBC’s long running corner bar series “Cheers” understood that people sometimes need to get away to a place where everybody knows your name, but in “Midnight, Texas,” they also know your thoughts, intentions, lies and naked ambitions. Most of the residents of the small town know their neighbors’ pasts, and a growing majority could take an educated guess on their futures. Psychic Manfred Bernardo (François Arnaud) is running from his past. He’s not without humor, especially when he’s not quite himself.

You’re never alone with a schizophrenic or someone who talks to dead people, which makes Manfred’s cross-country trek less lonely. The dead people from his old world are quite benign compared to the living and living-impaired residents of the remote town where he relocates. The characters are not without their charms. They also bring spells, telekinetic powers, shapeshifting and superhuman fighting abilities to the table. The town is filled with sexy beasts.

Charlaine Harris is no stranger to enchanted characters. Her “Southern Vampire Mysteries” novels, featuring Sookie Stackhouse, were populated by legions of otherkin creatures HBO’s vampire drama series “True Blood” barely touched on. All these creatures would pass the background check for rooms in Midnight, Texas. The show is being run by Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the ground-breaking paranoid fantasia “Mr. Robot.”

Parallels to “True Blood” abound, but found most clearly in the irregulars. Much of the primary cast feel like they have been cast out. Not Joe Strong (Jason Lewis), who runs the tattoo parlor, though. He has more than skin art on his back. He’s got wings. It wouldn’t be a Charlaine Harris adaptation without a reluctant bloodsucker. The apologetic Lemuel (Peter Mensah) is the town’s resident, for lack of a better word, vampire. He has impeccable manners, but is not shy about reaching across the table and sampling snacks. Fiji Cavanaugh (Parisa Fitz-Henley) is a witch whose familiar is just a little too familiar. The talking cat could take over the show as a breakout star if she weren’t so powerful. She can crush cars and steal devil nets from the set of “True Detective.” Olivia (Arielle Kebbel) is a freelance hit-woman with a barely concealed arsenal in her bedroom. Rev. Emilio Sheehan (Yul Vazquez) lovingly runs the pet cemetery with calm restraint, but he’s got a tiger in his tank.

Bobo Winthrop (Dylan Bruce), the pawn shop owner who is a little long in the tooth, has the same happy animal magnetism Sam the bartender had on “True Blood.” The waitress Creek (Sarah Ramos) is prime to be the major love interest. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sort of thing her father is worried about, and he’s keeping an eye on the new guy in town.

During spiritual sessions, Manfred employs the proper, salt-based protection prescribed by most modern witchcraft books, nowhere near the complexity Hammer studios brought into the supernatural safeties of their adaptations of Dennis Wheatley’s books. Manfred also takes his hands off the planchette, a no-no for Ouija aficionados. He’s playing alone with half a deck, because he is already prone to spiritual hijackings. He leaves the circle of protection without letting the Ouija say goodbye. Bad psychic. Kids are going to think this is how it’s done.

Of course, there’s a murder to be solved. It wouldn’t be network TV if it didn’t have some kind of procedural element. The difference here is no one will be calling in the cops when there’s a psychic detective around. The local police are all from surrounding towns where Midnight falls into their jurisdiction. They don’t afford the Midnighters the same protection they do the Sons of Lucifer, who follow a white supremacist doctrine, and a lot of the cops think the residents are just plain weird or downright evil. That doesn’t mean they won’t protect them. Even though the townsfolk have a tendency to want to take care of themselves.

The special effects are fairly impressive for network television. The sloshing of dead water during late night spectral bootie calls brings a faintly disgusting factor. But the series effects shine when used for subtle comedy, like when vampires feed on finger foods with arrows as toothpicks. It is also fun to catch the difference between a sleepy African wildcat and a man in a tiger suit during a full moon. The transformation effects are smartly done, but offer nothing truly distinguishing except the scars that obscure the wingspan of an angel.

The season centers on the death of Bobo’s ex-fiancé Aubrey, with a side plot of saving the world from a ripping of the veil between heaven and hell. The prophetic canvass the warning is drawn on appears eager to have the new resident stranger painted in with broad strokes.

While the series is refreshing for network, it won’t keep the attention of those caught up in smaller screens. NBC doesn’t really do horror that well. In spite of some excellent and subtle death and decay makeup, there is a tendency to put a smooth veneer over the very things that should bump the audience in the night. There are no real evil characters in Midnight, Texas. The monsters are the good guys and count the local sheriff as a trustworthy friend. NBC proved it could go dark with the Manson Family series “Aquarius,” but usually opts for a lighter touch, like their fumbling remake of the classic “Rosemary’s Baby.” “Midnight, Texas” doesn’t have that true killer instinct to go for the jugular. Their freaks aren’t so freaky that you wouldn’t sit down and have a beer with them at your favorite haunt.

The “Pilot” was written by Monica Owusu-Breen and directed by Niels Arden Oplev.

“Midnight, Texas” season one premiered July 24 and airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.