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[TV Review] ‘Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories’ is an Anthology Series About the Beauty in Storytelling

Neil Gaiman and SHUDDER jump into the anthology game with a methodical, unique look into the nature of storytellers

“There’s truth in every story told…”

There’s no question out there that if you’re coming to this site then you’re familiar with Neil Gaiman. The question then becomes just what piece of the writer’s career do you single out to speak for his work when he’s the incredible mind behind works like Sandman, Coraline, Good Omens, and oh so much more. The guy’s even been experiencing a little bit of a moment lately—more so than usual—with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s beyond words adaptation of American Gods kicking everyone’s asses. While obviously acting as a very different sort of series, Likely Stories continues the recent trend of satisfying, loving takes on Gaiman’s material.

The idea of basing an anthology series around Neil Gaiman’s short story library is kind a no-brainer, especially since almost all of them have gone without seeing adaptations. Most people are familiar with Gaiman’s bigger series and projects, but his short stories are just as impressive. Pieces like “Chivalry”, “October in the Chair”, “Sunbird”, or his incredible take on Sherlock Holmes come way of Cthulu, “A Study in Emerald” would all make for brilliant installments of an anthology series. Honestly though, “Foreign Parts”, “Looking for the Girl”, and “Closing Time”, three of the four stories selected here, are some of Gaiman’s strongest short pieces and all act as strong representations of his voice.

Curiously, each installment features Gaiman popping up in a very unsubtle cameo of sorts, appearing via television screen where he’ll be in the middle of an interview or some conversation. Gaiman’s appearances are very careful to comment upon and romanticize the related theme at hand, but also to never explain or spell everything out. It’s a somewhat cringe-worthy element that walks the tightrope with being self-indulgent (and there will be some people who inevitably think it does go too far in that direction), but it ends up tying together to the central concept of different approaches to storytelling.

The anthology series operates by putting a new lead in each episode, but the same ensemble of actors are used each time to inhabit new and different roles. It’s a helpful way of adding some sort of familiarity to each installment as well as it acting as a commentary on the nature of how the brain makes associations. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard direct each of the four installments and they do s commendable job with the material. They’re working with special effects and a budget that aren’t phenomenal, but they’re also never distracting or pulling you out of these stories. Less can usually be more with this sort of thing, so it all works in the episodes’ favor.

What stands Likely Stories apart from the many other anthology shows that are out there is that it’s about the art and nature of storytelling. It’s about telling tales just as much as it is about the stories themselves. Few shows give the frame narrative this much significance (save Are You Afraid of the Dark? crazily enough), which helps this stand out, but it also inevitably takes time away from the stories themselves. It means less time on these tales, but having others interject and break these outlandish stories apart is also a lot of fun and a very Gaiman-esque take on an anthology series. This is most present in the series’ third episode, “Closing Time,” but all of the entries flirt with this idea of deconstruction.

The above allows mini-stories to occur within the frame narrative, which allows the show to dig even deeper into storytelling. It juxtaposes these urban legends and tall tales to the main “true” narratives it’s presenting. It looks at why some can believe a story and why others won’t, without having a real reason to explain their choices. The series very much pushes in your face the idea that stories are about the people that are telling them.

The first episode, “Foreign Parts” gets poetically set into motion with the simple line, “Simon Powers didn’t like sex. Not really.” The episode progresses into a wonderful story about the idea of losing control of who you are, figuratively and literally, but it’s expressed as a smart parable about venereal diseases (and Simon’s been celibate for years, no less). “Foreign Parts” really gets into Simon’s (George Mackay) head and lets you bond with the sort of character that he is and what he isn’t, so when he begins to change, it’s that much more drastic. The embarrassing, spastic ways that the episode conveys sex in Simon’s head is also quite impressive. The installment builds anxiety in the best sort of way as both Simon and the viewer try to figure out exactly what’s going on as he suffers this breakdown. Simon is smartly composed in shots that constantly have him set against his reflection or paired against his image, reiterating this duality in his changing self. It’s one of Gaiman’s most powerful short stories (as well as bearing a number of similarities to Stephen King’s “I am the Doorway,” albeit much deeper), so it’s encouraging to see it kicking off the series.

Likely Stories’ second episode, “Feeders and Eaters” is a messed up story about an elderly neighbor who needs raw meat in order to survive. The whole thing is also elegantly played against a pregnant waitress, Joyce, who is experiencing hunger of her own, but in a totally different sense. This episode dresses this bizarre love story up as a tale about consumption and giving into hunger in an oddly old fashioned sort of romance.

“Closing Time” deals with the childhood notion of ghost stories, haunted houses, and playing with the Boogeyman. The episode revolves around the idea of telling ghost stories and their inherently hyperbolic nature. It leans heavily into the series-encompassing concept of how being a storyteller is also an exercise in trust. You must earn it and not abuse it with your audience. It also taps into the idea that when we’re children and innocent we’re much more prone to believe in ghost stories, whether they’re real or not. Then kids grow up and that innocence and naivety is lost. “Closing Time” may be fairly uneventful in theory, but it’s more about tone than content. It’s the most scattered of the four episodes, but it’s also the entry that’s the most about storytelling. Strangely, it ends up being the most emblematic of what the series is really all about, even if delivers the smallest impact or reaction of all of the installments.

Lastly, “Looking for the Girl” is about a photographer who is obsessed over a model he continually sees in magazines. The thing is, she’s perpetually 19 in these photographs, even when he meets her years later. It’s a story that’s about not trying to understand everything, but just rolling with the beauty of something and embracing a certain feeling of joy. “Looking for the Girl” is more of a tone poem than it is a mystery. It gets into the idea of objectification, muses, and the fine line in between the two of them. A touching story of Gaiman’s that spans a character’s lifetime over the course of a short story, it should only be fitting that the story was originally commissioned for Penthouse’s 20th anniversary.

Overall, as individual pieces the episodes are sometimes a little lacking at times, but as a whole, they’re really an exceptional, unique package that’s different than the mounting number of anthology shows that are out there. This is one of the more subtle examples of an anthology series, but when it connects, it does so with such confidence. This might not be flashy enough for all people, but give it some time and some trust and this might surprise you. Gaiman fans will have a ball with this, with these adaptations all being very respectful and passionate towards the source material. Honestly, four episodes just feel like a taste of this universe and by the time the season’s over it feels like things are finally getting rolling. Hopefully there will be more installments of this series (obviously Gaiman is not struggling for a backlog of content), so it can get more of a chance to show off what it’s doing and be allowed to let its particular style refine itself even further.

Oh, and cat lovers beware “Feeders and Eaters”

3.5/5

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