The Watch, a new National Geographic Channel series, is the weirdest thing I’ve seen all year, and that’s a compliment. It’s a surveillance documentary, an exploration of isolation and loneliness, and a paranormal reality series all in one.
The four-episode series debuts next Thursday, April 9, at 10 p.m. ET, with no commercials for its first 22.5 minutes. It follows four people who live in isolation and work as caretakers, essentially, for different abandoned places. They have agreed, for some reason, to be recorded by surveillance cameras, not camera crews.
Despite being filmed mostly by those locked-off cameras and a hand-held camera operated by the subjects, The Watch is visually interesting, giving lots of attention to the abandoned, overgrown, isolated places. Sometimes it reminded me of the MTV series Fear, though there are no tasks or any similar conceit here, just a lot of footage of emptiness.
When the network invited me to view the first of the four episodes, I had no idea what to expect; I hadn’t even heard of it. This introduction sets a really somber and chilling tone, and kept me interested even as the focus shifted from atmosphere to the paranormal, from the four subjects to the narrator.
Yes, that is the creepiest narrator ever. He’s over-the-top and absurd but also haunting, and he’s equal parts voyeur and puppetmaster. In the first episode, he says the four people are “like my snow globes” and calls himself “the houseguest that never leaves.” That said, he never actually does anything beyond saying odd things.
Sometimes he shifts from disturbing to vaguely informative with lines like, “I’ve often observed how fear can make us see things we would not normally see, or behave in ways that surprise even ourselves” or “It’s been said that living alone can bring on delusions and crippling obsessions.”
This isn’t a documentary about isolation or obsession, though, it’s nearly a raw feed of the subjects–though of course I recognize how carefully edited this is. (The show is produced by National Geographic Studios.)
The subjects range in plausibility and weirdness from Brooks, who is renovating a lighthouse, to Dave, who’s literally trying to be abducted by aliens in remote Montana. A guy nicknamed Cheeto lives in a town poisoned and ruined by mining and later a tornado, and openly taunts meth dealers who’ve set up a lab there. Billy lives in a trailer on the property of an abandoned old amusement part where several children died, and where living children like to come exploring at night.
How real is this?
All four are interesting enough, but after one episode, pretty much remain enigmas. The places they live are all real places, and all places that, when you search for them, tend to be associated with alleged hauntings. For example, Picher, Oklahoma, is a real ghost town that Independent Lens explored in its film The Creek Runs Red. The Lake Shawnee Amusement Park in West Virginia has been featured on several cable channel paranormal exploration series.
Yet searches for the people who appear in the series turns up nothing except National Geographic Channel promotional material. In the first episode, when the show introduces Charles “Cheeto” McDonald, who lives in Pitcher, the narrator says, “suppose there’s someone who still cares about this dead place.” I lingered on that “suppose,” and really started wondering when I couldn’t find anything on them. Are these their real names? Are they actors? Then again, what kind of true isolationist loner caretakers would be on Facebook?
It’s another mystery in a series that is mysterious on ever level, from its narration to its production to its locations.
There is some obvious fiction in The Watch, like superimposed images of ghostly children and, separately, a UFO; they’re presented as fiction and actually feel unnecessary to me, making the quiet reality less terrifying. It’s intriguing and creepy and I don’t really have any idea what it is, but I certainly was compelled to continue watching The Watch.