There are certain tropes in horror that are so deeply ingrained in pop culture it becomes hard to do anything new with them–and for the most part, this is totally fine. Not every story about a zombie apocalypse or a tortured werewolf has to reinvent the wheel. But at the same time, every once in a while, a story comes along that spins a classic idea into something new so effortlessly that it can’t help but feel mindblowing.
This just so happened to be the case with Netflix’s Midnight Mass, a miniseries created by Haunting of Hill House/Bly Manor maestro, Mike Flanagan, though it wasn’t part of that particular anthology universe. In Midnight Mass, a tiny island community is placed abruptly under siege by a mysterious evil that just so happens to coincide with the simultaneous arrival of a new priest, Father Paul, and a young man named Riley who was recently released from prison on the mainland for vehicular manslaughter. At once, it feels like something you might find in a Stephen King story–small town, possible monster–Crockett Island isn’t off the coast of Maine but it very well could be. But from there, things spin very abruptly out of control.
That’s because Midnight Mass is only a proper horror story for the people watching it for the vast majority of its episodes. For the characters, it’s a social drama and a mystery, but even the most monstrous among them believes wholeheartedly that they’re working towards an ultimately righteous end. Even when the monster is revealed and the truth about Father Paul is finally laid bare, the real weight of the horror is placed squarely upon the spectators until the (almost literal) 11th hour when it all comes crashing down.
In this way, Midnight Mass manages to simultaneously subvert and embrace horror traditions ranging from classical to modern. It’s not hard to piece together what’s going on as an outsider, but somehow this knowledge is more a curse than a gift–it turns the show into a trainwreck happening in slow motion. You can see exactly what’s coming, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
The other, critical part of the equation that makes Midnight Mass so successful is it’s dedication to the cast of characters it features. Complete with standout performances from Mike Flanagan regulars and newcomers alike, the citizens of Crockett Island are, even at their worst, layered and complex with personal drama and interpersonal relationships that are, at times, even more terrifying than the monster that stalks them.
Midnight Mass is an experience you won’t get watching anything else 2021 has to offer–and while it may be difficult to stomach at times, it remains one of the most memorable and poignant mini-series Netflix has ever released.
Now that you know GameSpot’s TV Show of the year, check out the nine other shows that made our top ten list and let us know your personal top ten shows of 2021 in the comments below.