Few things are more film noir than a dead body in a swimming pool, with shattered memories resonating out from her corpse and onto the screen. Gruesomeness inside of luxury, with a healthy psychological kicker that lets the audience in on the mix of wry and macabre, is what makes the genre tick. Into the Dark’s New Year’s Eve episode, “New Year, New You,” operates slightly differently: It approaches the moments leading up to its opening image with the sloppy, vapid gaze of a lazy slasher rather than the nicotine-wrinkled eyes of noir.
And as Ingrid Goes West and others have shown, the world of social influencers is more than ready for its moment in the psychological thriller sun. The self-actualization rhetoric of Instagram health hawkers may have gotten Gwyneth Paltrow’s near-parodic Goop into the world, but it’s also so close to its antithesis (self-doubt) that it proves a natural arena for noirish cynicism and spite. In “New Year, New You,” Sophia Takal directs Suki Waterhouse, Carly Chaikin, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Melissa Bergland, with a script from Takal and Adam Gaines that is uncomfortably edited, itchingly paced, and deliciously throwback. But as fun as its reconfiguration of influences is, the episode is far from perfect, due to a problem several installments of Into the Dark have had thus far. No matter how unique the approach to the various TV movies, the Hulu anthology always has an undercurrent of camp that rarely fits the aims of those telling the story. A few hokey elements haunt the tale of Waterhouse’s jilted babysitter, Chaikin’s famous influencer, and Howell-Baptiste and Bergland’s scene-stealing side characters—old school pals, all—who come together for a cathartic New Year’s Eve.
While constant references to that event, that unspeakable event, test the stability of their relationship, an overactive camera loves focusing myopically on details, never seeming to know when to stop zooming—it has the energy of a personal space-invading stranger on the train, leaning in to peep your phone screen. The mirror quota for “New Year, New You” must only have been outpaced by the crossfade quota, both of which contribute to the jarring juxtaposition between the hyper-modern social media space dominating one friend’s reality and the petty, bitter nostalgia of the others’, giving us enough visual clues to know that nobody has really moved on.
Unfortunately, stilted acting, stemming from attempts to present fakeness with anything other than the eyes (which the actresses do well), makes the build-up of the reunion grating rather than tense. Either way, it gets where it’s going, which is one real bummer of a party. But instead of being a snippy and biting piece of commentary on female friendship, the episode feels like a repost of a repost: “I know this is a little corny, but it is the end of the year, after all,” Chaikin says winkingly. With masks (the face kind, not the Jason Voorhees kind), reflections, and plenty of lifestyle envy, the episode may be a bit too facile and obvious (social media personalities are cynically hyper-constructed and likely hypocritical… but maybe we’re all bad?) to pull off its throwback tone, but the devices it uses are classic. So classic, in fact, that they can seem really on the nose—like the choreographed dance number straight out of Girls used to cope with confrontation. Other hiccups in the already bumpy script are miscalculated references to pop culture, such as using Elon Musk as an example of someone that seems too smart to be Extremely Online. Pick literally any other rich person, y’all!
Even if we’re not sure we care about these women or this story, we’re still invested in how this jarring party will blow up and what it’ll look like. Takal’s direction and Lyn Moncrief’s killer shots are a confident cocktail of over-the-top style and grounded subtlety, reaching past the acting and grabbing our attention with both hands. Then things get really silly. A would-be torture session fails to generate a confession, leading to the back half of the over-long episode being dominated by supervillain-esque monologues and a pursuit with the intensity of a babysitter bored of playing hide-and-seek. If the acting was stilted before, the wood splinters when the performers (especially Waterhouse) let loose, and Takal’s takedown of influencers becomes hilariously goofy as soon as it moves from social commentary to the actual plot at hand.
Two friends chase the other two around an architectural wonder of a house—where rooms are wherever they need to be and sound only travels between them when it’s convenient—becoming more Scooby-Doo than Sunset Blvd. The evils of fame and ambition are documented and then, yes, the only friend who’s not white and straight gets killed first. They even bring her girlfriend into the picture for no reason other than, seemingly, to kill another lesbian. Takal’s directorial ability may keep “New Year, New You” from being the worst Into the Dark yet, but the dull tropes, scene-chomping acting, and hole-riddled plotting at its core are resolutely rotten.
Into the Dark’s “New Year, New You” is now streaming on Hulu.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.