The streets of Ann Arbor are peppered by about 1.45 million trees. Elm, ash and honeylocust line the sidewalks and fill up the spaces between the buildings. Each one makes living in Ann Arbor that much more pleasant. Now, imagine if an over-caffeinated Literature student summoned one of the many ashy-barked birches in the Arb to life to stalk and strangle their enemies. This is the kind of existential questioning Facebook’s newest show, “The Birch,” asks of its viewers.
“The Birch” follows the interwoven stories of three high schoolers in a sleepy Oregon town. Evie Grayson (Xaria Dotson, “American Vandal”) is a purple-haired loner who longs for her deceased mother. Thurston Polk (Dempsey Bryk, “The Silence”) is a drug dealer with a heart of gold who manages to get tangled up in a murder. Lanie Bouchard (Midori Francis, “Good Boys”) gives birth to a baby girl who will ultimately be raised as her sister to protect her father’s political career. The thread that connects them is the Birch: A chaotic tree spirit with a maternal sensibility who can be summoned for malevolent and violent protection.
Evie accidentally catches Thurston and two of his more delinquent acquaintances standing over a dead body. Then, they catch Evie spying. Thurston’s associates ensure that Evie won’t talk by inflicting a small amount of pain. But when one terrorizes Evie more than he ought to have, Evie accidentally summons the Birch, who takes care of the boy.
As a show, “The Birch” is based on a 2016 horror short with a similar premise. Each episode is a quick 15 minutes, but the plot manages to move very slow. Facebook Watch released three episodes of the 15-episode series, but not much plot manages to find its way into those three episodes. The show is partially suffering due to its format, but it’s also suffering due to poor writing. We’ve received slim, quick biographies about each character and we know they’re all connected. But that’s mostly it. It took three episodes for the Birch to be summoned, and a key part of its mythology has been left out so far.
Part of what makes the Birch such a thorny antagonist is that its services are not free. Summoning the Birch — and it killing someone on your behalf — comes at a price. The idea is that the amount of pain it inflicts on others and gives to you will be equal. Which can be a very terrifying concept. Yet, the show hasn’t sold itself on that yet. Too much is given away, not enough is hidden. The monster is in plain sight, which only draws attention to the fact that the true horror is the show’s stunted, messy plot.
A mother’s love never dies. This can make the mothers of horror quite intimidating and terrifying. Consider Guillermo del Toro’s “Mama,” a film that, while not the best, was certainly fun for all its shape-shifting and affectionate terrorizing. Yet, the fun and terror seems to be missing from “The Birch” thus far.
What the writers have is incredibly rich material, even if it might not seem like it. The monster is akin to a maternal demon. It’s a play on eco-horror, invoking the very plants that help give this world life. The plot points are very basic, allowing for a lot of room to play with the what’s revealed. But, it still misses the mark. It doesn’t know how to pace itself, things are given away almost immediately, and it isn’t even particularly scary. That’s to say nothing of the dialogue, which doesn’t really inspire a whole lot of emotions. “The Birch” probably never will be incredible. I’m not sure it’s meant to be. It could at least be fun. We have 12 more episodes to see whether or not it can deliver.