Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
As Brand New Cherry Flavor goes, Big C may have been underselling it. Nobody who’s touched or even tangentially involved with this story of revenge comes out completely unscathed. Nor is it a straightforward I Spit On Your Grave-type of affair where someone is wronged, gets violent revenge, and that’s it. It quickly becomes a lot more surreal than that.
I doubt I’ll be the first to call it ‘dreamlike’. Specifically, it’s one of those bad dreams where everything starts going horribly wrong (in-story, rather than on a production level). You don’t need to pay too much attention to follow what’s going on, which isn’t strictly a negative, but does betray the fact that it’s more flash than substance – as you might expect for a story involving magic — more on that later.
A good revenge story is likely to have the viewer’s blood boiling too. Most everyone has experienced injustice, and when there’s a cut-and-dried case of it onscreen the tendency is to sympathise. I won’t reveal exactly what the injustice is here, but will happily dance around it by noting it’s set in Hollywood and the protagonist is an attractive young woman, so you can draw your own conclusions.
The backstory of Brand New Cherry Flavor is that Rosa Salazar’s budding director is all set to make a big splash in Hollywood on the strength of her short film – which is always risky territory. This kind of storyline leaves any production with two clear choices: to be absolutely certain that the film-within-a-film really is a masterpiece, or otherwise to not really show it.
Brand New Cherry Flavour plumps for the second option, limiting our exposure to this alleged opus to mere snippets. All told, though, they still use too much of it. It would have worked equally well, if not better, as an unseen MacGuffin. Indeed, for the first few episodes this is exactly how the show deploys the film’s final sequence, whose memorable ‘special effects’ (wink wink) tend to stick in people’s minds.
By contrast to this haughtily black-and-white short, most of Brand New Cherry Flavor is a blaze of colour, all vaporwave pastels and striking variations. Between this and the settings, which run the LA gamut between grimy and hoity-toity, it is if nothing else nice to look at.
So much of the show is stylised in this way that it’s a great disappointment when, in the latter half, it starts throwing up scenes so dimly lit you can barely see what’s going on. This is not the only way to convey darkness onscreen – and besides which, more than once we see characters act as if having a red light flashing in their faces is completely normal, so there’s really no need to suddenly become a slave to realism.
The largely excellent visual design is also rather let down by the sound design – off-key sirens to let you know something scary’s happening, and the perennial sin of soundtrack choice, songs where the lyrics match up a bit too closely with what’s being shown onscreen (a song with the refrain ‘goodbye’ over a goodbye scene, for instance).
While it never goes full splattercore, there’s some fairly squirm-inducing body horror in Brand New Cherry Flavor. A lot of it revolves around the traditional wince zone of the eyes, although more originally, at one point an area as anodyne as the flank gets in on the action. I mention all this by way of a warning, since what is and isn’t nauseating is always a subjective topic – some viewers might already be finding it too much the first time someone sicks up a live kitten.
And speaking of these departures from normalcy, the magical realism (and, to be fair, Tinseltown isn’t a bad setting for this genre) is always in an uneasy place. It’s striving for genuine, no-frills weirdness but a bit too often landing squarely in ‘ooh, look, isn’t this weird?’ pleas for attention, which is probably what you can blame that title on. At times it can get the level right, but very distinctly not when it has zombies knocking around.
(Curiously, none of the Los Angelites present drop a z-bomb on encountering what are very clearly zombies. It’s set before the zombie boom of the early 2000s, but still, they work in the film industry, they would at least have seen Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead.)
As with Salazar’s short, Brand New Cherry Flavor’s weirdness and paranormalcy tends to work better the less it actually shows. It’s a lot better at suggesting a nasty, bloody undercurrent than it is when it has to draw back the veil. When it’s actually giving answers – or, God help us, trying to wrap things up – it comes with the air of a traffic jam. And vague, hand-waving stuff about needing a certain power level to perform a certain rite doesn’t help.
Whatever else Brand New Cherry Flavor might be, it’s fairly clear about what its strengths are – and the dialogue is not one of those. At best it’s florid and rambly, more often it’s purely functional, workmanlike in the sense that its trousers are falling down and you can see its arse.
With the words obviously flagging, a lot is left to the performances. Salazar herself, and her opposite Eric Lange, carry it well enough, although they both seem to spend a huge amount of screentime contorting their face and wailing from a phantom pain. Even Catherine Keener’s suburban warlock, usually a pleasantly deranged give-no-fucks type, is getting in on that act by the end.
Thankfully, this isn’t extended to Manny Jacinto, best known from the mighty The Good Place, who, surprisingly, doesn’t have a bigger role, especially since he plays essentially the same character, that of a lovable young tit who’s blundered into circumstances where he is way, way, way out of his depth.
There’s a number of obvious faults with the story – nothing major, it’s not like they forget a whole plot arc or anything, these are the nittiest of picks, but still it’s impossible not to get caught up on them. Why is this person explaining something they have nothing to do with? How is this person driving all over LA while so zonked they can barely stand? They’re clear workarounds to keep the story moving which can’t help but stick in the throat a little unless you’re actively trying to ignore them.
If you’re willing to forgive it these problems, it’s quite easy to slide into the show’s fractured world (and again, the aesthetics are doing a lot of the work in greasing the slipway). Well, easy’s maybe the wrong word. Once things start getting grisly, which does ramp up fast, it’s more a sense of morbid curiosity as to how all this can possibly resolve itself. If the curiosity itself keeps hold of you, great – if you’re hoping the damaged eyes might give way to something more pleasant, keep dreaming.
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