Facebook Watch’s horror series borrows ideas from popular genre TV, but can’t quite blend them together.
The Birch began as a short horror film on CryptTV before being selected to get a series on Facebook Watch. It promised to expand the idea of a vengeful, protective forest spirit by shifting the point of view each episode. This quasi-anthology take on the evolving mythology of CryptTV’s most iconic monster is what drew me to the project.
Having gotten current with the first five episodes, I have to say that the series heart is in the right place, but it fumbles the execution.
The Birch (2019).
Evie is an ostracized teen dealing with the tragic death of her mother. She dabbles in the occult, desperately attempting to contact her dead mom. She eventually stumbles upon weird signs in the wood and a totem made of twisted birch branches. She discovers lore online about The Birch, a motherly forest spirit who aggressively protects those who call upon her.
Episode 1: Through the Woods.
While trying to hold a seance at her mother’s grave, Evie witnesses a drug deal gone wrong. Three of her classmates discover that she has seen their crime and violently intimidate her into silence. As she nurses her wounds, she discovers the totem and a supernatural ally – The Birch.
The Birch feels like a British TV show, for good and ill. It means that while the dialogue can be a bit clunky and the plot a little wooden, the camera work is solid, the color coding crisp and distinct, and the shot arrangements are dependable – if a touch formulaic. It’s about as good as Torchwood or early 2000’s Doctor Who for production value.
I found Xaria Dotson as Evie to be engaging. While the script and direction can be graceless at times, she always felt earnest in her delivery. I really liked the interactions she had with her father, who seems like a lovable loser muddling through his own grief and being a single dad.
Stylistically, this first episode felt like bits of The Craft and Blair Witch Project woven together for a cable TV supernatural teen drama. There’s enough here to create interest, while also hinting at some weak spots.
Episode 2: Postpartum.
As she goes through childbirth, Lanie (Midori Francis) experiences macabre images of a woman being attacked in the woods by The Birch. When the baby arrives, her secretive foster parents whisk the child away, depriving the distraught teen of any time to bond. They plan to adopt her baby and pass it off as their own, both to save face and because they keep insinuating that Lanie is unstable. As her visions multiply and her postpartum depression deepens, Lanie begins to feel a deep connection to the violent and motherly Birch.
OK, so we’re going in a totally new direction here. While Lanie is Evie’s age, she’s obviously in another school. The different way she interacts with The Birch makes it feel like it could be a totally different world. Evie had to piece together the lore, Ring-style. Lanie seems to almost channel The Birch, or to be possessed by it in a strange way.
I didn’t dislike this episode. It feels more naturalistic and creepy, a la Midsommar. The fraught issues of teen pregnancy, creepy foster parents, and Lanie’s illness/possession are much more mature horror story fodder than Evie’s. I was interested to see where this goes.
Episode 3: Blood Money.
We see the events of the first episode from the perspective of Thurston, the ringleader of the teen drug dealers who threatened Evie into silence.
This episode is trying to accomplish two things. First, rehabilitate Thurston. I can kind of see why; Dempsey Bryk has a decent portfolio of horror movies and series to his name and is a handsome young actor. Makes sense to try to keep him relevant by playing the tragic/reluctant bad guy angle. He’s also offhandedly charming in his delivery, even when being menacing.
Second, we’re building a kind of “whole town rotting from the inside” theme, akin to a Stephen King horror story. Thurston runs his operation at a derelict lot where a ton of homeless people congregate, so the economy seems to be in the shitter. His uncle is an abusive thug who brutalizes him if he tries to do business with anything less than ruthless efficiency. Evie’s mom died of an overdose, so I have no doubt that will factor into the meta plot of a drug ring poisoning the whole town.
The third episode was more Breaking Bad than Evil Dead. We do get our first scene of The Birch taking out someone who hurt Evie, but it feels incidental to the major thrust of the episode.
…And So It Goes.
I watched the other two available episodes, even though we usually just watch the first three to make an assessment. I needed to know what the heck was going on with the structure of the show. Evie’s story is definitely the main story, we don’t go back to Lanie until the unreleased episode 6. This leads to a really disjointed feel, and kept me constantly distracted about how Lanie fits into it all. I ended up watching episode 4 and 5 on fast forward just to see if things would start to tie in to each other.
Binge or Purge?: The Birch.
This is a tough one. I technically wanted to see more episodes…just not for the reasons that the show runner might have wanted.
I found myself a bit disinterested in the main story. I like the actress and some of her supporting elements, but we don’t really get enough of them. Her dad becomes just something to reference. Likewise, Thurston has just the bare amount of support to keep the Breaking Bad subplot afloat. The Birch – both the lore and the creature herself – gets relegated to the final minutes of each episode, so it doesn’t build any kind of Twin Peaks-style mystery or atmosphere.
Having watched five episodes with varying degrees of attention and interest, I have to say The Birch doesn’t deliver enough kindling to keep the fires lit. I found myself constantly distracted and pulled out of the drama. The overall structure feels like they couldn’t come up with enough material just based on The Birch, so grafted on plots lifted from other sources. Couple this with Facebook Watch’s abysmal features as a streaming platform and the signs are clear: Purge.