The Twilight Zone became the rightful gold standard for anthology television series but it was hardly the only one as we all know. Some were simply anthology shows such as The Outer Limits or One Step Beyond, while others would try to corner a specific genre market. Tales From The Darkside and Monsters were there for the horror fans (and Serling’s own Night Gallery before that), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (both the 1955 and 1985 series) sated mystery and thriller fans, Fallen Angels was the crime noir show, Amazing Stories was more fantasy based and Tales Of Tomorrow and Science Fiction Theater were there for the science crowd (and lets be clear I have not even touched on some of the amazing anthology series that there have been).
With seemingly every genre having their own series the question became what was left? There was a female centric drama anthology in the form of Lifetime’s The Hidden Room in 1991… comedy in Love, American Style… but what about music? What about a music anthology?
That is where Strange Frequency comes in.
Strange Frequency wore it’s influence on it’s sleeve as it was literally sold as “The Twilight Zone for Rock n’ Roll”.
Strange Frequency was a VH1 original that ran for 11 episodes with 1 episode left unaired (and yes I have a copy). VH1 might seem like an odd choice for such a show as MTV would have been the more natural landing pad and given that VH1 and MTV have the same owners it is conceivable that it was originally developed for MTV and with MTV in more homes than VH1 at that time putting it on the sister network is a weird choice.
The series was actually a backdoor pilot. Originally Strange Frequency was a two hour TV movie on VH1 with 4 half hour stories linked by host segments and if the movie was popular enough then the segments could be re-aired as episodes of the eventual show. This kind of hurt them down the line, but I will get to that.
The pilot movie aired on January 24 2001 and was a pretty good sized hit for a basic cable movie (remember this is prior to the days when cable was the go to for quality programming). The story of the series is loose but basically Twilight Zone style stories that all heavily involve music in some way. The movie had no real linking element and the series would not either outside of The Who’s Roger Daltry as the series host and narrator (he would also appear in the first episode of the series as the Devil but not in any of the subsequent stories).
The pilot movie consisted of four unconnected shorts that were very much hit and miss.
The first story “Disco Inferno” has two metalhead dullards get into a car accident on the way to a concert and the only place they find any help is a nearby disco and since metalheads hate disco… you can see exactly where this is going.
Yes, they died in the car crash and being stuck in a disco-tech for all time is their hell. Following this tepid and predictable story we get the true standout in Strange Frequency.
“My Generation” is honestly amazing with expert acting and a genuine set of plot twists. Eric Roberts just happens to be a serial killer who is murdering teens and young adults trekking across the country to see bands such as Pearl Jam. He hates modern music you see. After he picks up Christopher Masterson he nearly gets killed. You see Masterson is also a serial killer who is killing “hippy burnouts” because he hates their music.
An uneasy alliance is formed and (spoiler)… they both get killed by a 3rd serial killer who hates every kind of music past the oldies. It’s a great cat and mouse story with performances that transcend the material.
Then we get another predictable and flaccid story titled “Room Service” where an out of control rock star (John Taylor, actual former rock star) keeps trashing his hotel room and the maid is always one step ahead of him in an almost Looney Tunes manner.
Finally, we end on “More Than a Feeling,” where Judd Nelson is a music producer that when he hears or encounters talent, he gets a figurative kick in the gut and quickly amasses the reputation for finding new stars. The problem is that every single person he makes famous has some tragic something happen to them shortly after they “make it”.
The final twist is that he gets the gut kick when he hears his young daughter playing piano and to save her the impending doom that follows him he shreds her hand in the garbage disposal to save her life.
The movie went over well with critics and with audiences so a full series was quickly put into production. Daltry was hired as the host and in September of 2001 the first regular episode was aired.
You can also see the music influence with all of the titles coming from classic rock songs.
“Soul Man” had lowly, but talented guitar tech James Marsters sell his soul to the devil for fame and fortune. You can guess how it turned out.
“Cold Turkey” had a brilliant but drug addicted rock star get clean and all of a sudden he is stalked by this beautiful woman who keeps tempting him over and over… yes she is the personification of his addiction trying to make him relapse.
“Don’t Stop Believin'” has a political candidate use the Journey song of the same name as his campaign jingle and when his mistress is killed in a car accident he finds hearing the song allows him to travel in time and attempt to correct mistakes from the past but alas each change only makes things worse.
“Room Service”: Already recycling material from the pilot film and where viewers started to get pissed off. They found that very quickly VH1 was filling out the season with episodes we had already seen. While the Daltry intro was new, this was a rerun basically and all four of the movie segments would be reused in this way.
“My Generation”: Look at that… another rerun so early on.
“A Change Would Do You Good” is about a spoiled rock star that is in a treatment facility that may be more sinister than he thinks.
“Disco Inferno”: ANOTHER GODDAMN RERUN.
“Time Is On My Side”: Another listening to music allows you to travel in time story. At least this one has Pam Grier as a bartender.
“Instant Karma”: A kind of rapey rock star gets to experience things on the other side when a witch swaps his body with that of one of his victims.
“More Than a Feeling”: RERUN.
“Don’t Fear the Reaper”: A goth singer accidentally sees death take a soul and they become friends. Charisma Carpenter is the goth singer and Sebastian Bach from the heavy metal band Skid Row is death.
“Daydream Believer”: is the unaired episode. Ratings were terrible by this point and VH1 just quietly cancelled the series.
Strange Frequency had two major problems that killed the series.
One was that the bulk of the stories were unoriginal or cliched or simply were basic anthology fluff with the music aspect shoehorned in.
The other was that while promising fans “new episodes,” they simply keep rerunning ones we had already seen. The four from the movie were sold “new” when we saw them just eight months ago.
Yes, the Daltry parts were new but that is not cutting it. The TV movie was released on DVD as simply Strange Frequency and the first four of the regular episodes were released as Strange Frequency 2.
Would Strange Frequency have done better on MTV or HBO?
Perhaps. VH1 was not the place people were going for unique music related content. Oddly I think an anthology series based on music really could work, but for it to do so you need good writing and good stories and Strange Frequency simply did not have either of those for the most part.
I would not be adverse of another take on this though…