Color me underwhelmed. Though Death Valley displays ambition and potential, it also demonstrates how hard it can be to successfully combine horror and comedy… mainly by failing at both halves of the equation. It’s neither scary enough to make for an effective gorefest, nor funny enough to elicit more than a few feeble snickers. Considering how terrific is all could have been, that constitutes a serious letdown.
For example, during an exchange between two members of LA’s Undead Task Force, a zombie wanders into their precinct station behind them. (The Task Force responds to supernatural miscreants: zombies, werewolves and vampires, who have inexplicably become a public menace in the San Fernando Valley.) While they blather on about superfluous plot points, the squad’s wet-behind-the-ears rookie(Caity Lotz) pounds the crap out of the flesh eater like a championship cage fighter. It’s a funny notion, with the so-called veteran cops so wrapped up in their exchange that they miss the action going on behind them. But rather than establishing it as a single shot, which would make the humor shine, the director constantly cuts back to close-ups of Lotz and her moves. Death Valley doesn’t trust us to notice the subtleties in the set-up and thus botches the entire sequence from the get-go.
The remainder of the premiere episode does little better, struggling with its Cops-by-way-of-Stephen-King premise at every turn. The undead are alive and well in the Valley, and it’s up to the men and women of the UTF to put them in their place. A camera crew rides shotgun on patrol to capture their nightly travails. Naturally none of the officers is especially bright and they seem to deal with the monsters the same way they’d handle any other criminal. That nonchalance presumably forms part of the humor – ticketing a werewolf for being out after the full moon, for instance, or dealing with a zombie the same way they would an incoherent bag lady – but Death Valley can’t seem to decide if the danger is real or not. It segues back and forth between using the monsters for laughs and presenting them as horrifying dangers. Each half completely undermines the other, creating a thoroughly uneven tone that struggles to capture our interest.
The lack of good jokes probably hurts the most. After promising previews displayed a naughty sense of transgression, the show itself settles in to a “laughter through shock and awe” tactic that destroys any humorous potential. The sudden violence arrives without decent timing, as do the copious gags that typically fall flatter than a pancake. The various cases we see – a vampire hooker and her pimp, a zombie incursion at a convenience mart, etc. – stem from overused ideas and don’t have the first idea where to go. Death Valley also can’t stick to its guns as far as the shaky-cam visuals: we periodically drop the faux documentary footage in favor of more traditional shooting techniques that destroy the notion that all this is “really” happening.
The gore effects show a little bit of flair and again, the overall idea could be solid gold. But as usual for MTV, Death Valley opts for the juvenile over the substantive: trying to prove how outrageous it is rather than focusing on actually entertaining us. There was an old episode of The X-Files, in which Mulder and Scully inadvertently stumbled into an actual taping of Cops. It handled this concept about a million times more effectively than we see here. If Death Valley hopes to last, it should find a copy somewhere… and take copious notes.