Truth Seekers (Amazon Prime) arrives with perfect timing. It is chock-full of conspiracy theories – though they actually seem like a haven of common sense and reason compared to most social media feeds at the moment – and it is scary enough to nicely tee up Halloween. It also reunites Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (who star, and co-write along with Nat Saunders and James Serafinowicz), douses them in yet more nerdy film, sci-fi and horror references, and serves it all up as eight half-hourish episodes. What emerges is a sort of extended Doctor Who, complete with swearing and a Most Haunted flourish.
Pegg is not really in it much, popping up as little more than a cameo, as the Charlie to Frost’s Angels, although his wig makes a mighty splash. The story focuses on Frost as Gus, a paranormal investigator and broadband installation engineer – the two cross over more than you might think – who lives with his ailing father Richard (Malcolm McDowell). Film buffs still plagued by memories of McDowell’s most famous movie scene will be pleased, or perhaps horrified, to learn that his eyeballs once again bear the brunt of something horrible. Gus works for Smyle, a “6G” mega-corporation that sends him into creepy houses in and around Coventry to fix dodgy connections. Gus is a lone ranger, so when he is joined on the job by a younger technician called Elton John, he is not keen on the prospect of sharing his van with “some clueless millennial mouth-breather”, who has to explain to him what a “noob” is.
Naturally, Gus and Elton quickly bond: over cables, misunderstandings about what the letters “ISIS” stand for and a creepy numerical radio broadcast that has captured Gus’s imagination for the 15 years that he has been moonlighting as a spook-hunter. Truth Seekers quickly turns into a case-per-episode scare-a-thon, and at times it is genuinely chilling, albeit with a muted kind of Britishness that you might expect from the school of Pegg and Frost. One of the most frightening lines, early on at least, is: “I think the tumble dryer might be on the blink.”
As a creepy paranormal show, packed with stories that filter into Gus’s creepy paranormal YouTube channel, it mostly does the business. There are old psychiatric hospitals haunted by malevolent spirits, things that go bump in the night, Satanic books, spook-riddled hotels, psychics, witches and plenty of crackly digital ghosts. At around the halfway point, though, it swerves into a bigger story, when Julian Barratt joins in the chaos as Dr Peter Toynbee, “the greatest genius to ever walk the earth”, a sort of monstrous self-help guru who helps to tie all the loose ends together.
Barratt, like the rest of the sizeable cast, is great, and there is such an onslaught of talent that even eminently watchable actors such as Kevin Eldon, Kelly Macdonald and Rosalie Craig only appear for a handful of scenes. Susan Wokoma is fantastic as Helen, Elton’s agoraphobic, traumatised sister who does cosplay makeup on YouTube, and McDowell’s doddery old man shtick transforms into something else entirely. But it’s down to the core trio to keep us watching, and Frost is propped up capably by Samson Kayo as Elton and Emma D’Arcy as Astrid, the “strange little pixie girl” who bore witness to the tumble dryer incident, and who completes the Truth Seekers gang.
But while it works as a spooky drama, Truth Seekers is underpowered as a comedy. The jokes, often couched in Frost’s trademark droll delivery, are barely there; more like an afterthought than the backbone of the series. Anyone expecting the nimble wit of the Cornetto trilogy – Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End – might find this lacking; and, though it tries to pack out the story with warmth, it suffers from a lack of fun. It skirts around the appealing shoddiness of old ghost-hunting “documentaries”, now funnelled into those Facebook clips where self-anointed explorers wander around abandoned mansions, but lacks the inclination to see the funny side in them. As the series progresses and the various strands begin to knot together, it becomes more bogged down and convoluted, and the pace starts to lag, which is strange, given that the episodes are so short. By the end, it is all so operatically nutty that I was half-grateful it was over. Still, it shook me up on more than one occasion. As TV horrors go, Truth Seekers is worth adding to the “will make you wish you had watched it with the lights on” pile.