Ciarán Howley reviews the television debut of the viral Youtube horror series that traumatised a generation.
Imagine a kids television series directed by Salvador Dalí. Take that surrealism and sprinkle it with the twee British humour of Bagpuss and the uncanniness of Thunderbirds, and you get something akin to the YouTube horror show Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared (DHMIS).
Or as co-creator Becky Sloan puts it, “like a VHS tape that you dig up from underground and you can’t quite place where it’s from. It’s just quite a disturbing thing.”
Produced on a shoestring budget by then recently graduated artists Sloan and Joe Pelling in 2011, the first three and a half minute episode was a smash hit and birthed a cottage industry of YouTubers analysing frame after frame trying to uncover what it all meant. Following on its success, with the help of crowdfunding and the backing of production company Blink Industries, the team produced five more episodes - ending on a cryptic finale that left the fate of Red Guy, Yellow Guy and Duck seemingly in limbo.
Like something from a Beckett play, moments of epiphany inch the characters closer to realisation about the artificial world they inhabit; before a clatter of silly absurdity returns them to their heedless selves.
Until now it seems, as DHMIS makes its small screen debut on Channel 4 with six brand new episodes of macabre muppety mayhem. With a bigger canvas to paint on, the showrunners take us into new terrain while retaining the essential DHMIS-DNA; a mix of puppetry, animation and CGI with leering sing-songs from anthropomorphic household objects and flashes of existential dread.
The new series sees the gang learning a whole host of fun educational topics; made clear by the episode titles, ‘Jobs,’ ‘Family’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Electricity’ ‘Transport’, and, of course, ‘Death.’ The twenty minute adventures are wonderfully chaotic and creatively stronger than ever. More than that, it’s funnier than ever. In the series opener, a talking briefcase (and unemployed younger sibling) turns up to teach the gang about the joys of earning a living.
“I have a job,” responds Yellow Guy.
“That’s not a job that’s a welt.”
“Oh,” he realises before we get a jolting close-up of the welt on his arm, a heaving, breathing creature with menacing googly eyes.
Underneath these antics is wry and biting social commentary. Toxic workplaces, the glorification of the nuclear family, messaging in children’s television and adult friendships are tackled in ways only Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared can. Think workers being eaten alive by the ‘Care Hound’, a carnivorous beast posing as Human Resources, a nauseatingly irritating worm named Warren the Eagle offering unsolicited classes on confidence, and a family so traditionally perfect they’re demented.
Like something from a Beckett play, moments of epiphany inch the characters closer to realisation about the artificial world they inhabit; before a clatter of silly absurdity returns them to their old selves. In their small screen debut however, the mystery of what exactly the world around them is seems to be somewhat clearer. And already (yet again) there are dozens of YouTube videos once again reviewing the series frame by frame to decipher the whole thing.
Absolutely manifesting a season two for this one. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is a must-watch.
All episodes of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared are available on demand on All4.