As “Harper’s Island,” “Dead of Summer,” “Scream” and other slasher TV series have found, this medium can’t escape the law of diminishing returns the way a brisk movie can. As the story goes forward, the cast of characters gets dwindled until the mystery has evaporated: The killer is whoever is left. Also, we might get to really liking a character only to see them killed off, thus lessening our interest from that point forward.
“Slasher: Solstice” (Netflix), the third season from Aaron Martin and his Canadian repertory company, cracks the code on this format that’s fairly new in the annals of TV. The present-day story all takes place in one day over the course of eight episodes (each 45-minute episode covering three hours), thus keeping the narrative tight. Even more importantly, “Solstice” is peppered with flashbacks, which serve two important functions: First, we learn potential motives for potential suspects. And second, characters can stick around after they’ve been killed off.
Those simple but crucial innovations provide a foundation that keeps this series fresh, even though Season 3 has a lot in common with the first two, notably kills that are so creative that I applaud even as I’m being horrified and/or disgusted. And, in the vein of “American Horror Story,” there are a lot of familiar faces back in new roles.
These people live in an apartment building in what could be a suburb of Toronto or Los Angeles; like a lot of Canadian imports, the location is vague. It functions as a melting pot of every way you can label people, by gender, race, religion, sexual preference, and more – and it shows that the melting process is not always pretty.
Among Martin regulars are Dean McDermott as Dan, a white supremacist; Erin Karpluk as Kaili, a high school biology teacher big on giving advice; Jim Watson as Xander, a pretentious barista; Joanne Vannicola as Amber, who crazily roams the apartment building’s halls; Paula Brancati as Violet, who runs a website about the Druid killer and hangs on every click, like and follow; and Paulino Nunez as Violet’s husband Frank, who is discovering his bisexuality.
The characters start off unlikable, but a lot of them grew on me. A prime example is Kit (Robert Cormier), who is the Druid’s first victim (in a “one year ago” flashback) but who – befitting the flashback-heavy structure – has many more scenes after that. He’s a “bi poly slut” by his own description, and since we see him doing drugs and making out with everyone in sight at the Solstice Party, we understand the movie/TV shorthand that he’s not an upstanding citizen.
But “Solstice” challenges our prejudice on that count, as we see he doesn’t hurt anybody, doesn’t force anything on anybody, and respects that other people have different lifestyles. He just asks for the same respect. Compared to the killer stalking around in all black except for a mask with neon-blue facial features, Kit is hardly the dregs of society.
Not only do these people become more relatable as the series goes forward, but “Solstice” is a character drama at heart, with the murder mystery as a spice to the main dish. It doesn’t quite use the “Dead of Summer” and “Haunting of Hill House” structure where each episode focuses on one person’s life, but there are moments when it zeroes in on some more than others. The most moving episode is about Amy (Rosie Simon), a game tester and one of the very few asexual characters on TV.
In fact, “Solstice” might be the most diverse series in TV history, as it checks most of the expected boxes in addition to delving into diverse personalities, from Amy’s disinterest in intimacy to Kaili’s well-meaning but self-sabotaging attempts to help people. It leans toward being heavy handed in the early episodes; for instance, Dan is at first glance a racist stereotype. But the writing smooths out once the tension of the killings permeates the apartment dwellers’ lives.
And there is genuine tension here. While you might need to suspend your disbelief slightly and fill in a few gaps on your own once the mystery is solved, the internal logic of “Solstice” is pretty strong. The killings are all freshly discovered or not-yet-undiscovered, so the interest of the police detectives (Lisa Berry as Hanson and Ishan Davé as Singh) gradually ratchets up over the course of the day. Their focus seems slightly too much on investigation and not enough on patrolling the community to keep it safe, but this is happening fast enough that their discombobulation is understandable.
So it’s another good mystery – as good as Season 1’s and Season 2’s (a rare serial mystery that I solved midway through, although I liked that overall season more because of the isolated-cabin setting). And it’s one that makes a more pointed thematic statement than the first two seasons, as it examines the pitfalls of social media and the internet in a horror answer to what “American Vandal” Season 2 does via comedy.
But be warned that it’s not for everybody. The murders are brutal – often in ways that defy the likelihood of what the killing instruments can do, but brutal nonetheless. For all the stuff that makes “Slasher” compelling, Martin and his team haven’t forgotten the title of their show.