‘Goosebumps’ TV Series Review: Disney+'s R.L. Stine Adaptation Is Odd

‘Goosebumps’ TV Series Review: Disney+’s R.L. Stine Adaptation Is Odd

For those of us who grew up in the ’90s, R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” books were childhood staples. The novelist knew how to center horror and thrills in books aimed toward tweens. He brilliantly swirled in elements of comedy so the plot points weren’t overwhelmingly dark. A literary phenomenon, Stine’s books spawned a popular TV show in the ’90s and two feature films starring Jack Black in the mid-2010s. With “Goosebumps” feature film director Rob Letterman onboard for the pilot, Disney+/Hulu is trying its hand at a new “Goosebumps” series that promises some of the same iconic characters and adventures for a new generation. The 10-episode first season promised to be scarier than fans remember, but it’s much more cumbersome than compelling. Instead, the show focuses on the adultification of teens at the hands of their awful parents. This shifts the series away from the trials and tribulations of teenhood and the fun of Stine’s work, forcing viewers to focus on the selfish misdeeds of dull adults.

“Goosebumps” opens in 1993 in the fictional coastal town of Port Lawrence. A teen boy named Harold Biddle (Ben Cockell) is home alone one evening, feeding his pet worms and looking through a scrapbook of Polaroids. When the doorbell rings, startling Harold from his solitude, he goes to answer it. Finding no one on the other side, he slams the door shut, causing a candle to drop on the carpet. Soon, the entire house goes up in flames, with Harold still inside.

Some 30 years after Harold’s untimely death, five students orbiting Port Lawrence High School’s halls are preoccupied with a forthcoming Halloween party. Isaiah (Zach Morris) is the star quarterback, however, the stress of earning a college football scholarship and added pressure from his father, Ben (Leonard Roberts), is starting to weigh on him. James (Miles McKenna) is Isaiah’s best friend. Fun-loving and carefree, James is obsessed with being likable, especially when it comes to earning the attention of his crush. Margot (Isa Briones) is Isaiah’s next-door neighbor. Though the pair have been friends for years, animosity from Isaiah’s girlfriend has made things awkward. 

Moreover, Margot is concerned that her parents, Colin (Rob Huebel), the school guidance counselor and her increasingly absentee mother, Sarah (Lexa Doig), are keeping secrets from her. Isabella (Ana Yi Puig), the high school’s resident videographer, feels invisible at school, which results in her lashing out. Meanwhile, Lucas (Will Price), still grieving his father’s death, can’t stop doing dangerous stunts to garner attention, which worries his increasingly frazzled mother, Nora (Rachael Harris).

Though the teens all know each other, their worlds don’t really collide until the Halloween extravaganza at the abandoned Biddle House. Though the party is eventually busted by Port Lawrence’s new English teacher, Nathan Bratt (Justin Long), the new owner of the house, long-buried monstrosities are unleashed. Following that fateful night, things in Isaiah, Margot, James, Lucas and Isabella’s lives begin to go horribly awry. 

The first five episodes of “Goosebumps” open on the day of the Halloween gathering; each chapter follows a different teen as they navigate the day. The viewers learn more about their desires, family lives and what they may have discovered on the Biddle estate during the soiree. However, the series premiere and second episode, “Say Cheese and Die!” and “The Haunted Mask,” which follow Isaiah and Isabella, are disorienting and bizarre. With its dozens of plot points and characters, “Goosebumps” doesn’t settle into itself until Episode 3, “The Cuckoo Clock of Doom,” which is told from James’ perspective.  

Fans of Stine’s novels, the original show and the “Goosebump” movies will note that many of the episode names and themes are ripped directly from Stine’s extensive catalog, which is the series’ major problem. With five main characters and a narrative that flits between the present and the past, “Goosebumps” already had an overflow of material to wade through. Though the series has one central villain this season, the countless narrative hooks threaded through the frame story make the show feel dull and ridiculous. Instead of elevating the plot for a modern-day teen audience, “Goosebumps” shifts from bizarre to gross, delivering more slime than shivers.

There are very few scares in this “horror” series. The CGI effects are comically bad, and the young people are left running around trying to solve 30-year-old problems caused by their terrible parents. “Goosebumps” has the baffling outlandishness of 2019’s “Ma” without Octavia Spencer’s killer performance. While “Goosebumps” understands much of teenhood is about finding your tribe, nothing about this show makes it Gen Z specific or distinctive.  

“Goosebumps” has been universally beloved for decades, but the extensive characters and storylines clearly overwhelmed the writing staff of this new series. Instead of streamlining things for a refined first season, following perhaps just one or two of the teens closely and expanding as it progressed into later seasons, the show is a lump of bland YA themes with a sprinkle of Halloween for flair. 

The first five episodes of “Goosebumps” premiere Oct. 13 on Disney+ and Hulu, with new episodes dropping weekly on Fridays.