Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared (All 4/Channel 4) looks like Sesame Street and plays like David Lynch. It is the gently, gradually but relentlessly nightmarish vision of Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling, who met as fine arts students at university and, when stuck in post-grad jobs they hated, teamed up with actor/writer Baker Terry and put their artistic skills to use creating a DIY web series that, between 2011 and 2016, became a crowdfunded hit. The six episodes – lasting a few minutes each – took the happy learning vibe of children’s television and twisted it into something so creepy you could feel it moving under your skin long after the cheery voices had faded into nothingness. A paean to creativity rapidly descends into an offal-stuffed nightmare. The monstrous nature of time stands revealed by a singing, dancing and eventually screaming clock. And so, horribly, brilliantly on.
Now DHMIS has moved to television. The episodes are longer but the characters – never given names, but known to fans as Red Guy, Yellow Guy and Duck (a man in a furry suit and string mop head, plus two puppets, respectively) – the lovingly detailed felt props, the claustrophobia, the growing threat of an existential crisis with every passing minute? They are all as delightfully, thoroughly, relentlessly present as ever. Like The Simpsons, it repays a rewatch with a finger poised above the pause button. I particularly enjoyed catching “Keep an eye on grease fires” written on the whiteboard as part of the trio’s domestic rota.
In the first episode, they get jobs. The notional lesson about the value of hard work, sparked by a talking briefcase, is swiftly upended as they are subsumed into the mindless workings of a factory (Peterson’s and Sons and Friends Bits & Parts Ltd – whose bits get recycled into parts and back again) and adult viewers are reminded of why they drink to forget. Episode two is about death and is possibly the weakest of the series, perhaps because it’s inescapably creepy even when real children’s shows try to tackle this subject and so some necessary tension is lost. Which is not to say the pink claymation figure constantly melting and reforming in order to try to take the place of dead Duck (don’t worry, it’s an administrative error – he’s back, unfazed, next week. “It was a bit nothingy”, is his verdict. “Not really for me.”) isn’t wholly terrifying.
Elsewhere the three get a lesson on what constitutes a family via a pair of puppet twins Lily and Todney – his name a perfect encapsulation of the series’ entire set-at-a-small-but-wholly-unsettling-angle-to-reality aesthetic. The real lesson, about society’s fetishisation of biological, nuclear families comes via a visit to the twins’ home, where Granny is kept alive on a drip, endless home videos play, the trio are served thick, glutinous tea (“a family recipe”) and a tree growing through the house thrives on the blood of strangers.
The cyberworld gets a kicking and the impossibility of ever doing something truly new and exciting is a thread running through every episode. Puppets are born free but everywhere they are in chains. Duck doesn’t know it, Red Guy does and Yellow Guy – he feels it, he feels the darkness within and without but is just about holding it at bay.
It’s clever, bleak, charming, grotesque and funny. More than that, it is clearly still – just as the original web series was – the genuine, idiosyncratic result of two people’s own vision, one shared off-kilter sensibility and retains the sense that they are, at all times, having fun. Which only makes the creepy horror and hallucinatory edge all the more unsettling of course. If Sloan, Pelling and Terry can make more without – am I really going to say this? I think I am – compromising their vision, I’m here for it. If not, I will gladly settle for what’s already colourfully yet blackly before us.