The desperate quest for a new TV fantasy

I’m one of those people who’s perpetually behind the pop-cultural cutting edge. In fact I pretty much lurk at the blunt ass-end of what’s new/hot/now; I discover TV series years after they’ve been cancelled, I catch up on the popular movies only when I find them in the bargain bin, I’m years out of date on the coolest animanga and games. Netflix loves me; I order DVDs and don’t watch them for months. This is by choice, mind you: with a full-time writing career and a full-time job to juggle, something had to give. And I don’t mind being out of the loop, even when those inevitable conversations occur among my friends as they excitedly gab over that thing that happened on [insert show] last night, or whatever. I just smile and say I don’t watch it, and endure the inevitable looks of incredulity and pity — which I’ll admit I don’t get often anymore. My friends all know me well.

Still, I do occasionally make exceptions for movies I really want to see and games that hit my storytelling sweet spot (at the moment I’m working my way through Catherine, which is quite possibly the most mindscrewy game I’ve played since the last Silent Hill — and that’s a positive recommendation, note). I also made an exception for Battlestar Galactica‘s reboot while it was running; took me awhile to get into it, but once I was hooked I watched it religiously. When a show is good, when it does the things I want a TV series to do, I’ll make time for it.

But that’s why BSG is really the last TV show I followed — it was brilliant, well-acted and very different from the usual space operatic fare, but apparently well-acted imaginative speculative stuff on TV is a lot to ask for. And what I really crave is a good solid BSG-quality show in the fantasy vein. I’ve seen a few excellent efforts, but they never seem to last. I remember a brilliant little show back in the 90s called White Dwarf (pilot on YouTube), that had potential like whoa — hated the voiceover, but it still had an aesthetic sensibility and originality that I loved, and I’m a fan of Neil McDonough. But it didn’t make it past the pilot. And now I’ve just heard about this — Ron Moore’s attempt at a fantasy police procedural. I watched the pilot before its takedown, and it was everything I would’ve wanted to see in a fantasy TV show: clever and imaginative worldbuilding, characters who feel like people and not archetypes, and a genuine engagement with all the possibilities that magic presents — not just a twee treatment of magic as a plot device. Some cool alternate history too, and a proven cast, proven writers, all high-quality stuff. I can’t see how 17th Precinct would’ve cost much; aside from the “hovering blood” effect, it was pretty much a down-the-line police procedural, which are popular because they’re so cheap to make. But even the pilot didn’t make it off the drawing board.

I think this keeps happening because TV hates fantasy. I’m reminded of the way Hollywood treated fantasy prior to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter film adaptations. Once upon a time, Conventional Wisdom said that fantasy on the big screen couldn’t sell. It was deemed too cheesy and laughable, a la Krull, or too commercially dubious, a la Willow — which was financially successful, note, just not as successful as its producers hoped. When Jackson’s budget for LotR ballooned, there was all kinds of doomsaying; since its success, there have been several other big-budget fantasy films made that otherwise probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. A wholesale attitude adjustment. So what will it take to adjust TV networks’ attitudes towards fantasy television? If the decades-long success of Doctor Who — which I’d call science fantasy rather pure science fiction — doesn’t open doors, what will? If Ron Moore can’t sell magic, who can?

Yeah, SyFy — the same network that took a chance on BSG — has made fantasy attempts, but most of them have been offensively bad and should never have been made (link to author GL Valentine’s “Questionable Taste Theater” blog series, which I highly recommend). Last year on the Big Four we got Once Upon A Time, a predictable yawner, and Grimm — same concept as 17th Precinct, a magic police procedural, but far less imaginative (and way less interesting, IMO). We also got A Game of Thrones, which I hear is better than the books — I don’t have HBO, so I’ll get around to it when it’s on DVD — and I’m hoping it’ll make the difference. On the second-string networks we at least get some love for urban fantasy; the last few seasons have been drowning in vampires and witches and now apparently succubi. I’m not surprised; shows like this are cheap to make, and stand some chance of appealing to the Twilight demographic.

But none of this stuff feels fresh or exciting. Even GoT is nothing new — same old medieval Europe-ish setting, same basic focus on guys with swords, just with more sex and better acting than what we’ve seen before. Stick some dragons in The Tudors and you’ve got the same thing (literally; Martin’s story is based on the War of the Roses). But can a girl get some new Xena? I mean, seriously, where’s the Alien Nation with shapeshifting dragons? Let’s try Sergei Lukayenko’s Night Watch as a miniseries instead of a confusing and too-short movie. (It can come on after GoT.) Somebody give Rockne O’Bannon some cash and see what he can give the Farscape treatment to something fantastic.

What will it take to make (literal) TV magic?

20 Responses »

  1. I think the real dealbreaker is that most producers (I’m guessing) get pitched “fantasy” and only hear “really expensive makeup and special effects.” It’s not the kind of thing they’re likely to take a chance on if they assume it’ll cost a fortune just to outfit their main characters for every scene. If someone could make a TV fantasy pilot with NO special effects (or maybe a few simple practical ones) and just a subtle twisting of everyday reality…well, that would probably get written off as too weird and esoteric. There’s got to be a happy medium in there somewhere.

    Off-topic: I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on Catherine. I’ve been considering giving it a try, and have heard only extremely polarized opinions about it (which is kind of a rarity for video games, now that I think about it, and probably a point in its favor).

  2. “Let’s try Sergei Lukayenko’s Night Watch as a miniseries instead of a confusing and too-short movie. (It can come on after GoT.)”

    There is so much win in this statement I can’t even…

  3. I was really excited about Grimm until I watched it – I had confused it with 17th Precinct, the premise of which sounded great. The first episode of Grimm is teeth-grindingly generic.

    I think Supernatural does quite well with extremely limited special effects. From what I’ve heard, the style originally derived largely from a lack of budget, and gives it more of a feeling of subtly twisted reality. I’ve been a fan of the show for a couple years now, though I’ve recently fallen behind.

    I know you said you were looking for a fantasy show, but did you ever happen to catch seasons 2-4 of Babylon 5? Those season cover the main arcs of the show, and while 1 is good set-up worth watching, most of season 5 may be best left on the disc.

    It occurs to me that the last fantasy series I watched and enjoyed was Ao no Exorcist. Animation just seems to be a better fit for fantasy. The budgetary bar for “special effects” is much lower. I also remember an interesting bit on Siskel and Ebert comparing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm to the recent Joel Schumacher outing and declaring it superior in pretty much every way.

  4. The best new fantasy series I have watched in recent months is The Almighty Johnsons, which was made in New Zealand and screened last year. You can get the DVD from Fishpond World – I imagine it’s not anywhere near Amazon next – and there’s a second series coming out next year.

    It’s a fantastic show – clever in its restrained use of the ‘expensive special effects and makeup stuff’ and in making up for a limited budget with really, REALLY good scripts, and with putting one really well realised special effect into an episode rather than twenty.

    The premise is that the Norse gods all came to New Zealand by ship some years ago, with a bunch of human settlers, and that they are regularly reborn into new bodies within the same family. As Axl finds out when he turns 21 and his brothers confess that they are all in fact NORSE GODS. There’s a quest, there’s New Zealand accents, there’s smut and humour and banter, and while the story centres at first around the group of brothers, the women in their lives (and, more remotely, the Norse goddesses who are out to kill them) become more and more integral to the story.

    I keep ranting at people at how good this show is, in originality and inventiveness, and why can’t Australians make fantasy television like this? And oh yes, I bought DVDs of it for Christmas presents. More people need to know about this show!

  5. You should try Supernatural – it’s actually extremely well written and very entertaining. The first 5 seasons are a planed plot arc rather than the usual make-it-up-as-we-go-along-for-as-long-as-people-are-interested approach TV series generally take. Most episodes are monster-of-the-week types, but larger plot-arcs are well developed and the characterizations are fantastic. Bros before hos, no love triangles! Thank god. Mythology of the show is also really interesting – it’s like a combination of urban fantasy (hunters, paranormal shiz) and Christian mythology (apocalypse and everything!). Seriously, try it if you haven’t already seen it.

  6. Quinn, I’m aware of the cost issue, which is why I mentioned that 17th Precinct couldn’t possibly have cost much. The pilot had a very basic, brief special effect, and while I don’t know how much things like that cost, I got the sense that Moore was trying to hew very closely to the standard style of a police procedural, despite magic and alternate history and so on. A show like that couldn’t use much in the way of SFX, because it would break the procedural feel. I think it could’ve been done cheaply. But granted, many fantasy shows would have that problem.

    There have been fantasy shows that eschewed magic altogether, though — I completely forgot about Brimstone, which I also loved. It also had minimal effects; just really good acting and writing. But it only lasted one season. :(

    I’m loving Catherine so far. It seems very much a game oriented at men, on the surface — lots of stereotyping of women, playing with men’s fantasies of sex and paranoid fantasies wrt marriage, babies, etc. But the more I play, the more I realize it’s more complex than that. I’ll reserve my thoughts for the end, though.

  7. Susan,

    I’ve tried Supernatural; it’s not really my taste. More horror than fantasy, though I’m aware there’s angelic lore and stuff like that later in the series. I think I was put off by the “bros before hos”/male bonding/all about the menz aura that Serenity mentions; to enjoy that, I have to like the lead characters, and I never did.

    I did watch B5 faithfully (years after it first ran), but that was science fiction, albeit with lots of mysticism. Thanks for the rec on Ao no Exorcist. My ideal fantasy anime is still Fullmetal Alchemist, and I’ve been looking for a replacement for that now that it’s over. Not sure Ao no Exorcist will be it — seems like fairly standard shounen fare. But I’ll give it a try before I judge!

  8. Tansy,

    Interesting! Sounds like my kind of series! Hopefully it’ll make its way to the US somehow. I’m curious, tho’ — if gods are real in this world, how does the Norse-god family deal with the local gods of the Maori?

  9. I gave both Grimm and Once Upon A Time a chance, Grimm fell short after the third ep. OUaT I lost track of post move and have not gotten back into it. I liked Bedlam, but that is horror also. I would love to have Night Watch and Day Watch as miniseries and not movies. BSG is a benchmark for good, if not great storytelling, it is hard to match it.

  10. We don’t see Maori gods (or any non-Norse gods) in season 1, though I’m not sure if that’s a cultural sensitivity choice (I don’t know enough about the culture to know if depicting Maori gods would be an issue or not) or if it’s just how the story went, as the whole first season has a quite tight narrative arc around their family. There is speculation from fans though that the question of other gods will be addressed in the second season.

  11. I’d love to see Nightwatch (and Daywatch) as TV series(es).

    I don’t watch a ton of television but it’s interesting to me to realize that Buffy and Xena were high points of fantastic TV–more so than Hercules and Angel, I think. (Or at least, they came first and seem more culturally entrenched.)

    I think The Walking Dead has been pretty successful (though it’s too damned scary for me to watch, personally) and so has True Blood (though it’s cheesy as hell.) Supernatural was good for a couple of seasons, if you could overlook the misogyny. Then it pretty much tanked, IMHO.

    In fact, the misogyny in Supernatural is worth looking at for its own sake. There’s a terrific fan vid floating around out there that calls the show on its man-pain bullsh*t, and by extension, calls out that trope in lots of other shows and movies. It’s a very popular trope.

    http://fanlore.org/wiki/Women%27s_Work

    Sidenote, sorry. But it just makes me all the sadder that we don’t have any decent feminist fantasy TV right now…and haven’t for a while.

  12. I live in Canada and have had the pleasure of watching Lost Girl for the past two seasons. This really is a feminist show – the lead character, Bo, may be a succubus, but it’s not about that so much as it is about a young woman fighting for the right to find out who and what she is, and live her life on her own terms.

    The premise is that most of the mythological creatures from folklore around the world are real, and are divided into two camps – Light and Dark Fae. Bo, as a succubus, is Fae, but was raised among humans and is unaware of her background. At first all she knows is that for her, having sex means death for her partner. As she learns about her heritage, she discovers how to control her powers – this is not about a serial killer, and can actually be read as a response to all those highly sexualised evil women in television history. Here is a character who could go there but doesn’t.

    Once she discovers the Fae, and that she is one of them, she is pressured to join a camp, but refuses. She seeks to learn who she is on her own terms, not those dictated to her by the conventions of a society she doesn’t understand. Because she is in neither camp, she can work freely with both, and decides to both explore this new world and her heritage, and pay the rent, by becoming a problem solver/private eye helping members of both camps

    Furthermore, this show passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, every time. Bo meets and becomes friends with two human women, and men are pretty low on their list of conversation topics. Kenzi, her roommate and partner in problem solving, is a fully realised character in her own right. Lauren, a human doctor who serves the Light Fae, becomes one of Bo’s lovers and is often an integral part of the action as well as having a long character arc of her own.

    Other key characters are: Trick, an ancient leprchaun barkeeper who knows more about Bo than he’s telling; Dyson, a werewolf who works on the local police force and becomes another of Bo’s lovers; and Hale, Dyson’s partner on the police force, a siren (played by an actor of colour).

    The acting is great, the writing is strong and effective, and the gender politics are among the best I’ve seen in TV SFF.

    I recommend the show highly – it’s certainly one of my favourite shows on TV today.

  13. OMG I was just thinking how awesome a Night Watch series (or at least mini-series) would be! I thought they got a really sad movie treatment (“Day Watch” was just the second and third stories in “Night Watch”) and there’s so much lore in that world you could easily make it ongoing (be cheap to make with it’s real-world setting too). Perhaps even an ‘American Vampire’ series based off Scott Snyder’s comic (‘Boardwalk Empire’ with vampires and a female lead). Just thinking of different directions for Vampires, though I suppose that’s more horror than fantasy.

    I noticed good fantasy anime’s hard to find too with FMA:Brotherhood being my all time favorite. I tried watching Berserk and Slayers but was turned off.

  14. I can’t watch Supernatural, I have tried three or four times and always just end up thinking why I can’t get into it. Lost Girl is coming to SyFy, but I wonder if its a SyFy version or the original. Also whenever I see the commercials I wish the main character was a WoC, the not fitting in, being wanted by both sides of the Fae. Reading the write up on wikipedia reminds me of a book series.

    Anime…the last good anime series would have to be FMA:Brotherhood, which I didn’t like as much as the original FMA. Berzerk is very rough and gritty, but I do love it. I need to find another good fantasy anime to fall into.

  15. Karen, thanks for the info about Supernatural. I tried a few eps, and got a clear sense fairly early-on that there would be lots of women in refrigerators in it; sad to see my gut feeling was correct. But that wasn’t what made me stop watching, honestly; it just wasn’t my kind of thing. I prefer secondary-world fantasy, or at least alternate universe, and the show felt far more horror than fantasy.

    I think I’ll skip the Women’s Work vid; sounds too violent for my tastes. -_- But it also sounds like it did what it set out to do.

  16. Morgan,

    Huh. Lost Girl sounds better than I thought. I’ll give it a try, then. Thanks!

  17. If you’re still looking for fantasy anime (and you don’t mind something that’s already finished), I strongly recommend Seirei no Moribito/Guardian of the Sacred Spirit. It’s based on a series of light novels by an author who knows from fantasy conventions, really strong worldbuilding (including a little bit of fantasy biology), and the characters are spot-on.

  18. I don’t know if you’ve seen it already, but I cannot recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender enough. Not the movie, the movie is terrible, but the original television series, which is fantastic. Really great world-building, well-drawn characters, creative use of the existing magic (“bending,” as it’s called), and (best of all, imo), complex and nuanced morality. I recently got my partner to watch it with me; he was completely hooked after about two episodes and he is not a fantasy fan the way I am. My apologies if A:TLA is old news around here, I just love the show!

  19. I love A:TLA, waiting on Korra to start.

  20. Being that you’re willing to check out anime and manga, I’d recommend checking out Persona 4: The Animation, which is currently streaming on Hulu. It’s based on the game by the same people who did Catherine.

    I’d also recommend checking out Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles, by CLAMP (creators of Magic Knight Rayearth, X, and RG Veda), which is fairly recent, but a little older then two years. Also, while you can still get it (as Bandai Entertainment won’t be doing DVD releases anymore), I’d recommend watching Gurren Lagann at least once. It’s not exactly fantasy, but it’s close (specifically – there are giant robots, but they’re Super Robots, ala Mazinger Z and the Ideon, instead of Real Robots like the various models of Gundam and Patlabor).