You’ll need a Timebending Spell just to keep up. On every streaming platform, it seems, there is some kind of costumed drama with a sprinkle of magic, superpowers, dark juju, dragons or at least a bewitched teapot, fighting to attract the ‘Warning. The curls catch the breeze as an orphaned heroine runs through old London, chasing a crow. Favorites glow in candlelight as a hero opens a forbidden letter written in dragon’s blood. Or have we already mixed the shows? Here are our less favorite stereotypes of the genre.
The feminist in a corset: You’ve seen them most recently in The Nevers, but really, no Neo-Victorian show is without them. Joss Whedon’s HBO series is set in 1896, after a supernatural event gave some women (and some men) mysterious abilities, putting them in grave danger. Obviously, the gang of heroines must come out of the restrictive moral code of the time. They fight, invent, throw shadows, while running in tightly laced corsets. Other stuff we’d love to see come back to the costume closet: hats, flapping leather coats, feathers and black lace for the foxes.
Could the legends be true? You could be of high birth, orphan, forest dweller, or coven interned, none of that matters until you are part of a predicted prophecy. In The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia and Princess Ciri are bound to each other by fate. In Shadow and Bone, Alina Starkov is not just a magical Grisha, she is the only one who can summon the light. It also makes her the only one who can destroy the old Shadow Fold. As always, being the chosen one is a blessing and also a burden. Nobody ever gets away with it on their own?
A bright idea: Are writers having trouble paying their electricity bills? These plots are obsessed with light: finding it, controlling it, using it as a weapon, restoring it, stealing it, even being it. The good guys are represented by light. Magic gems emit light (never music, perfume, or a cool breeze), and the rainbow-colored iridescence is the purest of all.
Even magic must be taught: How else will the show fit into a witchcraft school, a long-suffering mentor, an ancient spellbook, or the realization that the first burst of power was fluke? Montage of cue training: sword fighting in the rain, poorly pronounced spells, explosive faults, aphorisms: “To be fast, you must first learn to be still”, according to the advice of any generic mentor. Hands bloodied from training, and finally, there is some improvement. Now on to the light and snappy leather coats.
Earth is in trouble, Again! Someone is trying to destroy humanity, grab too much power, enslave humans, annihilate the planet. As usual, it’s up to a few to save the rest. In Miracle Workers, God will simply blow up the Earth to focus on a new restaurant. A minor angel named Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) and an Eliza from the Prayer Hearing Department must perform a huge miracle to avoid the apocalypse. And at least this one is a little imaginative.
Some monsters just need a hug: Megalomaniac kings are irreparably bad. But supernatural creatures tend to be largely misunderstood. This is what keeps the Penny Dreadful team busy. Even the spirits will leave you alone once you hear them. Immortals only kidnap young women because they’ve been alone for so long. And don’t hate dragons. If you charred everything you ate, you’d be bored too.
There is always a secret: Whether it’s the titular young Merlin who discovers his powers before King Arthur and his knights can make history, or Leonardo in Da Vinci’s Demons playing a swashbuckling hero as the Church and political families come closer, a cult is behind it all. Secret societies are where long-missing loved ones hid for five episodes. Da Vinci mingles with the Sons of Mithras. Even Stranger Things, which takes place as recently as the 1980s, features secret government plans that are unleashing evil around the world.
There is either a fight or a ball, or a fight at the ball: Amidst the silk dances under the chandeliers, there is a surprise threat, and the guests must create a diversion as the heroine escapes through a secret passage concealed by the damask. Bullets come in handy when barely controlled superpowers need to be demonstrated for their destructive power. Medieval battle scenes, meanwhile, are the new litmus test for television: does sword fighting do the trick? What happens when the superpowers clash? Can demigods stand up to fairies, vampires, elves, possessed and your remote?
And a new trope that we love: There are more colors than in the history books. There are finally more Asians, blacks and actors of mixed origin in the main roles. In The Irregulars, the motley orphans who solve crimes in Sherlock Holmes’ London include both nonblonde and nonwhite actors. The young hero of The King’s Letter is Black. The same actor also plays a central character in His Dark Materials, fighting off all manner of magic and dust.
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