Craft a new spell: It’s time to say Avada Kedavra to supernatural period cliches
Why are there are so many of these shows on streaming platforms, and why do they all look alike? Is a witch holding a grudge somewhere?
You’ll need a time-bending spell just to keep up. On every streaming platform, it seems, is some kind of costume drama with a sprinkling of magic , superpowers, dark juju, dragons or at least a bewitched teapot, fighting for attention. Ringlets catch the breeze as an orphan heroine races through ye olde London, chasing a raven. Sideburns glow in candlelight as a hero opens a forbidden letter written in dragon blood. Or have we mixed up the shows already? Here are our least-favourite stereotypes from the genre.
The feminist in a corset: You saw them most recently in The Nevers, but really, no neo-Victorian show is without one. Joss Whedon’s HBO series is set in 1896, after a supernatural event gives some women (and a few men) mysterious abilities, putting them in grave danger. Obviously the gang of heroines must break out of the restrictive moral code of the era. They fight, invent, throw shade, all while running about in tightly laced corsets. Other tricks we’d like to see returned to the costume cupboard: Hats, flapping leather coats, feathers, and black lace for the vixens.
Could the legends be true? You could be high-born, orphaned, forest-dwelling or interning with a coven, none of it matters until you’re part of a prophecy foretold. In The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia and Princess Ciri are linked to each other by destiny. In Shadow and Bone, Alina Starkov isn’t just a magic-wielding Grisha, she’s the only one that can summon light. It also makes her the only one who can destroy the ancient Shadow Fold. As always, being the Chosen One is a blessing and also a burden. Does no one ever make it on their own though?
One bright idea: Do the writers have 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. Magical gems emit light (never music, perfume or a cool breeze), and iridescence that’s rainbow-hued is the purest of all.
Even magic must be taught: How else will the show weave in a sorcery school, a long-suffering mentor, an ancient book of spells, or the realisation that one’s first burst of power was a fluke? Cue training montage: sword fight in the rain, mispronounced spells, explosive mistakes, aphorisms: “To be swift, you must first learn to be still”, or so goes the advice of every generic mentor. Hands bloodied from training, and finally, there’s some improvement. Now on to the light, and flapping leather coats.
Earth’s in trouble, again! Someone’s trying to destroy humanity, seize too much power, enslave humans, annihilate the planet. As usual, it’s up to a few to save the rest. In Miracle Workers, God’s simply going to blow up Earth to focus on a new restaurant. A minor angel named Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) and an Eliza from the prayer-hearing department must pull off a huge miracle to avert apocalypse. And at least that one’s a little imaginative.
Some monsters just need a hug: Megalomaniac kings are irredeemably evil. But supernatural creatures tend to be largely misunderstood. That’s what keeps the Penny Dreadful team busy. Even spirits will leave you alone once you hear them out. Immortals are only kidnapping young women because they’ve been lonely for so long. And don’t hate dragons. If you charred everything you ate, you’d be annoyed too.
There’s always a secret: Whether it’s the titular young Merlin figuring out 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 close in, a cult is behind it all. Secret societies are where long-missing relatives have been hiding for five episodes. Da Vinci gets mixed up with the Sons of Mithras. Even Stranger Things, set as recently as the 1980s, features secret government projects that unleash evil into the world.
There’s either a battle or a ball, or a battle at a ball: Amid the dancing in silks beneath chandeliers, there’s a surprise threat, and guests must create a diversion while the heroine escapes through a secret passageway concealed by the damasks. Balls are handy when barely controlled superpowers need to be demonstrated for their destructive power. Medieval battle scenes, meanwhile, are the new litmus test for TV: Does the swordfight make the cut? What happens when super-powers clash? Can demi-gods hold their own against the fey, the vampires, the elves, the possessed and your remote control?
And a new trope we like: There’s more colour than in the history books. There are finally more Asians, Blacks and actors of mixed heritage in lead roles. On The Irregulars, the ragtag orphans solving crimes in Sherlock Holmes’s London include non-blonde, non-White actors. The young hero in The Letter for the King is Black. The same actor also plays a central character in His Dark Materials, fighting all kinds of magic and Dust.