In case anyone new to the blog is reading this, I love the fantasy genre in all of its forms. What I’m not crazy about is attempts to graft fantasy onto shows that don’t originally have a fantasy premise. I can swallow a Halloween episode with some eerie hint at the end that suggests that maybe the ghost might not have been a hoax. I can even swallow A Christmas episode that hints at miracles. Where I draw the line is when a show plunges into the supernatural with no prior preparation or even seasonal excuse.
The most recent example that comes to mind is the sixth season of Riverdale. I think it’s generally been a great show, but its sudden shift to fantasy/horror was jarring.
Riverdale as an Example of the Problem
From the beginning, Riverdale has been an imaginative show. I used to watch the Archie cartoons as a little kid, and I certainly don’t remember anything about serial killers, brainwashing cults, gangs, prominent families making their money from secret drug traffic, or pretty much any of the other plot elements from the current TV show. It’s reimagining with a vengeance, and for quite a while, it worked.
To be fair, Riverdale did have some hints of the supernatural in its DNA. I’m told that in the original comics, Sabrina (the teenage witch) also lived in Riverdale, and early in the run of her latest iteration, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, there was much talk of a crossover. Riverdale was referred to in CAS (as the murder capital of the world), though Sabrina’s home was changed to Greendale, I assumed because one town was too small to contain all the mayhem from both shows.
In the interest of fairness, I’ll mention that Riverdale also bent reality considerably in some earlier seasons, for example with the Edgar Evernever’s cult. However, in that instance, apparently supernatural developments had a scientific explanation. One might question how credible some of those developments were, but they didn’t plunge into fantasy.
(While I was writing, I stumbled on this article, which indicates that the Archie comics have recently introduced more atypical elements, so the mutation began there and then migrated to the series.)
At the risk of digressing, I’ll also mention the unrealistic progression of Hiram Lodge’s plotline. It’s all right at first, though its difficult to swallow the idea that Hiram, after being convicted of serious crimes, is imprisoned in a private prison that he owns. Seriously? His subsequent career as mayor is even worse. There isn’t a place anywhere in the United States where a town can be unincorporated so easily, and if one were, it would fall under county jurisdiction, not somehow be under the thumb of its wealthy ex-mayor, who closes down both the police department and the fire department to drive everyone out of town. (In case you haven’t noticed from earlier posts, I believe shows should at least make some attempt at realism when they deal with real-world situations.)
It’s also fair to point out that the sharp turn in season six is foreshadowed at the end of season five, when Cheryl Blossom discovers that she is the descendant of a witch who was burned during the Riverdale witch trials and seems to manifest supernatural powers. But such a radical change in premise really required more of a lead-up. I might go as far as to say that some supernatural elements should been present throughout, even if they were more hinted at than actually shown.
To complicate matters further, the season begins in Rivervale, a parallel universe town apparently created by the explosion of Hiram’s bomb because reasons. (If there was an actual explanation of why the bomb created a separate universe, I totally missed it.)
That gives the writers the opportunity to kill Archie without actually having to kill him (since there are now two), and it creates room for some otherwise completely implausible character developments. (Cheryl is now apparently powerful enough to mind-control almost the entire town, which is how she can make Archie into a human sacrifice. But that’s okay because she’s not actually Cheryl, anyway. She’s Rivervale’s version of Cheryl.)
I can buy parallel universes if they differ in some logical ways (that is, outgrowths of different pasts rather than plot convenience). That said, the writers do make clever use of Rivervale near the end of the season, so that’s something.
Meanwhile, back in Riverdale, Archie, Betty, and Jughead all develop superpowers because reasons. (That explosion of Hiram’s was certainly something, wasn’t it?) From there, we get everything from time travel to possession by the dead to a super villain strong enough to bring a comet down on Riverdale. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the Holy Grail and angels. We also got the long-awaited crossover when Sabrina Spellman appears. At least in that case, the writers explained how Sabrina could be there when she’d died at the end of her own series.
The article I referenced above make a case for the fact that the show was always crazy, at least from season two on, so that the plunge into the supernatural should be acceptable to us. I’ll admit that the show always had its wild side. But there’s a difference between the improbable and the fantastic. Put another way, Hiram Lodge being incarcerated in his own prison is a stretch, and probably a more credible way should have been found to keep Hiram making mischief. But it’s far different than giving Hiram Lodge a pet unicorn. (Wow, now that I think of it, season six didn’t have unicorns. I wonder why not.)
Don’t get me wrong. Riverdale has done a lot of great things. The characters are memorable, and there are many scenes that will stick with a viewer for a long time. For me, one of those was Archie pounding his fists bloody on the ice to rescue Cheryl, who is drowning beneath it. The show was always emotionally engaging, so much so that I never thought of bailing out on season 6, jarring as it was. And I’ll watch season seven (in which the characters have all been catapulted back to 1955).
But it could have been better if it had stuck to its own genre or at least, if it had prepared better for the shift. As it is, it felt forced rather than natural. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, since viewership has been dropping.
Pretty Little Liars Did It Too!
My memories of that show are a little bit more distant, but I thought I should mention it. It was another show I thought really worked–with the exception of giving a happily-ever-after ending to a love story based on a high school teacher and one of his students. That I think sends a profoundly wrong message. Oops, I’m digressing again. As I was saying, the show had well-developed characters, engaging plots, and a lot of heart.
Then came a supernatural digression that, though less radical than the one in Riverdale, still felt awkward. It may or may not have been motivated by a desire to launch the undeniably supernatural spinoff, Ravenswood, which only lasted a season. But as with the genre shift in Riverdale, it really wasn’t adequately foreshadowed.
Ironically, the Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin spinoff, which I just recently heard about, apparently mentions Riverdale, thus indicating that it is set in the same universe.
Not exactly the same thing, but equally jarring, was the crossover episode between Eureka and Warehouse 13. The problem? Eureka was a science fiction show, and Warehouse 13 was urban fantasy. The supernatural element was incompatible with the scientific premise in Eureka. Why someone wanted to do something like that is beyond me.
Apparently, there are also other examples, some in shows I’ve watched, though I don’t recall them. This article provides seven such examples if you’re interested.
Advice to Writers
There’s nothing wrong with mixing genres–as long as you plan it out from the beginning. That means giving a viewer or a reader hints of the fusion, rather than just springing it on them. Organic development is always better than squeezing something in where it really doesn’t fit.
(The featured image is copyrighted by Kathy Hutchins and licensed from www.shutterstock.com.)