Genre Talk

Old stories, high concepts and the future of fantasy on television

I was wandering through the fall tv show promos (as you do) and I came across the trailer for this.

Looks like fun, eh?

But it got me thinking about the way fantasy/paranormal is packaged and marketed for TV these days. There’s very little original fantasy TV. Everything is based on a fairy tale, a legend, an old movie or a book. Original characters and stories are a tough sell.

Yes, there are some. Let’s not argue about that. Long-running shows like Fringe, Lost Girl and Supernatural bear out the idea that TV audiences will watch and love original fantasy shows that aren’t based on some dusty old canon they read about in school. But all those shows are several years old now. The new stuff – the stuff that’s debuting this season – all seems to be variations on a theme.

And we’re seeing this a lot in books right now too. Urban fantasy died, don’t you know, so we can’t just make up characters or readers won’t get it. So we’ve got a rash of ‘She’s Sherlock Holmes’ long-lost sister!’ ‘He’s the demon-hunting descendant of Abraham Lincoln!’ ‘They’re the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s pet squirrels reincarnated as vampire slayers!’ Or even just the one that always and will forever work: ‘He’s Dracula!’

Why is this? Do producers think audiences are too stupid or lazy to catch on to a fantasy show that doesn’t have a familiar, pop-culture ‘hook’? I beg to differ, and point you in the direction of the decade’s runaway fantasy hit Game of Thrones – though to be fair, the GoT world already had a huge fan base, and it’s produced by HBO, who actually care more about quality TV than they do about ratings per se. GoT is an amazing show, whether you read GRRM or not.

I get that a pre-existing canon gives the marketing people something to hang their promotion on. And it’s interesting that the producers of these shows are caught between two evils. If they use the canon, they’re accused of re-hashing old stuff and not daring to use fresh ideas. If they ditch the canon and make ‘random vampire show’ instead of Dracula, they’re accused of ripping off the original.

But the fact is that a lot of these shows are pretty damn cool – and have eye-catching, ‘watch-me!’ elements – even without the canon. Take another HBO show, True Blood. Did TB get a bigger audience because it was based on the popular Charlaine Harris series books than it would have otherwise? Because TB also has other, sure-fire hooks. Hooks that probably have better odds of success than Charlaine Harris. Sex. Violence. Hot chicks. Shirtless guys. Are there enough people out there who like those things  (not to mention vampires) that TB would have found an audience anyway?

I think it might.

So what do you think? Is the high-concept hook important to you when you choose TV shows? Does the inclusion of familiar characters resonate with you?

Is ‘Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Dracula‘ more likely to interest you than ‘JRM plays random Victorian-era vampire’? Personally, I think a lot of (ahem) female fans would line up to watch ‘JRM in a toothpaste commercial’, but hey, maybe that’s just me.

Which just goes to show that there possibly isn’t any such thing as ‘too many hooks’. And begs the opposite question: is Dracula more interesting because he’s JRM? Or would the show be just as cool with an unknown actor? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand, does feature lesser-known actors. Will more people watch Sleepy Hollow – apparently the tale of a hot time-travelling Independence-era dude who solves supernatural mysteries with the help of secret clues from the founding fathers, which btw sounds pretty damn cool and I’m not even American – will more people watch it because it’s called Sleepy Hollow, and the hot dude’s name is Ichabod Crane?

10 thoughts on “Old stories, high concepts and the future of fantasy on television

  1. Erica, I couldn’t agree with you more. A show or movie being based on something else is actually a turn off for me, especially if it’s based on a true story, because those just don’t make as good of tales. I love original ideas and stories and discovering new actors.

    But I can tell you from personal experience (as a struggling screenwriter) that TV and movie ideas that are based on something that already has had success are far more likely to get the green light than something that hasn’t. Putting big money into a movie or a tv show is a huge risk and the people who make those decisions want to know that the market already likes the idea (it’s already had some success in another form) and that it has a pre-made fan base.

    While lots of us would watch True Blood regardless of the books, certainly fans who love the books are guaranteed to check it out. From their perspective, it’s just a safer bet than shows and movies that are original. And the same goes for actors with a fan base, they will go see something regardless of what it is, just to see the actor.

    Tons of really great scripts never get the green light simply because producers are afraid to take the huge financial risk that movies and shows entail on an unknown.

    • That’s interesting, Samantha.This definitely seems to be the way studios behave, based on their idea of what will sell — but I wonder if it’s actually true? We so often hear people complaining that there’s nothing original coming out of Hollywood – it’s hard to believe those people are just saying that, and wouldn’t try something different.

      Still, sometimes it’s good that shows are based on other material. I was watching Hannibal – which I really liked! – and I thought, thank God this is based on an existing book, or the Will Graham character would be a wise-ass teenage girl. And Hannibal Lecter would be played by Ian Somerhalder 🙂

  2. Generally I agree not much original on TV for fantasy. I read paranormal but don’t watch it on TV for some reason. Probably because there’s nothing to watch. We tried Grimm, it was very grim, poor characterizations weak plots and so-so directing. However Warehouse 13 is a bit more original stealing bits from many sources and stringing them together creatively. But it wasn’t good enough to get the second season. Am looking forward to Dracula speaking of True Blood, the books are wonderful, we stopped watching the TV show as too sensationalist

    • Hey Sue–Warehouse 13 has had 4 seasons and will have a fifth and final 1/2 next year… 🙂 I enjoyed it, but then stopped after awhile, but not due to the show, just life intervening. It was entertaining…

    • I tried Grimm, too, but it wasn’t for me. I like Warehouse 13, even though there’s a lot of handwaving and plots that don’t make sense – the two main characters are just so much fun 🙂

      • Yes the two mains are good with their bickering. Artie is good also as is CCH Pounder. Grimm did have one decent character, Monroe, loved him but not enough to watch the whole show.

        As I was scanning google – excellent for people like me with poor memories, I found 666 Park Ave which was also a fantasy show. and not based on anything else. But it failed as they couldn’t seem to figure out the main focus

    • Maybe that’s a factor. Also, as Samantha hinted at above — the familiar plots are easier to sell — so maybe the best screenwriters are moving their efforts in that direction?

  3. Great topic, Erica. I’m a fan of sci-fi/fantasy TV, especially whenever Joss Whedon is involved, such as his new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

    Like other commenters here, I also enjoy Warehouse 13 – the fun, quirky characters keep me returning for more, even when the plots are a little over-the-top goofy.

    And being a vampire fan, I’m definitely looking forward to Dracula!

  4. Pingback: Syfy’s Two Power Hours: Being Human & Lost Girl — open thread | Paranormal Unbound

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