Haven and the State of Urban Fantasy

Watched my third and final episode of Haven tonight.  There’s nothing terribly wrong with the show, but there’s nothing much right with it either.  It just seems like something I’ve seen before, and while it’s not a bad show, I can’t really get into it.

The story is about a town where special people live.  (Sanctuary meets Eureka).  The people aren’t bad, but there was a time of “troubles” when the special people were persecuted for their specialness.  (X-Men).  And a pair of investigtors do their best to puzzle out the mysteries that pop up ever week.  (X-Files or just about any cop show out there.)

But everything is a cliche if you take it in broad strokes.  What really hurts Haven is the execution.  With only three episodes, I’ve seen three stories I’ve seen elsewhere already.  The first was about a woman whose emotional state controlled the weather.  Saw that on the X-Files.  The second was about a kid who had the unconcsious ability to manipulate reality with his dreams.  Saw that in a Buffy episode and felt an awful lot like a replay of the first episode of Haven in terms of story beats.  The third episode is about inexplicable rage seizing people.  This was the same plot that was just on the episode of Eureka the very same night, in the hour before Haven came on. 

If I’d never seen or read any urban fantasy story then maybe Haven would have something new to offer me.  As it is, it’s just thoroughly unremarkable.  While I don’t hate it, I can’t imagine going out of my way to see it.  And in the 80′s, when viewing choices were a lot more limited, I might have even watched it.  But this is the future, and I can watch pretty much anything I want when I want. 

I think the problem isn’t with Haven itself, but with the entire genre.  I think urban fantasy on television is a dead end.  It’s hard to do anything new.  All of Syfy’s original programming just seems like a variation of something I’ve seen too many times before.

I feel like the guy watching the end of the Western.  It’s not that Westerns are completely dead, but there’s almost nothing new to be done.  The beats have been so thoroughly explored that anyone familiar with the genre can predict nearly everything that’s going to happen.

I think urban fantasy is experiencing the same problem. It’s great that the genre is flourishing to some degree, but what was once special, seems commonplace, predictable. I love fantasy / sci fi for the unexpected and new, but the limitations of television and the tapped out nature of the genre makes this more difficult than ever.  There are still interesting shows out there.  True Blood comes to mind.  Although I don’t know if the show really does anything that different as much as get that extra edge that comes from being on HBO and being very well produced.

(But even HBO’s brand of boobs, swearing, and gratuitious sex has become cliched to some degree.)

I’m not suggesting that the genre is dead.  Not yet.  It can go on a long, long time the way it is.  People like predictable things.  Predictable things allow people to feel smart.  And we don’t necessarily watch TV shows for the stories.  We watch for the characters we like, the payoff of seeing a recurring story play out, even if those stories are by-the-numbers.

(If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when was the last time you saw a show with a pair of mixed gender, unattached protagonists that you didn’t automatically assume they were going to hook up at some point?  Heck, Scully and Mulder never made a damn bit of sense as a couple, but that didn’t matter because, who gives a damn about their personalities?  They’re the leads.  They fall in love.  End of story.)

And I don’t want to act as if I have any answers, even if I turn out to be right.  Because if you were to ask me how to save the genre, I’d say honestly that I don’t have a clue.  And I’m not even sure the genre needs saving.  I am not the audience obviously.  I don’t even read much fiction, fantasy or otherwise, and I don’t watch much TV.  So maybe I’m the wrong guy to bring this up.

I could be wrong.  I’ve been wrong once or twice before.  People do seem to enjoy their generic Twilight vampires and by the book Towns with a secret!  And given the limitations of TV production, the urban fantasy genre probably isn’t going anywhere.  It’s a great way to bring fantasy to the small screen on a reasonable budget.  Something like John Carter of Mars might make an awesome TV show, but it’d be impossible to produce without robbing it of all the wonderful fantasy elements.

But I’ll admit that I might just be the odd man out on this one.  Perhaps I’m just a crank.  Or maybe I’m a prophet, a seer into the strange, inevitable future.  Ignore me at your peril.  Or not.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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10 Comments

  1. Rippley
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    A. Lee Martinez

    In the early 2000′s, USA Network had a show called ‘The 4400′. If you haven’t watched it, do. The 4400 basically used every sci-fi trick in the book. While, at the same time, making it nearly impossible to come up with an original sci-fi show, ever. I mean, all sci-fi shows post-the 4400 seem to resemble the 4400 in some way, making the new shows hard to watch.

    I would suggest that you are right X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the X-Men were probably the originators of most of those supernatural who-done-it plots, but the execution for most of these shows is straight outta the 4400.

  2. Posted July 24, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I think the main problem with Haven is that it’s trying to drag a Stephen King story out by plugging in “phenomena” so we don’t solve the real riddle–what happened to what’s-her-name’s identical-twin mother–which would leave us with not very much. It’s a general problem when someone decides to render King into some other medium, especially TV, because King writes to be read. They’d have been better off, IMO, to have done “The Colorado Kid” as a mini-series.

  3. Rippley
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    A Lee Martinez,

    You gave me an idea for another pop-culture paper to write. I’m going to trace these Urban fantasy/Sci-fi plots. I bet I can find the origins in the Twilight Zone, maybe.

    You’re a television guru. Can you connect television shows with overused plots.

    Anyone? Help me come up with a list of overused plots for this genre. Heck, I might be able to connect them with their mythological predecessors.

    Thank you in advance!!!

  4. Charmscale
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Well, there’s “town with a secret,” as Martinez mentioned. I’m pretty sure that’s older than urban fantasy, by the way. Then there’s girl meets vampire/werewolf/some other cursed guy, and loves him despite his “curse.” That plot is very overused. You’ve also got “the reluctant hero,” a story about a guy who discovers he has special powers, and must save the world/ the city/ the universe despite the fact that he just wants to be an ordinary guy. A good example of this is the Spiderman movies, and, in ancient mythology, the Odyssey, or at least the first part of it were Odysseus reluctantly leaves home and then plays a big part in winning the Trojan war.
    I can’t think of any others right now. Hope this helps.

  5. Michael B
    Posted July 25, 2010 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    What I find interesting is how few of the Urban Fantasy novels show a world informed by the fantastic elements. It’s always in the shadows, where the cops don’t/can’t see that it was a Vampyre/Vampire/Code V/etc. There are only a handful of examples where everybody knows about them and it’s just The Way It Is. (True Blood and one of the Lilith Saintcrow series, and Our Esteemed Host’s most recent novel).

    Heck, if magic exists, why doesn’t anyone allow the industrial revolution to have diverged? It can even be minor; instead of engines powered by steam and coal, they’re powered by steam via Maxwell’s Demon. (and how does that change Kentucky and other states that don’t need to mine coal?) A maid service that uses gnomes and pixies. People insourcing shoes from the shoe-making fairies rather than exporting to China. And labor unions afraid of the same. I personally love the Dresden Files but

    (spoilers)
    his latest book sounds like he’s trying to get away from the “urban” part for a little while.
    (end spoilers)

    It seems like a lot of them are mining the exact same tropes, much like everybody for years used the exact same Tolkien-esque tropes for decades. When does Urban Fantasy move on like Fantasy has?

  6. Will
    Posted July 25, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Urban fantasy as a genre is not at any more of a dead end than any other TV genre. The numbers alone suggest that there is more potential than mainstream genre because there have been fewer series than those others. The problem is in execution in comparison to better series that have not faded from memory. Haven, Warehouse 13, what have you, compare poorly to X-Files. The army of current TV vampires compares poorly to Buffy. Urban fantasy needs writing that can achieve a proper balance between the fantastic & the prosaic – a contemporary Song of Ice & Fire. And it needs novel & qualitative execution – what Hill Street Blues did for cop shows or House for medical.

  7. Posted July 25, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    For the ultimate list of overused TV tropes, go here: http://www.tvtropes.org

    Frankly, most ideas have been used before. The woman changing the weather can be traced back to the myth of the a nature goddess Demeter grieving over the loss of her daughter, Persephone. That’s prehistory. Or for a much more recent version even before X FILES, Storm from the X-MEN.

    All ideas have been used. The trick is to make it your own and to make it interesting above and beyond the idea.

    Consider the two rage episodes on Friday night. EUREKA’s version was far more interesting because it depended upon the viewer knowing and appreciating the characters. HAVEN’s version depended on new characters so it was more about the idea than the characters.

    EUREKA is a probably watch for me. HAVEN is a “if I can’t find anything else on, I’ll watch it.”

  8. Posted December 18, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I agree with WILL. See, your problem, Lee Martinez, is the same as most other fans of this genre (including people who read UF books): it’s like you don’t watch other types of programing, other genres. You just sit and devour everything Urban Fantasy! You were bound to run out of viewing material eventually! Anyway ALL genres are in the same boat as far as trying to come up with something new. If you watched other genres once in a while you would know that.

    And btw, you keep mentioning X-Files as some type of example of orinality. I loved the Files,too but the show was just based on another show called NIGHTSTALKER that came out years before. Before you try to debate me on it, X-Files creator Chris Carter said it in an interview in the XF DVD collection.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted December 19, 2010 at 4:43 am | Permalink

      Well, Nightstalker is an amazing show. It remains one of my favorites to this day. There is quite a bit of difference in the Night Stalker and X-Files though. But that’s a debate for another day. I’m not saying shows cannot be influenced by other shows. That’s obvious and unavoidable. I’m saying that, to a certain point, it stops being influence and starts being mere copies of that which has come before.

      I don’t actually partake of much urban fantasy. I don’t read much of it, don’t watch much of it. I am not really a fan of the genre, I realized some time ago. Which is odd to admit as a current fantasy writer when it’s such a hot trend.

      Perhaps it’s just unavoidable at this point. I don’t really care if people like shows like Haven or BSG or Caprica. I just can’t help but find them uninspired. But maybe that’s less to do with the material and more with the execution.

      While Nightstalker might have been an influence on X-Files, there were major differences in the shows. Kolchak worked alone, had no access to government law enforcement powers, fought monsters pure and simple. X-Files was a more serious show, starring partners, with elements of horror, sci fi, and the supernatural. On the surface, similar shows. But they worlds apart in execution.

      I don’t see that difference in Haven, Eureka, or Sanctuary, in comparison. Even the pacing and dialogue seems beat-for-beat. I think that’s less to do with similarities in shows and more about network branding.

      Regardless, my goal is not to convince you to dislike these shows. It’s just to throw something out there to bring about discussion. So thanks for commenting.

  9. Posted December 20, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    You have a reat blog here! I love the content!

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