In the streaming era, TV shows come and go so quickly that there is barely time to binge-watch one before the next drops. Frankly, I don’t know where people find the time to watch 10 or 13 hours of TV in a period of just 24 to 48 hours. Because I don’t have that kind of time, it took me more than a couple of days to make my way through Netflix’s new supernatural comedy-drama, The Order, which touches on many of the themes and leitmotifs that I discuss here on this blog: Gothic horror, Hermetic secret societies, ritual magic, Nephilim, ancient books of wisdom, and the connections between all of these and questions of institutionalized power and privilege. These themes make what would otherwise be a pleasant but forgettable college-set teen drama into something a little more interesting.
The Order tells the story of Jack, played by Jake Manley (American Gothic, iZombie), a college freshman who enters fictional Belgrave University with plans to infiltrate a secret society in order to bring down his biological father, whom he blames for his mother’s suicide. In this effort, he is assisted by his grandfather (Matt Frewer). Immediately upon arriving on campus Jake demonstrates his superiority to all of the other incoming students, easily impressing Alyssa (Sarah Grey), who leads Jack into the Hermetic Order of the Blue Rose. Things don’t turn out as planned, however, because Jack’s initiation into the magical but evil secret society causes him to cross paths with a werewolf and become one himself. As both wizard and werewolf, Jack bridges two violently opposed supernatural factions and … well, you can guess what happens when a supernaturally powered teen becomes a Chosen One.
The good news is that The Order is entertaining, and it held my attention across all ten of its 45- to 50-minute-long episodes. Given the tendency of Netflix series to pad their runtimes and episode counts, this was more than a small feat. The writers deftly weaved humor into the horror, keeping the tone lighter than the otherwise dour recent entries in the genre, and this helped to make the series more interesting than the usual run of apocalypses and destruction on most other series. Even the villain’s plot is relatively small-scale by supernatural adventure standards. The actors are almost uniformly good (though not great) in their roles, give or take a couple of the smaller parts, and the presence of some players from other supernatural series, like Sam Trammell from True Blood and Katherine Isabelle from the Ginger Snaps series, offer occasionally clever reflections of other horror stories. Adam DiMarco (Todd from The Magicians) is perhaps the standout in the cast as an R.A. and secret werewolf. He balances humor and charisma better than the other young cast members (if you consider 28 to be young), making the most of a supporting role and showing much more range than his one-note Magicians character.
Beyond this, the show is confidently bonkers in its baroque and bizarre supernatural world. I rarely say that a show would benefit from more of anything, but a little more backstory and explanation might have helped to flesh out some of the enjoyably crazy elements. At times, it seemed like The Order was trying to do a whole season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in half the time.
Although The Order strives but fails to reach the heights of its obvious model, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it also has more than a little in common with some of Buffy’s lesser descendants, of varying quality, including bits of Being Human, Bitten, Hemlock Grove, the middle years of Supernatural, the witch seasons of American Horror Story, etc. It most resembles a collegiate Teen Wolf, but without that show’s sense of style (or homoerotic fetishizing of teen boys). Actually, I take that back: It probably most resembles the 2009 ITV failure Demons, but almost nobody remembers that disastrous Buffy ripoff about a teen demon-hunter, so I will not belabor the point.
The product of all of this must be divided by two rather large denominators: familiarity and Canada. The story the show tells is fairly simple and not entirely compelling. Its overarching plot is somewhat reminiscent of The Magicians, but not as well done. Many of the twists are easy to see coming, and nothing in the show is unique to it. The aesthetics of the Vancouver-produced show are far too Canadian. Everything is over-lit. The sets look like soundstages, which contrast with the outdoor scenes shot on location at the University of British Columbia. Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize one of the key exteriors from its appearance in everything from The X-Files to Supernatural. It’s one of the most popular exteriors in the horror genre. I’ve never been able to identify exactly what aesthetic markers identify a show as produced in Canada, but looking at any frame, it’s pretty obvious. (This isn’t a knock on Canada but an observation that there is a subtly different aesthetic between America and Canada, and it can be distracting when there is a mismatch of subject and style.)
But all of this aside, I struggled a bit with some of the thematic elements of The Order. While I’m sure the writers didn’t intend for it to read as a white savior fantasy, the choices made in telling Jack’s story wouldn’t have been out of place 50 or 100 years ago. Across the episodes of The Order, the show’s ethnic and racial minorities are either killed off or revealed to be cowards or villains or both. Female characters are treated scarcely better, depicted as either villainous shrews plotting to bring down powerful men or as prizes for men to fight for or over and win. Jack, as the representative white male hero, is dutifully recognized as “special” and “exceptional” from the moment he steps foot on campus, despite having given no evidence of being special. Indeed, his true talent is in having been born to the right father. From the opening scenes, it was clear that the show would climax with a confrontation between Jack and his father, and this meant that the climax involved two white men competing for control over women and resources to be the true savior of humanity. The show also offered an odd coda where out of nowhere a male and female character who, as best I could tell, were coded as queer suddenly developed an intense attraction to one another in a scene that seemed designed to make the show palatable to foreign dictatorships.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with a show centering on a white male, and this one would be no better with any other racial or gender combination slotted into the role. But neither would it be any worse. In fact, the characters are such voids that basically any age-appropriate actor could be placed in any of the roles and there would be no demonstrable difference in the storytelling. Each character is almost painfully generic, and that means that the viewer never really knows Jack as much more than a series of plot points in cargo pants. Because the viewer lacks a sense of Jack’s inner life, he reverts to the archetypical, and in that sense, he ends up becoming a White Savior trope simply because the writers never bothered to show us why Jack is special instead of repeatedly telling us that he is. He is less a person than a representative All-American White Teen Boy™. According to the show, he’s special because he’s cocky, thinks the rules don’t apply to him, does what he wants when he wants, and believes he is entitled to have more of everything than everyone else. He’s a wizard and a werewolf, all while being irresistible to women and inspiring loyalty and awe in men! And he does it without actually doing much of anything at all! Or saying much of anything useful or profound!
To be fair, the writers do rebuke this idea partially. In one episode, another All-American White Teen Boy™ gets bounced from the Hermetic Order in a deadly cheating scandal, but the writers undercut this by making it the fault of his helicopter mother. Similarly, Jack eventually asserts his dominance over all the women on the show, including the head of the Hermetic Order. Not to spoil the series, but when Jack is dealt setbacks, it is almost always due to the duplicity of women, punishing him for having placed his trust in a woman’s loyalty and honesty. Taken together, these developments imply that the show thinks men who submit to female authority are failures, and that women are untrustworthy. If I recall correctly, all of the major male characters stayed consistent in their loyalties from start to finish, but all of the major female characters defected, changed sides, acted as double agents, or unwittingly had their minds rearranged.
The occult trappings of the show are mostly just window-dressing, and in the ten-episode first season, there is no real discussion of Hermetic philosophy, and the Nephilim are only name-checked, presumably because the writers found them in an occult encyclopedia beside the golem, who plays a bigger role. There is an accursed book that eats souls and is a transparent derivative of the Necronomicon—just not Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. Instead, it’s a copy of Evil Dead’s Necronomicon, particularly in its later incarnation in Ash vs. Evil Dead.
Overall, The Order is inessential but entertaining, if you can forgive the unpleasant thematic undercurrents that swirl beneath its glossy surface.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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