Before we begin today, I am pleased to report that Unexplained + Unexplored hit a series low on Sunday for its episode hunting for Maya in Florida, attracting only 283,000 live plus same day viewers, according to Nielson’s fast national ratings. On the other hand, it’s also a sad commentary on TV viewers that almost half the show’s audience tuned out the first time it explored a topic that wasn’t about white people. Episodes focusing on biblical, early Euro-American, or Eurocentric conspiracies had anywhere from 50% to 80% more viewers that the show’s one venture into non-white history. Let’s hope that the declining ratings consign this abomination of a “history” show to cancellation hell.
Today, though, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on recent shows that were intended to be fiction rather than fiction pretending to be fact. This past week, Hulu launched the final season of Marvel’s Runaways, based on the comic book of the same name. The show’s truncated run ended with the closure of Marvel’s television division and the retooling of parent company Disney’s media portfolio in the wake of the launch of the Disney+ streaming service last month. From the show’s launch, critics faulted the series for foregrounding the straight white male teen character, Chase (Gregg Sulkin), over the female and minorities teens who play a more prominent role in the comics. I have not read the comics.
This season bothered me, though, because the show seemed to spend most of the season arguing that being liberal and woke was of paramount importance before undercutting its own (albeit inconsistent) message with an ending that reinforced the criticism that accompanied the series’ launch. Warning: The following paragraphs contain some spoilers for the final season of Runaways.
The show’s last season is divided into roughly two equal parts. The first follows the group as it comes back together to defeat space aliens that have taken over the bodies of their parents. In this half of the show, the writing seems to argue that wokeness is its own reward. At each step of the journey to defeat the space aliens, the female and minority teens make one mistake after the next while mouthing a parody of liberal talking points about the value of prioritizing sensitivity, feelings, and gender issues. The narrative treats Chase as a regressive dim-bulb idiot mostly for failing to fully embrace feminism. (There is a whole convoluted backstory to this, but this season doesn’t really deal with it, and it doesn’t directly affect the narrative.) And yet, at every step of the way, Chase is basically right about everything and is the only character to correctly understand what is going on and to have working plans to fix it. And yet, the narrative thrust places its sympathy with the characters going off in the wrong direction, seeming to tell the viewer that feelings are more important than being right.
While that particular message grates on me some, it might have been an interesting narrative tack to take, had the second half of the show not reversed course in the most regressive way possible.
Having dispensed with the space aliens, the teens next must battle the witch Morgan Le Fay (Elizabeth Hurley), who openly identifies as an empowered feminist and claims that her plan to take over the world and enslave humanity is a triumph of feminism. Seriously, they equate feminism with witchcraft. In this half of the show, once again Chase is basically right about everything. The teens (big surprise) defeat Morgan, but at a cost. Chase literally becomes a Rip Hunter-style master of time and space in order to save his girlfriend, whose raging feminism is twice tamed by his paternalistic concern. Then, just for kicks, having vanquished a feminist witch and tamed his feminist girlfriend, Chase also defeats the group’s only other male, an African American, who like all the other black people on the show, is doomed to villainy and has turned evil. By the end of the series, it becomes clear that if Chase had magic powers like the other kids, he could have defeated the villains and saved the world without their help at all. As it is, without any special powers, the white guy still won.
It’s an odd message for a show that literally describes its heroes as “your favorite group of racially diverse youths.” Narratively, it was the only logical way out of the scenario the show had concocted, but I am dumbfounded that no one seems to have considered the optics of it.
None of this is a knock on either Gregg Sulkin, who does fine work portraying four different versions of Chase (if I counted right), nor even the character of Chase, who managed to stretch a bit beyond archetype in the end. It’s a criticism of the writers and what they thought they were doing.
On the other hand, Runaways was about a thousand times more enjoyable than Netflix’s V Wars, yet another comic book adaptation (well, graphic novel—unread by me). This one is a pretentious cookie-cutter horror drama in which yet another white savior is horrified to discover that the only good black guy he knew has succumbed to biological villainy and is threatening to destroy nuclear families and traditional Anglo-American civilization through a return to the primitive and the wild. Warning: There are spoilers, though I doubt they will impact your enjoyment of the show.
V Wars tells the story of a white physician, Dr. Luther Swann (Ian Sommerhalder) who is exposed to an ancient disease in the Arctic alongside his black best friend, Michael Fayne (Adrian Holmes). Swann survives unscathed but Fayne is revealed to be “patient zero,” possessed of a “predator gene” that once activated turns him into a vampire. He then proceeds to begin destroying society by going on a murder rampage and activating others’ predator genes. Swann leads up the effort to stop the vampire disease before the entire show grinds down into a standard-issue anti-government conspiracy slog through congressional testimony ad interagency disputes over fake news and Trump-style detention facilities for the genetically predacious. Seriously, the show’s centerpiece revolves around a Senate hearing.
I’d be more annoyed at the tope of the white savior—which doubles up when his son turns out to the be the super-savior with magic DNA that immunizes him from predator gene vampirism—if the show weren’t such a completely incompetent mess. Cheaply made, badly written, and indifferently acted, the show reads like a cash-grab masquerading as entertainment. The “Senate” hearing is staged in what seems to be a Canadian town council chamber, and the Central New York location for most of the action can’t afford enough extras to make it look like anyone actually lives in their stand-in for Seneca Falls, cleverly disguised under the name “Seneca.”
But even the cheapness of the show pales before the utter incompetence of the writing, which seems to have no relationship to how people, places, and institutions operate in the real world. For some strange reason the Senate hearing is run like a trial, and witnesses are asked to “take the stand”—by which they bizarrely mean a podium set up in the middle of the room (an artifact of the location where they shot)—while the senators operate nothing like an actual Senate subcommittee hearing would. At another point, a senator welcomes our heroes into her home, but she corrects them that it is not her house but her “official residence,” which she has decorated to look homey, despite the presence of her Secret Service-style security detail, which prowls the grounds and mans the entrances. Nothing about that resembles our real world, where Senators do not have official residences and have to pay for their own housing.
The whole show is like that, seemingly written by writers who don’t know how to use Google and are making things up based on half-baked and half-remembered impressions.
The worst of it is the show’s failure to give a clear sense of its timeline or to explain exactly how they imagine that vampires swept the nation, organized their own government, caused the collapse of society, and entered into negotiations with the U.S. government to be recognized as a new species in what seems to be about a week, all while the public apparently simply accepts all of this as just another thing that happened, only somewhat more serious than the latest Trump tweet. The only somewhat accurate part of the show was probably the fact that no one really noticed that the government had mass death camps and was kidnapping tens of thousands of people. The real evil is complacency.
V Wars was a terrible TV genre series, about on par with the some of Syfy’s lesser offerings.
Fortunately, I can’t say enough good things about Netflix’s Nobody’s Looking, a comedy about angels that comes to us from Brazil. It is the first Brazilian TV show I’ve seen, and it was a delight. Compared to V Wars, the show’s limited budget was never on display. The sets looked lively and lush, and even with a relatively small cast, the show felt like a fully inhabited world thanks to a judicious deployment of extras. Poised about halfway between TBS’s Miracle Workers and NBC’s The Good Place, Nobody’s Looking posits a world where angels work in office-like settings for bored middle managers, protecting humans seemingly at random. When one angel finally visits God’s office, only to discover that the angels’ daily assignments are indeed assigned at random by a hamster on a treadmill, all hell breaks loose, so to speak, when the angels start testing the boundaries of fate and free will. It was a pleasant surprise that I sincerely hope earns a second season.
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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