It would be easy to blame it all on 'Lost' -- our obsession with the supernatural, the insolvable mystery, the sense that things are not what they seem. Since the day day Jack Shephard first opened his eyes on that highly metaphorical island, television has been growing increasingly infested with science fiction, fantasy and supernatural tales, once the purview of cult shows and brilliant-but-canceled lists.
Add to that the rise of the vampire love story as standard fare for both teens and adults, and the emergence of two great ass-whooping heroines in Lisbeth Salander ('The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo') and Katniss Everdeen ('The Hunger Games'), and it's not hard to see what well the fall television slate is drawing from.
This fall, time travel, fairy tales, speculative technology, ghosts and ancient supernatural abilities feature heavily in prime time network shows. In fact, if you don't care for this kind of thing, you'll pretty much have to stick to comedy. In every other genre -- from crime procedural to drama -- some sort of hyper-reality is at the core of the series.
It's a sign of how science fiction and fantasy have climbed out of their genre hole to take centre stage, both on bookshelves and on the small screen. 'The Twilight Zone' and the old 'Dr. Who' were shows on the margin, and obviously they were influencing plenty of young filmmakers who have now come of age, but they were not considered mainstream fare.
It makes me wonder what has shifted, that now audiences almost demand some element of the supernatural, where once we rejected it. It can't all come down to J.J. Abrams. Margaret Atwood and other award-winning authors of science fiction (they like to call it speculative fiction) claim sci-fi is a mirror that reflects back our own reality. I'm inclined to agree, but it is definitely an oblique view. Early 'Battlestar Galactica' was clearly about the war on terror. But at the time, so was CNN. Did 'Battlestar' allow us to look, while also looking away? Are we at a point where our world, our reality, is something we flinch from?
I say this as someone who is currently obsessed with HBO's 'Game of Thrones' and kills time between episodes re-reading the 'Dragonriders of Pern' series. I love fantasy and sci-fi, and I have since I was a kid, but lately I've been feeling like it is an escape mechanism. Frustrated by the election results here in Canada -- and disgusted by the number of reports of illegal dealing from all parties -- and frightened by the increasing divide between right and left, rich and poor, secularism and fundamentalism, I've found that lately even Jon Stewart and Colbert can't make me laugh about it. Trying to follow the complexities of our world leave me feeling breathless and scared, so instead, like young Bran of 'Game of Thrones,' I'm learning the sigils of the various houses of Westeros and putting whatever political energy I have towards rooting against King Joffrey.
I suppose another reason we may be turning, en masse, towards un-reality is simple boredom. Have we just seen it all before -- the hospital dramas, the star-crossed lovers, the 20-something friends in New York City? There's plenty of that coming to TV, too -- and according to the critics who've seen the pilots, the simple comedies are the better shows. But when it comes to the more serious side of life, we've traded navel gazing for star gazing.
If 'The West Wing' were debuting this fall, the president would be clairvoyant. If 'The Wire' were kicking off, the corner boys would be zombies. And that's an interesting metaphor: aren't addicts zombies of a sort? The temptation to compare something real -- the customers of the inner city drug trade -- to something not real, like zombies, is a strong one. Does that make it easier to consider them, and ultimately, to dismiss them?
Obviously, the job of television shows is ultimately to entertain us, not necessarily to enlighten us. But it's worth looking hard at what we are entertained by. These days, it seems to be dire situations. Our fictional fall TV counterparts fight ghosts, monsters, evil queens and even dinosaurs. If these are mirrors, it's worth asking ourselves what they are reflecting.