Supernatural-flavored and fantasy-tinged programming continues to flood our TV screens, which is no surprise, given the success of shows like "True Blood" and "The Vampire Diaries."
Yet what's going on in popular culture is more than a mere frenzy for bloodsuckers. "Once Upon a Time," "Alphas," the X-Men movies, "The Hunger Games," the great "Fables" graphic-novel series, "Game of Thrones," the Harry Potter films: They all share a common DNA, and those kinds of stories are particularly relevant right now, because they're all about both escape and engagement.
The four shows that I'll discuss below -- "Misfits," "The Fades," "Being Human" and "Lost Girl" -- all allow viewers to escape into a different reality and imagine what it would be like to have special powers or a heroic destiny. In these difficult times, who wouldn't want to be able to see into the future or change the past? Rather than worrying about paying bills, it might be fun to contemplate being invisible, deriving strength from the life essence of your enemies or venting your most intense emotions by literally howling at the moon ... as an actual wolf.
Still, as attractive as those things sound, many of the stories mentioned here are about what it's like to be a young person thrust into a lonely and forbidding world, which is a theme that has present-day relevance as well. Twenty-somethings who are unemployed, underemployed or stuck in dead-end jobs can probably relate to the frustrations and lack of autonomy that these tales often describe. (Katniss Everdeen's saga could be described as the story of a young woman who really, really hates a job that she happens to be very good at.)
Still, no matter what our age or job status, if these kinds of coming-of-age stories are told well, it's easy to identify with the heroes and heroines, who often try to resist difficult paths and risky quests. These yarns are often about people who just want comfort, security and acceptance, but are denied those things by their unpredictable, dangerous lives. When I was re-watching "The Lord of the Rings" film trilogy over the holiday, it was hard not to think about what Frodo had lost, not just what he had accomplished. In the end, he had to leave the Shire, the only home he'd ever known. Sometimes being the hero means you suffer more than others -- but there can be great dignity in that suffering, even if the sacrifices are great.
But the most ambitious stories in this realm often ask if the characters' sacrifices were too great, and if too much was asked of them and their loved ones. The reason the "Game of Thrones" books and TV show are so popular is because they offer no easy answers to those questions, which fans enjoy wrestling with (when they're not mourning a heart-rending character death, that is). (Sidebar: We'll be able to consider these questions anew when "Game of Thrones" returns on HBO on April 1.)
Another great story that covers similar terrain, even though it's set in the present day, is Lev Grossman's "The Magicians." I recently devoured this emotionally engaging and deeply intelligent book about college-age wizards in a single weekend. (Grossman published a sequel, "The Magician King," last year, and the first book is in development as a possible Fox TV series.) Though the alternate worlds Grossman creates -- including a school of magic -- are spellbinding, the pain, fear and wonder the characters experience are the most memorable thing about the novel. Like the best fantasies, "The Magicians" removes us from the "real" world, yet pays profound tribute to the struggles for intimacy, identity and self-respect that we all go through.
Grossman, who's also the book critic for Time, writes on his site about how fantasy represents longing for a different world or way of life: "Fantasy worlds are often animated by weird mysterious forces -- like magic -- but even those forces on some level come from inside us ... They express deep human wishes and primal emotions."
As Grossman sees it, many of the best fantasy works are about yearning -- for lost worlds, for simpler lives, for our own personal Shires, if you will. But I'd add that the books, shows and films I've mentioned here, despite their surface differences, are about exile. They're about being driven from a cocoon of safety and security, and having to master new, sometimes frightening skills in a world that can be exciting, but also unsafe and harsh. Leaving one kind of life and accepting a new destiny isn't easy, and that's why so many genre-tinged hero's journeys are filled with loss, dread and the kind of black humor that "Buffy" and "Supernatural" fans know well.
And there's a reason that all the shows below (and Grossman's books) feature characters in their late teens or twenties. It's hard enough figuring out your place in the world at that age, but add strange powers and an epic quest to a young person's array of challenges and the quest for maturity, and self-knowledge becomes that much more difficult.
But aren't the most difficult things in life often the things most worth doing? And isn't it kind of awesome when girls with super-powers kick bad guys in the head? I'd stake my life on both of those truths. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on four supernatural-horror-super-powered series that arrive in the next few days (though one is available online now). Read on to find out which show I liked a lot and which one I fell a little in love with:
Available: New episodes debut Mondays on Hulu (Seasons 1 and 2 are posted now; Season 3 is in progress)
Premise: Five young people on a work-release program are in a storm that gives them super powers.
How many episodes I've seen: Six
What's good about it: The best parts of "Misfits" usually involve the characters learning to trust each other and themselves, and the show's kitchen-sink grittiness and realistic dialogue are also big draws. These characters look, act and speak like real people, and Robert Sheehan is particularly wonderful as the irreverent Nathan, whose special power seems to be running his mouth in ways that get him in trouble. As was the case in the low-tech, but enjoyable British sci-fi flick "Attack the Block," "Misfits" is a a surprisingly thoughtful examination of what conflicted young people do after society has judged their worth and found them expendable. Despite the show's flaws and occasionally slack pace, I found myself really enjoying the Season 1 finale, partly because I'd become particularly attached to Nathan and Kelly (Lauren Socha), the show's most winningly depicted screwups.
What's not great about it: Individual episodes sometimes lack tension and drive, and there are some plot holes you could drive a truck through. An apparent lack of funds can sometimes lead a show to get creative and delve into the characters (as was the case with Syfy's solid "Alphas"), but "Misfits" doesn't consistently go that route; it sometimes spends too much time on mood and atmosphere and expends too little effort on the story of the week. Also, the murder mystery at the core of the first season is 90 percent predictable and not all the characters are as specific and complex as Nathan and Kelly. Still, the good aspects of this show are engaging and "Misfits" is a damn sight more consistent than the most spectacular fail in this genre, "Heroes."
Rating: 7 out of 10
Note:"Chuck" and "The O.C." executive producer Josh Schwartz is working with "Misfits" creator Howard Overman to develop a U.S. version of the show, and my colleague Crystal Bell talked to some of the U.K. cast about that here.
Debuts: 9 p.m. EST on Sat., Jan 14 on BBC America
Premise: Spectral beings trapped on Earth are up to no good, and it's up to a band of underground warriors -- including reluctant new recruit Paul (Iain De Caestecker) -- to prevent an apocalypse.
How many episodes I've seen: Three
What's good about it: It wouldn't quite be accurate to call "The Fades" a zombie drama, but its central concept, which concerns dead people who are unable to ascend to the next plane of existence, is interesting, and the tale of a young man reluctantly accepting his special destiny is one of the most dependable storytelling concepts of all time (just ask Joseph Campbell). The cast, which includes Natalie Dormer of "Game of Thrones," is quietly competent and there are some effectively moody visual set pieces.
What's not great about it: Given how much potential this premise contains, I dearly wish "The Fades" could decide what it wants to do. It meanders among various ideas -- coming-of-age drama, creepy monsterfest, apocalyptic horror show, murder mystery and meditations on death and loss -- but it doesn't meld those ideas into a compelling narrative. It merely jumbles them together in a vague stew, which might be OK if its core characters and their relationships were fresh and distinctive, but they feel like generic rehashes from better shows or movies. Finally, is anyone a fan of the "Soon you shall understand" school of vague, portentous dialogue? Didn't think so.
Rating: 5 out of 10
Note: "Fades" (and "Skins") actress Lily Loveless, as well as Alison Brie of "Community" and Kunal Nayyar of "Big Bang Theory," appear on BBC America's latest "Nerdist" special, a geek-friendly roundtable hosted by podcaster Chris Hardwick, 10:15 p.m. EST Saturday. Also, "The Fades" airs in a 75-minute slot in order to accommodate the running times of the episodes, which are typically 50 minutes or longer.
Returns: 9 p.m. EST on Mon., Jan 16 on Syfy
Premise: A vampire, a ghost and a werewolf all live together in a Boston apartment.
How many episodes I've seen: Four from the first season, two from the second. (I've also seen the first two seasons of the original U.K. series.)
What's good about it: There are some witty bits of dialogue and when the show forgets to be gloomy for a while, it can be a mildly engaging character drama. Also, Dichen Lachman of "Dollhouse" joins the cast in Season 2 and she's always a treat to watch.
What's not great about it: "A vampire, a ghost and a werewolf all live together" -- how often I've wanted to write "and hijinks ensue!" after that phrase. Yet, the original British version of this show and the U.S. adaptation usually resist all things hijink-related, and that inability to embrace the lighter aspects of the "Being Human" premise might be OK if the U.S. version of this show was not such a ponderous, dour affair. It's hard to get behind the dilemmas of a group characters who whine as much as this gloomy bunch. In case you weren't clear on what a bummer it is to be a ghost or a vampire or a werewolf, the thudding voiceovers frequently remind you. Take the vampire: He gets a new set of bosses this season who promise to free him from bloodsucker politics if he merely does a few tasks for them. Why would he trust this new bunch of overlords? Because he's not very bright, I guess. Watching this show made me miss the brash, mouthy kids of "Misfits," who had more spark and spirit than this self-absorbed, vaguely immature crew.
Rating: 4 out of 10
Note: The fourth season of the U.K. version of the show arrives Feb. 25 on BBC America.
Debuts: 10 p.m. EST on Mon., Jan 16 on Syfy
Premise: A young woman learns to harness her dangerous power and finds herself caught in the middle of two supernatural factions.
How many episodes I've seen: Two.
What's good about it: Oh, so much. Sometimes the other three shows' attempts to seem serious and important just come off as dithering and pretentious. But "Lost Girl" knows exactly what it is -- it's pleasingly energetic genre fare. It may cover well-trodden territory -- it certainly has all the "Buffy" elements: action + monsters + kick-ass young woman + character drama + a dash of snark. But the first two episodes of "Lost Girl" are so assured and enjoyable that the similarities to other stories are a feature, not a bug. Once you get past the intriguing dilemmas almost immediately faced by Bo (Anna Silk), the lead character, you see that there are any number of interesting places for her and her sidekick, Kenzi (Ksenia Solo), to go, especially in light of Bo's own murderous tendencies and the brewing war between the "Dark" and "Light" factions of "fae" or supernatural folk. It also doesn't hurt that Dyson (Kris Holden-Ried), the local detective who runs interference for the fae, is charismatic and super-hunky. What a light, yet satisfying treat this show turned out to be.
What's not great about it: What's the war between the fae factions about and why has it lasted so long? I've no idea yet, but I like so much about this show that I'm willing to wait to find out. Occasionally, the transitions from one aspect of the story to another are a bit ragged and the FX and fight scenes aren't always great, but so what? I am quite eager to see more of Bo's adventures.
Rating: 8 out of 10
A final note: If you like these sorts of shows, I recommend catching up with "Alphas." Five episodes are online here, and these are my favorites.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan