Do Supernatural Shows Need a Human Element?
Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer
Though the vampire and zombie trends might be on their last legs, it’s likely only a matter of time before the next supernatural fad hits the airwaves. But no matter what type of otherworldly being is in the spotlight, is it possible for a supernatural show to be too supernatural? Does a series need that grounding humanity to keep it from spiraling into the absurd? Or is it the “anything goes,” free-for-all attitude that makes us love these shows in the first place?
On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow, the supernatural beings act as manifestations of characters’ innermost desires and fears. While there’s a range of diversity within the modern use of monster-as-allegory, they all rely on the contrast between the supernatural and the status quo. Classically, werewolves represent our changing bodies during puberty, vampires become beacons of liberated sexuality, zombies embody our fear of institutional failure and aliens represent Othering and immigration. But when everyone’s a monster, there are no differences to explore. And with this loss of symbolism comes a loss of relatability.
True Blood is a prime example. The series used to offer commentary on LGBTQ civil rights, and while the opening sequence still boasts a “God Hates Fangs” marquee, the message has been twisted beyond recognition. (Let’s ignore the fact that more often than not, the bigots in True Blood‘s world are right — vampires really are murderous and amoral — because that’s a whole new issue.) What I’m referring to is the way that True Blood seems far more concerned with one-upping itself rather than engaging in any nuanced exploration of the issues that once motivated it. In True Blood‘s defense, the show is currently attempting to get “back to its roots” and humanize its stories (Why couldn’t Bill have gotten Hep-V instead of Eric?). However, it’s too little, too late after years of werepanther gang rape, murderous hallucinations and — shudders — Billith.
That’s because creatures, gore, and special effects aren’t the only elements that draw people to supernatural shows. They aren’t enough to carry a story on their own. The most successful supernatural shows demonstrate how these otherworldly elements are connected to humanity. That’s where the stakes come from. That’s what makes us care. And that’s why with True Blood‘s loss of literal humans, it lost its humanity. It no longer had the emotional realism that kept it grounded amidst all the fang-banging and killing, and it’s why it’s now so desperately trying to evoke its first season appeal.
The Vampire Diaries has suffered a similar fate, losing steam as it’s been reduced to a one-human cast. It’s no coincidence that since this transition occurred, the show has stopped questioning the boundaries of love and friendship and begun to rely on pure adrenaline-fueled plot devices. It’s as though the producers believe that the sheer amount of “OMG” moments might distract viewers from noticing that TVD has been rehashing the same relationship drama for five years running. (Please stop breaking Delena up. No one cares anymore.)
That’s not to say a series without many human characters can’t still have a human element. The Originals is made up almost entirely of vamps, weres and witches, but since the show explores the Big Questions (love and family, betrayal and pride) they are able to maintain a sense of humanity while being devoid of nearly any actual humans. As Parks and Recreation‘s Ben Wyatt famously said, “They’re telling human stories in a fantasy world.” Of course, Ben was specifically referring to Game of Thrones, but the idea is applicable to any successful supernatural show. Buffy‘s sense of humanity is why that show endures. It’s why Game of Thrones will endure. And sadly, it’s why the once-beloved True Blood is now merely limping (albeit flamboyantly) through its final season.
Of course, then there are shows like Under the Dome — which, despite its nearly entirely human cast, fails to elicit any echoes of humanity. The drama initially started out as a character study, revealing the lengths to which people would go to survive and the speed with which society can break down. But before the first season even ended, Dome had already shifted its focus to capital ‘M’ Mysteries that were blatantly intended to trend and become that night’s “watercooler moment.” (Because if a show isn’t tweeted about, does it even matter if anyone watched?)
Dome sadly relies on the supernatural as an excuse to put plot before character. And though the idea of an entire town trapped inside a sentient dome is an intriguing premise, it means nothing when we don’t care about how it affects the people or the world around them. Be honest with yourself: How many characters from Dome can you name without Googling? Two? Maybe three? Since the majority of the dome’s residents are just generic meat suits, why should we care if they live or die?
The answer: Most of the time, we don’t. So why do we keep watching? For the potential. We watch in the hopes that one day the proper balance between supernatural mythology and character might be restored. Sadly, more often than not, these hopes are dashed (See: Lost, which widely vacillated between the two extremes, satisfying neither properly).
It’s only when the supernatural and the human work in tandem that these shows are able to live up to their full potential and maintain our devotion. As humans, we are aware of our limitations, and the supernatural can force us to face that truth. It can reveal the horror of people’s truest nature and illustrate just how precarious the notion of civilization truly is. The supernatural can also remind us that humanity is worth fighting for. Because no matter how thrilling and boundless the supernatural world can be, it’s just empty calories without that human element we can sink our teeth into.