Why is fantasy TV having a moment?

We’re all nerds now…and we love it.

In partnership with Carnival Row

Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne as their characters in Carnival Row
Photo: Amazon Prime, Emma Tonellato

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment exactly: Was it when Game of Thrones won its 23rd Emmy? Or when Lin-Manuel Miranda signed on to star in a TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials? Surely, Henry Cavill leaving behind his Superman tights for Legolas locks in The Witcher moved the needle a touch.

Either way: Fantasy is back—and it’s cool this time. No longer a specialty channel or back-corner-of-the-video-store sphere of entertainment peopled by actors hoping it won’t show up on their IMDb when they eventually make it, fantasy has gone mainstream. The world has dialed our inner nerd up to 11, bought the Director’s Cut, and invited our friends over to join us. Dungeons and Dragons during intermission optional.

Need convincing? Take Carnival Row, an Amazon production that’s just one of many shows set in an alternate, magical reality hitting our screens and streaming services. This neo noir Victorian series (think steampunk meets Sherlock with a soupçon of Peter Pan) tells the story of a world populated by faeries, fauns and humans, forced to live alongside each other after a war drives the mythical creatures from their homeland. Zero points for guessing that this doesn’t go well (did we mention humans are involved?) Cara Delevingne *and* Orlando Bloom star, which, frankly, feels like way too much hotness for our 13-inch laptop screen to handle. Bloom plays Rycroft Philostrate, a police detective tasked with solving a string of murders, and Delevingne plays Vignette Stonemoss, a faerie living as a member of the underclass. They fall in love; a romance made that much spicier since it’s forbidden. Fingers crossed it all turns out more Lara Jean and Peter than Romeo and Juliet.

So, in between drafting our binge-watching schedule—we’re blocking off Labour Day weekend for when Carnival Row premieres on August 30, BTW—we thought we’d tap some experts to find out why fantasy TV shows are so popular right now and how this unlikely (dare we say, fantastical?) transformation happened.

The world is basically a garbage fire right now

The math on this one is pretty simple: Real life in 2019 is a lot to handle. Who wouldn’t want to escape it? “I see many horrible, frightening things—maybe not unprecedented, but possibly specific to, or more pronounced in our historical moment—informing the popularity and variety of today’s science-fiction television landscape,” explains Elaine Chang, associate professor in the school of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. See: climate change, economic turmoil, a rise in nationalism and xenophobia. Fantasy does more than just give us the ability to disappear for hours on end into a story. Because of the subject matter, it also allows us think through some of the issues we see in the real world, but from a different angle. As Annalee Newitz, whose novel Autonomous is being turned into a show for AMC, explains: “What’s terrific about science fiction is that it allows us to approach real-world issues from the safety of an imaginary world.” Exhibit A: Carnival Row, which grapples with the latter ideas as it depicts the inequality and cruelty of a world where the mythical creatures (all refugees, by the way) are forced to live as an underclass in a world where, to quote Vignette, “different is dangerous.” Sure, it’s dressed up in fairy wings and centaur hooves, but that sounds less like the product of someone’s wild imagination and more like what we see on our Twitter feeds, no?

Fantasy is equal parts self-care and activism…kinda

That’s why Chang—who’s taught undergraduate seminars on science fiction—sees the rise of this genre as the opposite of the hide-in-the-bunker hopelessness that a pull toward escapism might suggest. “I think many millennials or Gen Z-ers get a bad rap for insulating themselves from the real horrors—and real responsibilities—of the larger world they’re moving into,” she says. “I see quite a few younger adults turning to fantasy as a kind of protest: against diminished horizons of economic and other opportunities; against science-denial, corporate-capitalist greed.” It’s a bit of a stretch to call binge-watching a Hollywood-produced show a radical act, but, we’re also not *not* saying that either. When you support a show like Carnival Row, for instance, that champions a “taboo” love story or allows for female characters with agency, you’re voting with your attention span…and, you know, getting a gripping murder mystery into the bargain.

There’s a tradition of progressive thought in the genre

Fun fact: The first science fiction novel was actually written by a woman named Mary Shelley, who wrote a little novella called Frankenstein. (Perhaps you’ve heard of his monster?) And better yet: According to Fran Cettl, a teacher at Durham University in the U.K., when Shelley wrote Frankenstein back in 1818, she wove in everything from “the questioning of gender norms” to “racial and colonial discourses of the time” and “even a brief allusion to a more ethical vegetarian diet.” Cettl, who often writes about science fiction, is quick to say that there’s nothing “inherently critical” about this genre, but there is something in the fact that these are often “forward thinking” narratives that “ask us to confront our own condition in history and where it might take us next.” And yes, sometimes it’s okay if “next” is just another episode of whichever fantasy show has captured your imagination this fall.

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