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The Rise of the Weird and Unexplained on TV

The second season of Syfy's Haven will premiere in about two weeks. As I write, HBO's True Blood has just started its fourth summer run, and the CW's Supernatural has been renewed for a seventh fall season. We are now so used to having our share of genuine supernatural dramas that it might come as a surprise to many that it wasn't always the case. In fact, the weird and unexplained — for a long time — wasn't considered safe enough to be given free rein in a TV series, and when it occasionally happened, the resulting series rarely ran for more than a season.

In its first foray into genre shows, the explosion of TV series in the 1950s first bet on superheroes and mythical heroes. By the end of the decade, however, producers managed to convince networks that there might be some room for a hint of supernatural in the world of serialized fiction on TV. In 1959, The Twilight Zone brought to American households a mixture of hard sci-fi, fantasy, and supernatural. The series ran for five seasons and even though the paranormal was only one among many other themes, the show was the first truly successful exploration of the weird and unexplained in a TV series, which might explain why its legacy is seen in many of the productions that followed.

The X-Files
About ten years after The Twilight Zone, The Sixth Sense (1971-1972) and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975), two series from ABC, became major stepping stones toward later successes. Both are about investigators of paranormal incidents. There is no more mixed bag and the weird and unexplained is exclusively supernatural. Unfortunately, as there are only so many supernatural independent plot ideas one can come up with, both series were doomed to a short run as they lacked an overarching storyline. Kolchak's one-season run was, however, not in vain as it appears the show was a source of inspiration to the creator of The X-Files (1993-2002). Similarities between Kolchak and The X-Files are undeniable and, in addition, the latter had a few more things going for it. It not only gradually developed an overarching conspiracy story, but also managed to have strong leads that captivated some part of the audience with a relationship that never (really) was. All that was good, but as far as we are concerned, the real achievement of The X-Files is the fact that it showed a mainstream public could follow convoluted paranormal stories for the better part of the nine seasons the show ran.

Despite its achievements, it should be said The X-Files was another mixed bag; a contemporary equivalent to The Twilight Zone. Its success helped the now ridiculously broad sci-fi genre which seems these days to include fantasy, horror, paranormal, and hard sci-fi. Only a few years into Fox's success with The X-Files, other networks followed suit with more paranormal-centric shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Charmed (1998-2006), and Angel (1999-2004). These shows brought vampires, witches, and even demons to our living rooms. They brought into the mainstream concepts that were, until then, relegated to a very specific literature. I believe they also helped shape a sort of cross-tv-network mythology for the occult worlds they were set in, and by so doing they did away with the "unexplained." The occult world and the various creatures were still weird, but they lived by rules that could be explained. There was a certain order of things, starting with the "Powers That Be" or "Elders"...

Audrey and Nathan - Haven
The current crop of supernatural TV series is exploring even more territories than their forerunners. There are those I would only consider as weird. They involve supernatural beings or events, but fit in a well-established mythology within which things "make sense." The CW's Supernatural is in this category as it fits in a very Christian order of things. Then there are those like Syfy's Haven where there isn't — at least so far — any overarching occult construct. With this show, although we deal with supernatural beings and events, there is not much in the way of explanation. Most of the weird is left unexplained in a sequence of events that does not necessarily bother the fans, but seems to work as well...


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