The staples of horror can get tired pretty fast. Once you know the rules of the supernatural in one place, you generally know them everywhere. A rule gets bent over here or broken over there, but vampires drink blood, ghosts can’t eat, and zombies are mindless monsters that hunger for brains.
That is, unless you’re watching The Fades subvert the entire genre.
First off, I should say that if horror is your beat, The Fades will definitely impress. The show is genuinely frightening and plenty gory — even the opening theme sets your teeth on edge. But what is truly fascinating is the world constructed by writer Jack Thorne, a place where many ghosts (known as “Fades”) can’t make it to the afterlife because man has built up the world, covered it in concrete and satellite dishes, and blocked up a lot of the ascension points. The suggestion that who makes it to the other side is not at all governed by the quality of one’s life is truly disturbing in a way that bloody body horror and darkened hallways could never be.
In the middle of it, we meet 17-year-old Paul (Iain de Caestecker), who finds out that his nightmares are the result of a special potential: to be an Angelic, one of the guardians who helps the Fades pass on and polices the ones left behind. But Paul has visions of a coming apocalypse, and it looks as though his job may be a bit harder than those who came before him.
What makes the show is easily the relationship between Paul and his best friend, Mac (played by Daniel Kaluuya, who abruptly steals the show every time he’s on screen). Two awkward, geeky teenagers who exist firmly in the “social outcast” ring amongst their peers, their rapid-fire banter and true affection for each other is one of the most compelling aspects of The Fades. Between their funny quotes and sleepovers and soda-sharing, you glimpse a fact of life for so many young people; that being on the social fringe isn’t so bad as long as you have someone to share your every horror with. In this case, quite literally.
Parents and adults are portrayed with startling realism here, every bit as flawed and helpless as their children. Mac’s impatient, quick-to-temper father becomes a greater disappointment when you see how his treatment affects his son. Neil, Paul’s mentor, struggles with fear of not being good enough to guide Paul to his destiny. Rather than being a model to the young man, his failures have a terrifying impact. While the plot revolves around Paul, The Fades doesn’t make the mistake of ignoring adult authority while the kids try to make it all work on their own. If the world is falling down around their ears, everyone is going to have something to say about it. In addition, the theme of selfishness bleeds into nearly everyone’s character arc, regardless of age, which is something that would normally be reserved for teens alone.
As is the case with these hour-long shows, so much gets packed into each episode that you begin to feel as though you’ve gone through a season arc after watching only two of them. It allows for full explorations of each character’s life at a level of complexity normally not found on television; within the first two episodes, you realize that every character you were introduced to individually is connected in some fashion. Mark (Tom Ellis, otherwise known as Tom Milligan on Doctor Who and King Cenrid on Merlin) has separated from his wife, Sarah, because she can’t admit she is an Angelic. Sarah works with Neil on a team, and Mark is Paul and Mac’s history teacher. Mac’s father is the one heading up the investigation into Sarah’s disappearance, so he meets Mark in an entirely different context, unaware that Mark teaches his son at school. It’s a small town show, with everyone in everyone else’s business; almost as though these characters lived in a western frontier town rather than a quiet British village, and it lends a air of desolation to their plight.
In the midst of the inevitable approaching apocalypse, teenaged angst is played out in all it’s disconcerting glory, just as one would expect from a former writer of the U.K. Skins series. It’s not just Mac and Paul’s inability to manage amongst their fellow students; Paul’s twin sister is a ringleader of the cool crowd, embarrassed by her brother and initially nothing more than a tired stereotype... until she gets involved with Paul’s darker side of life, and proves exactly how able she is. Her friend Jay, Paul’s crush, represents a very real dilemma that is often ignored in growing pain plots; the plight of someone who wants to be both outcast and popular kid, caught between the opinions of friends and the desire for individual freedom.
There is an element of Buffy-like exploration to Thorne’s characters, but unlike Whedon’s gang, these kids have little to tie them together. They don’t form a unit, they don’t know how to talk to each other, and coming into their own is going to take a lot more than knocking out a few bad guys. Which is a more honest portrayal than we normally receive on television by a long shot.
The Fades themselves gain character of their own as the season progresses. Instead of maintaining a ghouslish trope, they become people. The have thoughts, they have motives — they are decidedly not the Monster of the Week. Being stuck on a plane where you cannot contact the world around you for all eternity is bound to lead down roads of resentment and bitterness. We watch it happen to certain Fades in realtime, but we also see what decades of watching the world on the sidelines will do to a person.
I won’t spoil the furthering of the plot, but I will say that the eventual reveal of the Fades’ plan is a completely unexpected melding of ghost, vampire, and zombie lore that gives these stock characters an entirely fresh spin. The season also ends on quite the cliffhanger — I can’t wait to find out where Thorne takes the show next.
This review is based off of the Blu-Ray set out now from BBC America, so I also dove into the great little extras that are packaged with the show. There are a few cute videos that Mac has “made” to offer brief explanations about terms and plot arcs, some cool interviews with key cast members, and deleted and extra scenes, along with bloopers. The extra scenes are honestly just a treasure trove of hilarious exchanges between Mac and Paul where they debate and give each other a hard time. (In one of these scenes it is stated that The Jungle Book is the best film portrayal of madness. The argument has to be witnessed to be believed.) The whole thing would actually make a fantastic gift for a friend or family member who’s very into SFF and smart horror and is looking for the Next Awesome Show to marathon. (Basically, if you know someone who loves The Walking Dead or Shaun of the Dead, this is exactly what you should give them for their birthday.)
You can visit the official Fades site for more details. The DVD and Blu-Ray sets just came out in the U.S., so you should be able to find them on sale through most of the usual online outlets. (Or just click the above image.)