The Librarians is one of the best kept secrets in modern genre TV. Its third season is scheduled to launch later this year and, honestly, I don’t think there’s anything else I’m looking forward to more on TV right now. In two seasons, the show has established itself as smart, funny, literate as hell, emotionally honest, and wildly eccentric. In short, it’s arguably the closest thing American genre TV has to Doctor Who, at least in terms of heart and worldview.
The premise is this: The Library is both the sum total of human knowledge and a containment facility for magic items. The Librarian is the one person chosen by the Library to go out and get the artefacts that humanity must be protected from. The Guardian is the person whose job it is to protect the Librarian while they’re doing this.
Librarians tend to die a lot.
Guardians tend to die first.
That, by itself, is exactly the sort of premise that makes my pulp-loving ears prick up. But the show takes it one step further by both critiquing and evolving its own premise. It’s clearly ludicrous that a single Librarian and Guardian are chosen at a time—so much so, in fact, that several villains to date have made sarcastic comments about it.
So, when the Library’s hand is forced, it recruits three new Librarians. All of them geniuses, all of them uniquely broken, all of them perfectly equipped to protect humanity and knowledge from each other.
None of them Flynn Carsen, the current Librarian. A man who is brilliant, erratic, alive, plays very badly with others, and is not entirely happy about how crowded his job has suddenly gotten.
There’s some delightfully chewy thematic stuff wrapped up in that premise and the show backs away from none of it. The universe was originally introduced in a series of TV movies centered solely on Flynn and the idea of not only acknowledging those early outings, but the effect his time in the role has had, is brilliant. The show bakes ideological conflict in at the most fundamental level, as Flynn struggles to learn how to connect with the newbies, who are themselves struggling to connect with the job.
And speaking of the newbies, the three new Librarians are brilliant: intellectual superheroes with their feet very much on the ground. Ezekiel Jones is a perennially bored master thief, Cassandra Killian is a genius and synesthete being slowly killed by the inoperable tumour in her brain, and Jacob Stone is nine of the greatest art historians in the world (all aliases). Because when you work the oil rigs in Oklahoma, you’re not allowed to be a genius.
The new Guardian is Colonel Eve Baird. An active service NATO Special Forces operator who specializes in tracking down rogue WMDs, Baird is pragmatic, fatalistic, and sceptical. She’s an older sister to the three Librarians and, well, all kinds of things to Flynn.
Finally, Jenkins is…well, Jenkins. Played with glorious, laconic charm by John Larroquette, Jenkins runs the Library’s annex, which serves as the characters’ base of operations. The first season is focused largely on figuring out just who he is, so I’m hesitant to give you answers here because the payoff is great. Politely immortal, unflappable in the face of danger, and a man whose love for Eric B. & Rakim mirrors my own, he’s a static point around which these new, chaotic Librarians orbit.
None of these people are perfect, all of them are changed by their experiences, and all of them are defined by their faults. The show is at its best when it combines those faults with the case of the week. “City of Light” pairs Jacob with a brilliant woman with similar familial problems and a very big science project that forces him to confront his fear of accepting the person he has become. “Point of Salvation” sees Ezekiel sacrifice himself again and again to save a team who have no idea why he’s acting so strangely. “Heart of Darkness” shows us how far Cassandra will go to protect her friends and how important all life is to her as a result of her condition. Oh, and “Santa’s Midnight Run” folds Eve’s isolation from her family and the psychological stress of her military career into the single most powerful and even-handed exploration of various versions of the Santa story genre fiction has attempted in the last two decades. Also: Bruce Campbell as Santa.
Time and again, the show folds its characters, its premise, and its individual story arcs into hours of clever, funny, kind, and emotionally powerful TV. The characters themselves become embodiments of the increasingly complicated world the show is set in, as well as the central debate inherent within that world. The Library is intended to contain magic and protect the world from it. But magic is already in the world. As the series goes on, whether the Library can, or should, change its role becomes a vital part of the plot and the show looks set to continue asking tough questions of itself, and continue changing as it finds the answers.
That willingness to change is also at the heart of how the show treats its original trilogy of TV movies and its original leading man. Flynn’s a fascinating character because Noah Wyle not only does a pretty great Doctor Who impersonation, but the show never once shies away from presenting him in a negative light. Flynn is brilliant, heroic, eccentric, and in love with his job. But Flynn is also arrogant, self-centred, wilfully obscure, and obsessed with his job. He’s a survivor, and a surprisingly poignant one: a man who has dedicated ten years of his life to saving the world only to find he’s also sacrificed his ability to interact with it.
The conflict between Flynn and the others is also the conflict between two fictional models: lone action hero vs. super team. This drives a lot of episodes until the second season where Flynn is confronted with just how tenacious and vital his (mostly unwanted) colleagues are. His acceptance of that is wrapped up in one of the show’s most poignant, bravest lines, when he introduces himself as: “The… A Librarian.” The hero has come in from the cold, to find that, at last, he’s not alone.
He’s done so in the nick of time, too, as the first two seasons have combined magic with literature to throw a wide variety of challenges at the characters. This is where the writer’s room really cuts loose, as magic is presented in countless different ways. “Rule of Three” and “Cost of Education” both show the collision between science and magic as something that isn’t inherently evil but can be used to those ends. “City of Light” combines a tragic love story with the law of unintended consequences, and “Fables of Doom” is one of the best slow burn punchlines I’ve ever seen. Starting with an apparent assault by a bridge troll, it gradually overwrites reality with fairy tales, incorporating the Librarians themselves. Very smart and very, very funny, “Fables of Doom” also cleverly explores the gender identities of the characters in a way so subtle that you almost don’t notice it’s happening.
Later episodes include Dorian Gray using Cloud storage and a fantastic riff on the Faustian bargain. Each episode features at least one genuinely great idea or new approach, and they’re all defined by a deep, clear love for stories: personal stories, mythic stories, or the stories we tell ourselves to survive the world—or make it into something new.
And all of this should explain why The Librarians is my favourite TV show right now. Nothing else is as literate or springs from such a fundamental sense of joy at how amazing stories are. And no other show, aside from Doctor Who, has demonstrated such willingness to explore and question its own premise. Most of all, nothing else is quite so much fun. Roll on, season 3…
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.