Twists abound in new TV shows. Will they reel in viewers?

Why We Wrote This

More streaming services launching this fall means more small screen program options. How do shows from across the science fiction and fantasy genres fare?  

Kimberley French/The CW/AP
Ruby Rose stars as Kate Kane/Batwoman in the new series on The CW network. It is one of several superhero offerings this fall.

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This fall’s new science fiction and fantasy shows face an extra degree of difficulty. That’s because they don’t just offer the new characters and situations common to all genres. They also have to present new worlds, sometimes with entirely new sets of rules. That’s a major part of their appeal – experiencing these shows challenges not just interpersonal understanding, but environmental and rational understanding as well.

Quite a few of the programs adopt the puzzle-box approach. ABC’s “Emergence,” borrowing liberally from “Stranger Things” on Netflix, includes an intriguing plot about a plane crash survivor’s unusual abilities and shadowy past. The less compelling (and more violent) “Evil” is a CBS offering about church-hired paranormal investigators. 

The CW and HBO are taking advantage of the golden age of the superhero genre with “Batwoman” and “Watchmen,” respectively. “Watchmen,” debuting Oct. 20, promises to take the weighty themes of the original 1980s comic and bring them forward 34 years, into a world that deviates radically from our own but still resonates on issues of white supremacy and authoritarianism. The show’s creator has said he was inspired by the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, which is back in the news this week as scientists search for evidence of a mass grave. 

Two investigators try to find the motive for murder. A small-town sheriff takes in an orphan with a shadowy past. A young woman tries to get over heartache. And, seeking to save a former love, an avenger puts on a cowl and takes to the night.

Each of these new fall shows leans heavily on familiar tropes, but adds a twist: The investigators suspect the murderer could be a demon. (Yes, the evil kind, with horns.) Both the small-town sheriff and the caped crusader are women. The heartbroken young woman, terrified of becoming a cat lady, meets an actual cat-headed lady. (This one drives a bus in Los Angeles.)

This fall’s new science fiction and fantasy offerings face an extra degree of difficulty. That’s because they don’t just offer the new characters and situations common to all genres. They also have to present new worlds, sometimes with entirely new sets of rules. That’s a major part of their appeal – experiencing these new shows challenges not just interpersonal understanding, but environmental and rational understanding as well.

Quite a few shows adopt the puzzle-box approach this fall. “Emergence,” on ABC, borrows liberally from Netflix’s “Stranger Things”: An apparently superpowered girl with a shadowy past is being pursued by the government, but comes under the protection of a small-town sheriff. Allison Tolman as Sheriff Jo Evans and Alexa Swinton as Piper, the mysterious girl, are both compelling. The always good Donald Faison and Clancy Brown support as Jo’s ex-husband and father, respectively.

CBS’s “Evil,” on the other hand, takes a more “X-Files” approach, as a church-backed team of paranormal researchers tries to determine whether strange phenomena are scientifically explainable or demonically driven. The contrast between the two shows demonstrates the importance of getting world-building right. “Evil” (rated TV-14) gives away the game early by making it all too clear (via villains who are either cartoonishly or violently malevolent) that the demonic answer was the right one – and loses a lot of energy. Made by the team behind “The Good Wife,” “Evil” aspires to explore the motivations of morality and immorality, but three episodes in, it mostly muddles about with implausible “X-Files”-like questions like “ghost or leaky gasket?” which even charismatic star Mike Colter can’t overcome. “Emergence” (TV-PG), meanwhile, keeps the mystery going. There’s something odd happening, but the puzzle is laid out slowly – and that keeps you coming back. (One throwback note: Both programs feature actors who are alumni of the master puzzle-box show, “Lost.”) 

Ali Goldstein/Hulu
Kat Dennings and Connor Hines star in the Hulu show "Dollface," which has a reality-bending twist.

The superhero genre is experiencing a golden age – on the big and small screen – right now. It’s no wonder. At its simplest level, it takes little to move a real-world drama into a comic book world: Just take a crime drama and add higher ambitions and stylized costumes to the main characters. That’s essentially what The CW has done with its latest addition to its supershow lineup: “Batwoman” (TV-14).

It’s early days yet in the show. But the portrayal has been faithful to the comic. Kate Kane – Batwoman’s alter ego played by a hard-nosed Ruby Rose – is a onetime military academy student, dishonorably discharged due to her intimate relationship with classmate Sophie Moore. After kicking about testing her limits à la her cousin, Bruce Wayne, she returns to Gotham City. And when Sophie is kidnapped, Kate takes up the mantle Batman mysteriously abandoned three years prior to save her.

With a little more reworking of the laws of the world to allow for superbeings, you can go even further. That’s what HBO is doing with its prestige series “Watchmen” (TV-MA), a sequel to the classic 1980s comic of the same name. “Watchmen,” debuting Oct. 20, promises to take the weighty themes of the original and bring them forward 34 years, into a world that deviates radically from our own but still resonates on issues of white supremacy and authoritarianism. The creator of the show has said he was inspired by the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, which is back in the news this week as scientists search for evidence of a mass grave. The cast includes Oscar winners Regina King and Jeremy Irons.  

Like “Game of Thrones,” this year’s most ambitious world-building show draws heavily from work done in another medium. In November, the new streaming service Disney+ will roll out the first “Star Wars” live-action series, set after “Return of the Jedi.” A kind of bounty-hunter Western, “The Mandalorian” is set to blaze new trails in the “Star Wars” universe.

And for those who like fantasy without ever leaving the real world, there is the quirky, surrealist “Dollface” (TV-MA), also available in November. Hulu’s offering is a kind of L.A.-based “Sex and the City” with a reality-bending twist. The main story arc is that Jules (Kat Dennings), recently dumped by her boyfriend, must reconnect with female friends. Over the episodes, her dilemmas are often shown as real-life metaphors: say, a cat-headed lady driving her in a bus to meet her lost acquaintances, or a chasm opening between fighting friends. It’s a world where exposition is made manifest.

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