Over the past couple of weeks I watched two shows I’d been looking forward to for a while – The Magicians and A Series of Unfortunate Events. A Series of Unfortunate Events is about three adorable orphans, the Baudelaires, and Count Olaf, a villain who is plotting to get their inheritance. The Magicians is a Harry Potter-ish story involving a pack of archetypical college kids (the smart one, the pretty one, the gay one, the punk one, the depressed one, and the ethnic one) whose names are utterly irrelevant and will be heretofore referred to as the Magicians.
My husband and I watched The Magicians at night after the kids were in bed, and the kids and I watched A Series while my husband was at work. I found the shows dovetailed nicely in a dual binge-watch. Couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly, but they seemed like weird mirror images of each other. Even though they seemed very different on the surface, they echoed each other.
Both involve seemingly ordinary people who are revealed to have special talents, fighting against an unstoppable evil. But the Baudelaire orphans’ gifts, despite being rather ordinary (inventing, reading books, and biting things), repeatedly save them, while the the magicians in The Magicians have amazing abilities (CGI magic of various sorts) that are apparently good for nothing but leading them deeper into danger. Every cool trick the Magicians perform seems to bring a disaster. The orphans have no magic; they’re armed only with hard work and ingenuity. The Magicians fail despite having an impressive magical arsenal at their disposal. The Baudelaires succeed with nothing but hair ribbons, books, teeth, and willing hearts.
The orphans are surrounded by useless adults and are forced to take every opportunity to teach themselves, while the Magicians ARE useless adults and tend to complain an awful lot about how no one is teaching them anything. The Baudelaires, while young, are self-possessed, mature, and in charge of their own fates. They’re clever and winsome and likeable. The Magicians, while adults – the “college-age” actors look about 35 – do little other than whine helplessly about how hard life is and how miserable they are. Most of the characters in The Magicians are stupid and greedy and lazy, and they are all selfish and unlikable. I don’t require perfect characters; I very much prefer some nice juicy flaws. But I do have to be able to like a character at least a little to care about their fates. I care about the Baudelaires. I didn’t care about the Magicians. Not one bit.
We may be living in the golden age of TV and everything, but despite that, a lot of what we get, even in good shows, is made to cater to the least common denominator. The Magicians, while enjoyable enough for what it is, is firmly in this camp. It’s a Twinkie show, it’s junk food. The entire setup is irretrievably silly. “Like, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a magical boarding school like Hogwarts, only it’s for grownups!! And the grownups have magical adventures and do drugs and have sex and (snicker) even three-ways!! And they are awful, awful people, quitters and losers, just like we are!!!” The bad guy is unscary and his machinations and motivations feel contrived, meaningless. The “danger” our heroes are in never really feels like DANGER-danger, it feels like plot points ticked off a checklist in an attempt to make the viewer care about people who are tough to care about. The archetypical heroes face an archetypical villain. Yawn.
A Series of Unfortunate Events, on the other hand, has more sharp edges, more hard corners. It’s not pre-chewed and palatable. It has roughage. The mistreatment that the Baudelaires suffer at the hands of indifferent and self-interested adults actually feels unsettling. Count Olaf, while terrifying, is campy and over the top, but the supporting characters are all too real. A judge who fails to listen because she thinks she has a chance to be famous, a lawyer who cares only about his next promotion, an aunt and uncle who are so preoccupied with their own issues that they can’t protect their charges. Even the nice grownups are entirely useless. The kids are so sweet and good, and they try so diligently in the direst of circumstances, that even though the bad guys are mostly played for laughs it’s often uncomfortable to see the children in danger. The peril that the orphans are in feels genuine.
If you read all this and decide that I’m saying The Magicians sucks, yeah, kinda. Watch A Series instead, it’s by far the superior show. But despite their many differences, there just seemed to be some common thread between the two shows that kept bugging me. It felt important somehow, culturally significant, meaningful in an important way.
Finally I realized it’s this – The Magicians is a children’s show made for adults. A Series of Unfortunate Events is an adult show that is made for children.
Watching The Magicians is like watching a child’s fantasy of what adulthood is supposed to be. “Someday you grow up and find out you are special for absolutely no reason at all and then you get to do all the fun exciting grownup stuff without doing any of the hard boring grownup stuff.” The obnoxious passivity of the characters is probably by design. The Magicians are meant to be childish, infantile even, but they still get to (over)indulge in every adult privilege with very little effort on their part. It’s a show for spoiled twenty-somethings who don’t understand why the world hasn’t handed them the keys to the kingdom yet because god knows they’re better than all of this. The only character in the entire show who shows a spark of intellectual curiosity for its own sake, the only one who fights hard to achieve a goal not because it was forced on her by outside forces, but because it was something that she desperately wanted, is sternly punished for her temerity.
A Series of Unfortunate Events, on the other hand, is no fantasy. It’s a metaphor about the painful reality of childhood. Being a child means through no fault of your own, through choices made by your parents and guardians that you have utterly no say over, you’re often thrust into rather terrible situations and expected to get through them somehow, at times even without the benefit of antidepressants and professional counseling. The fate of the Baudelaires lies, as is true for many children, in the hands of adults who at best don’t care, and at worst are actively trying to exploit and harm them. They have to get themselves out of one scrape after another while raising a baby sibling and searching for a safe haven in a hurricane (literally). This requires not melting into puddles of moist self-pity every time their arch nemesis or some other villain shows up, not crumbling when the few decent adults they meet invariably let them down. If the Baudelaires indulged in the kind of narcissistic swooning that the Magicians do constantly, they’d be captured and dead by the end of the first episode.
It is interesting to me that the target audience of The Magicians is probably people who read the book version of A Series of Unfortunate Events growing up. What happened? Is the vision of unearned specialness just that compelling? Is it Harry Potter syndrome, have they not yet learned that not everyone can be the Chosen One? Is it better to be an undeserving Magician with no redeeming qualities, handed phenomenal cosmic power just cuz, than a normal, decent person who tries their best to develop the meager, ordinary skills they possess? Or is it just a matter of Hollywood having lost its way, dumbing things down so often that they don’t remember how to tell smart stories any more and so they need Netflix to reteach it to them?
I’d like to lean towards the latter explanation, but then again Hollywood doesn’t make stories that don’t have an audience. People want the Chosen Ones. It’s a beloved trope. They want Harry Potter and Neo and Luke Skywalker and Kung Fu Panda and Buffy; if they didn’t, no one would watch. It was tough for me to think of a single megahit since the turn of the millennium that doesn’t involve a Chosen One. It’s downright ubiquitous, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy genres. But it’s such a childish idea, really. The idea that sometime someone will swoop out of the sky to pick out YOU, who me, yes YOU, you’re the Chosen One, YAY!!! I certainly get the appeal, but it’s not exactly an adult lens through which to view the world.
The trope has become so commonplace that we don’t even really take notice of it any more. The majority of the most successful children’s books of the last 20 years have involved Chosen Ones. Charlie Bone, The Princess Diaries, Percy Jackson, the Divergent series, Animorphs, the Hunger Games, and Twilight have all involved people who are plucked from obscurity by some external force, be it birthright, mutated DNA, alien intervention, Prim’s horrible luck, or because they’re super attractive to vampires for some reason. The Magicians is based on a book series; while too mature to be YA, it’s definitely skewed for a younger audience. A Series of Unfortunate Events may be an exception to the trend, but it’s just a blip, really. If you grew up in the last quarter of a century, you grew up with The Chosen Ones.
According to the Myth of The Chosen One, childhood is not the time of your life in which you learn many lessons and experience harsh realizations about the world you live in and grow as a person and figure out who you are and how to be the best you you can be. Childhood to a Chosen One is a dull torture that must be endured until someone comes along to reveal a glorious destiny, whereupon you’ll be taken to a better world where everyone likes you and you’re a superhero. Going to school, doing your chores, being with your family, playing with friends, sports and Camp Fire and tap dancing lessons – this isn’t childhood, it’s Harry Potter’s room under the stairs. A prison of tedium you’ll escape someday when you’re Chosen and then you’ll show everyone, all those people who didn’t understand you.
I am an older mom. I grew up on a steady diet of Little House and Lois Lenski and Beverly Cleary, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Where the Red Fern Grows. I was not disappointed on my 11th birthday when my letter from Hogwarts didn’t arrive. Childhood was an adventure in and of itself, the adventure of growing up in the world you happen to find yourself born into, and finding a way to live in it successfully. While many of the tales of my youth did involve ordinary people doing extraordinary things, it was not because they were Chosen Ones. It was because life sometimes calls upon ordinary people to do extraordinary things, even if they are young. That’s the way most children’s books used to be. The protagonists weren’t born inherently special, they achieved their goals through hard work and kindness and endurance.
Most stories were about children who were faced with real problems in real life and had to adapt by doing something that was difficult for them. It wasn’t magic, it was life stuff, it was real. Tales of poor families saving money for red coon hounds and to buy plots of land someday. Sagas of farmers and their children desperately protecting wheat from locusts and strawberry crops from rampaging cattle. Beverly Cleary could make compelling drama out of an unemployed father cooking pancakes. Laura Ingalls Wilder had me at the edge of my seat with stories of a cold and hungry family trying to keep a fire going through a long winter. Star Wars was fun and everything, but it was decidedly not the norm. Maybe that’s why I really loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, maybe it reminded me of the books of my own childhood.
I’m not saying that these books are better, but they are certainly more diverse than books from the Chosen One genre. They tell stories about a lot of different things and a lot of different kinds of people. They relay a much wider variety of life experience and yet manage to speak to the commonality of human experience. I think there’s value in that.
My youngest children are as of yet too young for Harry Potter. Maybe those books have to go away for now in favor of some more realistic stories about people who are not Chosen. It’s not that they’re bad, they’re fun, I enjoy them myself, but they’re like dessert reading. A couple times a week maybe, if you ate your string beans and read Anne of Green Gables or Johnny Tremain you can have a little bit of The Chosen One.
Not too much, though, guys. You’ll ruin your appetite.
Image by Mark Morgan Trinidad B