The first season of the fantasy TV show Shadow and Bone debuted on Netflix on April 23. One week and a half after its release, the show sits at the number-two position on Netflix’s Top 10 in the U.S. list. And it’s the most popular TV show right now on IMDb.
Not only that, but several of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels in which the show is based are also among the top positions at Amazon’s Kindle Store. The creator of the Netflix series, Eric Heisserer, dared to not just adapt the trilogy Shadow and Bone in this show but also added to the mix the characters from the two heist novels of the Six of Crows series, also by Bardugo.
But the young adult (YA) TV show Shadow and Bone whose eight episodes are already available on Netflix, is not the only fantasy series enjoying some popularity right now. HBO’s The Nevers sits at number 8 on IMDb’s Most Popular TV Shows’ list. The Nevers premiered on April 11, and HBO is releasing the first six episodes of the show’s first season on a weekly basis. The show’s filming was halted by COVID-19, and Part Two’s six episodes will be released at a later date.
The Neversis a particular case. On the one hand, the show is not based on any already published material with an established fan base, as is the case of Shadow and Bone and other recent TV fantasies like Game of Thrones, The Witcher and His Dark Materials.
On the other hand, the show was created by Joss Whedon, who also wrote and directed the first two episodes and served as showrunner. Whedon has recently been called out for abusive behavior and mired in misconduct allegations that go all the way back to his days working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He resigned from The Nevers in November of last year.
Philippa Goslett is the new showrunner, but The Nevers remained very much Whedon’s creation, at least in those first episodes, and it was a complicated property to market and promote. The show has a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics but an 83% from the audience. And while these kinds of disparities are common on the review aggregator, it could be a case of the audience just judging the show by its content and entertainment value without taking into account all of its baggage.
Complex Mythologies and Ensemble Casts
Popularity and fantasy aside, Shadow and Bone and The Nevers have something else in common: their strong women leads.
In Shadow and Bone, Jessie Mei Li plays Alina Starkov, a cartographer in a war-torn country reminiscent of Imperial Russia. She accidentally finds out she has extraordinary powers and is trained as an elite magician, all while she tries to reunite with her childhood friend and soulmate, the soldier Mal (Archie Renaux).
The Nevers is set in an alternate version of Victorian London after an event that gave certain people — most of them women — supernatural abilities. Two of those people are the protagonists of the show: Amalia (Laura Donnelly) has glimpses of what may occur in the near future and is the leader of a sanctuary for other people with powers; Penance (Ann Skelly) is an inventor and engineer whose work gets a bit easier because she’s able to see electrical energy patterns.
But these women aren’t alone. Both shows have rich ensemble casts with plenty of B and C storylines and room for development. Some of the twists and turns certain secondary characters take can be even more interesting than the arc in which the main protagonists are immersed. Take the Crows in Shadow and Bones, where the very sexy and very ingenious Kaz (Freddy Carter), Inej (Amita Suman) and Jesper (Kit Young) upstage Alina’s coming-of-age story and romantic pinings for most of the show with their planning of an almost impossible-to-pull-off heist.
Fantasy can also be an excellent opportunity to have even more diverse casts. In the case of Shadow and Bone, Heisserer decided to change Alina’s backstory and make her half Shu (Asian in Grishaverse lexicon). And she’s hardly the only person of color in the show. In the case of The Nevers, the show makes a point of having as touched — people with powers — those who had the least amount of power before the supernatural event that changed the course of history took place. That’s why there’s a Black doctor played by Zackary Momoh (Harriet) with the ability to heal people and why we see a character like the criminal-turned-ally Annie Carbey (Rochelle Neil), who can generate fire.
Both shows are set in very specific universes with established sets of rules and that need to look a certain way. Fantasy isn’t cheap. There are visual effects to consider to recreate supernatural elements but also a richness in production design to separate these recreated universes from our own — as well as costumes, makeup and hairstyling (lots of wigs and hair extensions, really). And while the fantasy genre hasn’t always been the most popular on TV precisely because of its price tag, the recent success of Game of Thrones has streamers and content producers scrambling to find the dragon’s show successor and investing in other genre titles.
Fantasy properties are also a big investment when it comes to the viewers’ time. There’s a lot of narrative exposition needed to explain all the mythology in Shadow and Bone. From what a Grisha is to what an Amplifier does or what exactly the Fold is, you almost need a Bardugo dictionary to decipher and follow the first episodes of the Netflix series. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a rich universe like that, you tend to welcome the new seasons that add to that world.
More Fantasy Genre in the Foreseeable TV Future
Even if fantasy isn’t necessarily cheap to produce and requires a strong commitment from the viewer, the success of these two shows can only ensure we’ll see more of the genre in the future.
There’s already a lot of fantasy being made right now. HBO announced in April that the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon was starting production and we’d be able to watch it in 2022. Amazon has been working since 2019 on a prequel series of The Lord of the Rings shooting in New Zealand, and that’s expected to premiere on Prime Video this year. The second season of The Witcher should arrive on Netflix later this year. And then there’s Part Two of season one of The Nevers.
Although the upcoming fantasy TV show I’m most intrigued about is the adaptation of Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series. As in the case of Shadow and Bone, A Court of Thorns and Roses comes with a strong woman protagonist, is a well-known property in the YA/fantasy/romance literary genre and has sold millions of copies. The show tells the story of Feyre, a huntress who ends up entangled in a magical world to ensure her family’s safety. The show will air on Hulu and is being co-written by Maas herself with Ron Moore. Moore has amassed some reputation in the fantasy/romance genre since he already successfully adapted the Outlander novels for Starz.