Fantasy TV: The new reality

This is an article from Ottawa Citizen Online. It mentions Roswell as a fantasy series at the end.

Fantasy TV: The new reality

January 27, 2000
by Tony Atherton

“A fantasy is worth more than a thousand words.”

With this phrase the producers of Brutally Normal introduce the WB’s latest entree in TV’s ever expanding teen menu. What they really mean, or at least what they’re betting on, is that a fantasy is worth an extra audience-share point or two in that holiest of television grails, the 18-to-24 demo.

Brutally Normal, which began Monday on the WB (so far it’s only available in Canada to U.S. superstation subscribers), is one of the new comedy/drama amalgams that appeal to younger viewers with a message implicit in their genre-bending perversity: “This is not the TV your parents used to watch.”

Like most youthful rebellions, however, the new TV doesn’t advocate anarchy, but a different kind of conformity. Cross-dressing series don’t just blur the lines of comedy and drama, they are also almost always off-the-wall, frenetic and — this is crucial — have some way of expressing bluntly what used to be implied: the inner life of the characters.

This could take the form of voice-over narrative as in Felicity, direct-to-camera monologues as in Get Real, or — more and more — through fantasies: dreams, hallucinations and idle imaginings that take flesh, so to speak, on screen.

The obvious example of the fantasy phenomenon is its most popular purveyor, Ally McBeal. The series’ dancing babies, digitally distorted body parts and painful metaphors of humiliation make it seem more like early Luis Bunuel than late David E. Kelly.

“(Ally) is a walking, dancing, air-swimming, pratfalling example of what life would be like if the irrational, inspirational internal world each of us lives in could get loose and take over the world around us,” says Tim Appelo, author of Ally McBeal, The Official Guide.

But Ally McBeal is far from alone. Any number of new and recent shows trip the light fantastic: Popular, Clueless, Jack and Jill, Malcolm in the Middle, and now, Brutally Normal, a series about teens which delivers fantasy and reality in roughly equal measure.

When one of the female leads of Brutally Normal wants to liberate an unbecoming photo from the yearbook office, she fantasizes an entire Mission Impossible scenario. A challenge from a steroid-enhanced senior classmate inspires a Rocky fantasy.

“We use fantasy sequences to illuminate the stakes,” says Brutally Normal’s executive producer, Michael Goldberg.

“People feel the stakes of their everyday lives very strongly, but usually internalize them. The fantasies help expose them in a fun, visual and comedic way.”

At one time it was up to a TV series’ characters to express internalized feelings through a process called acting. Now that job has been handed over to special-effects departments, stunt persons and costume designers.

The latest show to fall victim to infectious fantasy is Felicity, the story of a high school girl who follows her crush across the country to college because he deigned to write in her yearbook. Until recently, it was one of the few youth-oriented series to keep a firm grip on reality — basic premise aside, that is. Then a few weeks ago, Felicity (Keri Russell) started having Jungian dreams about her complicated love life. That set the stage for a black-and-white, whacked-out fantasy homage to The Twilight Zone that aired last Sunday on the WB, and will be seen this Sunday (Jan. 30) on CTV.

Directed by Lamont Johnson, whose credits include several episodes of the original Twilight Zone, the episode features a script with a sting in its tail, vertigo-inducing crane shots and — in lieu of the customary touchy-feely pop songs — a brassy, ominous, ’60s-vintage soundtrack.

Felicity gets more than she bargained for when, on the advice of a stranger, she visits an out-of-the-way clinic boasting of cures for the lovelorn. She gets spooked and leaves, but not before being unwittingly drafted into the clinic’s experimental procedure. Soon, she discovers she’s not the only one in her circle of friends who has visited the clinic.

Some may dismiss Felicity’s fall down the rabbit hole this week as a ratings sweeps stunt, or another bit of pointless risk-taking by the show’s creator, J.J. Abrams (the guy who, much to viewers’ chagrin, snipped off Felicity’s trademark tresses this season). But from here, it looks like Felicity has simply joined the fantasy bandwagon.

Fantasies and dream sequences were almost unheard of in drama before the 1980s, though they were standard issue in sitcoms, particularly in the ’60s. Gilligan’s Island, for instance, had as many dream sequences as it had plot anomalies. Whenever Gilligan nodded, the cast would find themselves in slapstick variations on Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk.

In fact, during the ’60s, no comedy, even the most sophisticated, was entirely immune to fantasy.

Television’s first offbeat homage to The Twilight Zone was The Dick Van Dyke Show’s sly take on The Body Snatchers. Rob became convinced that his friends and neighbours were slowly being taken over by creatures from outer space whose only distinguishing mark was an eye in the back of their heads. The fantasy episode ended delightfully, proving to be a dream within a dream.

In the 1970s, sitcoms got serious, relatively speaking. Programs such as Maude, All In The Family, M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore used humour to make a point; escapism was the farthest thing from their minds.

For mindless entertainment in the ’70s, you had to turn to dramas such as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angel’s. While these show were unrealistic, they lacked the imagination to be fantastic.

The concerted move towards fantasy in drama began in the 1980s, as the traditional dividing line between drama and comedy became less distinct.

The most widely discussed dream sequence in television history was the one that encompassed the entire 1985-86 season of Dallas. To accommodate the return of Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing, a year after his character’s irreversible termination, the writers simply had him show up one morning in his wife’s shower. It turned out Pam Ewing had dreamed the previous 20-odd episodes and all their plot convolutions.

Dallas wasn’t really breaking new ground, however. Dream sequences and fantasies had long been a part of daytime soap operas. Dallas was simply upping the ante for prime time.

More significant was the use of fantasy in dramas intent on challenging TV conventions. The NBC hospital series, St. Elsewhere, which changed the way we look at drama by combining black comedy with tragedy in the same episode, went one better than Dallas in terms of fantasy. In the final moments of its last episode in 1988, viewers learned that the entire six-season series had been the imaginings of an autistic boy.

ABC’s thirtysomething was a breakthrough: an intelligent character drama that didn’t need to be defined by a police precinct, hospital or law office, and wasn’t afraid to laugh at itself. Fantasy sequences were occasionally woven into the plots, most notably in the recurring spectral visits of deceased English professor Gary Shepherd. The matter-of-fact use of fantasy on Canadian series Due South (created by thirtysomething producer Paul Haggis), in which an upright mountie chats regularly with his dead father, and Power Play, where a compromised hockey executive is haunted by the spirits of the game’s past, owe a lot to thirtysomething.

But the 1980s series that really set the tone for the explosion of fantasy in the ’90s was Moonlighting, a drama so innovative and ambitious, it had a hard time meeting its production schedule. The program was ostensibly about a fashion-model turned private detective (Cybill Shepherd) and her wiseacre partner (Bruce Willis), but any given episode might feature a dream-sequence take-off on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, or an office phone that morphs into an animated figure. It was Moonlighting’s hip, self-aware approach to fantasy that became the model for the next decade.

David E. Kelly explored the surreal within a very down-to-earth context in Picket Fences beginning in 1992. Episodes about the hunt for a serial bather stalking the bathrooms of Rome, Wisconsin, or the trial of a woman who killed her husband with a steamroller, were reminiscent of the absurdist storylines that Kelly had earlier introduced to L.A. Law. Ally McBeal was an opportunity for Kelly to take the surreal to a new, unfettered level.

In the 1990s, full-blown fantasy series — Buffy, Charmed, Angel, Xena: Warrior Princess and Roswell — have proved themselves capable of commanding a loyal cult following, while attracting more than their share of media attention. These are important attributes in a TV environment where the viewing choices are so numerous, it’s easy for a program to get lost.

When conventional dramas are embroidered with elements of fantasy, they are also trying to set themselves apart, to brand themselves, as marketers would say. The problem is that, with fantasy now almost as prevalent in dramas as it was in screwball sitcoms three decades ago, it’s no longer distinctive.