The Fades debuts tonight on BBC America at 9 p.m. Eastern.
The Fades is enjoyable bunk. I’ve seen the first two episodes and quite liked both of them, but I don’t know that I could tell you that the show’s mythology—expressed almost entirely via an episode one infodump, just to get it all off the table—makes any damn sense or that its apocalyptic tone is building to anything. It’s just a show that sets out to execute one particular tone, that of foreboding doom, and does so very well. There are things that don’t work here, but for those of you who enjoy ghost stories, The Fades is going to be like candy.
Iain de Caestecker stars as Paul, a 17-year-old kid who—because this is that kind of show—starts seeing strange things he can’t entirely explain. It doesn’t take long before someone is explaining to him that he’s been caught up in an ancient war between “Angelics,” who can see these strange beings, and “Fades,” dead people who’ve been rejected from Heaven, sometimes for no particular reason. Some of the fades are trying to find a way to cross back into physicality for whatever reason. And this means they’re going out of their way to take out the angelics, who are the only ones who can see what the fades are up to. There’s, of course, more to it than that, but to say too much more would spoil some of the fun that’s in store.
The first episode treats all of the above as a big mystery before getting it all out in the open about halfway through. It’s expressed so quickly that I often had to keep checking my own notes (and outside websites) just to remind myself what was going on at times, but the show’s willingness to just get the information out there and invite the audience to go with it is admirable all the same. Too often, on shows like this, the information that The Fades spits out in episode one would be strung out over the course of the whole first season, with some of the later twists and turns being saved for later seasons still. Creator Jack Thorne understands that by getting all of this information out in episode one, he doesn’t get in the way of the show’s horror, which is uniquely dependant on knowing exactly who the monsters stalking Paul through the darkness are. By telling us upfront, the show helps itself in later episodes, which settle into a nice, spooky groove, even if the first episode is hurt occasionally by all of that exposition.
Paul, of course, isn’t the only person in his world, and Thorne does a terrific job of filling this world—which people keep muttering will end—with people worth caring about. A young teacher named Sarah (the always good Natalie Dormer) is killed at very nearly the beginning of episode one. She, it turns out, was an angelic who’s now waiting for her chance to ascend to Heaven. (There’s apparently a waiting list.) Dormer makes the notion of being dead and being forced to watch those she knew in her life on Earth figure out how to move on both compelling and surprisingly moving. I also liked scenes where she talks with Paul and his angelic mentor Neil (the awesomely gruff Johnny Harris), as she knows they can see her. And all of this is complicated, of course, by the fact that Paul’s new history teacher, Mark (Tom Ellis), is now Sarah’s widower, even as in life, their marriage wasn’t terribly healthy. Dropping this much domestic drama and serious consideration of what it means to be a ghost into the middle of what’s essentially a teen horror drama could be a fatal move, but the Mark and Sarah moments almost work better than the expected scares because they’re so unexpected here. In particular, a late episode two scene where Sarah sits and simply watches Mark go about his life is wonderful.
The other characters are often just as good. Harris is terrific fun in a role that you’ve seen a million times before. He’s not what you expect when you think of the dashing and heroic mentor, with his big beard and stocky build, but he’s very often the best thing in any given episode. Instead of going over the top, as some of the other actors do, he plays much of what he says in a hushed whisper of menace. The world is crumbling down around our ears, but most people don’t even know about it. Neil’s been putting up with it for years and watching friends die because of it, and Harris makes clear merely with his voice just how much this has affected him. Also fun are the other teenagers on the show, like Daniel Kaluuya as his best friend Mac, who gets really excited for the craziness in his friend’s life and narrates the “previously on” before the second episode in a breathless rush. Also fun are Lily Loveless as Paul’s popular sister, Anna, and Sophie Wu as Jay, Anna’s friend who finds herself developing feelings for Paul.
The horror stuff is a bit more predictable. The Fades is very good at generating scares when it needs to, and it’s never met an overcast day or an abandoned building it didn’t find something scary to do with. The design of the evil fades is fairly derivative—they look like a cross between Buffy’s Gentlemen and a garden-variety zombie—and their ultimate goals are also pretty easy to guess. If you’re tuning into this show for a completely wild and original story, you’re probably not going to be too impressed. You’ve seen this story before, and you probably instinctively know where it’s going.
What’s more, the story doesn’t really break down into episode-by-episode chunks so much as it does scene-by-scene chunks. To that end, The Fades feels far more like a slow-motion miniseries than it does a traditional TV show. There’s a sense at the end of every episode that the stopping point has been chosen fairly arbitrarily, as though Thorne wrote a six-hour script, then randomly tossed in the episode breaking points. There are ways to make this sort of thing work, but The Fades often loses momentum from this fact, and stronger episodic throughlines might have helped keep the story moving in the slower parts.
But there’s something to be said for execution. Not everything here is executed perfectly. Many of the adult scenes not involving Neil or Sarah and Mark can be a snooze, and the infodumps seem to mostly just be there to get all of the information out as quickly as possible. But the scares are good—look for a scene where Paul pursues a teenage girl fade through an abandoned building early in episode two—and if the show’s “the world is about to end!” master-plot is a little easy to predict, the moments where birds fall from the sky or the characters slip into a dream world where all of Earth has been reduced to ashes, are skillfully filmed and strikingly unexpected. It’s nice to see a show like this do some of this stuff visually, and whenever the show shuts up and gives itself over to nicely handled scares, it can be a lot of fun.
To a degree, The Fades doesn’t have an audience, since hardcore horror-heads will probably be turned off by the story’s predictability, while it will likely have too much genre stuff for those who might be more interested in the teenage love triangles and the like. But for those who are in the middle ground, who just want to see a show about teenagers dealing with higher callings and about adult women learning to cope with being dead, there’s plenty to recommend in The Fades.