Why the Government Needs To Be Left Out of Fantasy
I started watching my way through Supernatural from the beginning since it seemed only natural after watching all those Gilmore Girls episodes. Say what you want about the CW, but their shows stand the test of time for the purposes of marathoning like almost nothing else on television. I’d never watched the show before except for maybe a dozen or so episodes one lazy vacation when they always seemed to be on TNT when I laid in front of the television on a couch with coffee in the morning. That was a throwback in itself to watching Buffy the same way on FX a decade or more ago.
There’s a very particular set of episodes that I don’t much like though. The ones in which the real world of cops and wanted posters features prominently. Oh it’s one thing when it’s running afoul of the small town sheriff in the course of the stories the show tells, but it’s something quite different when we’re talking big cities and the FBI. When our heroes are wanted for murder or some such and it then hounds them from episode to episode, it’s just a grating invasion of reality. I’m all for big story-arc stuff, don’t get me wrong, it’s not about wanting sitcom resets between episodes.
But the intrusion of the real, of all the logic of government and lettered agencies, it brings the suspension of disbelief crashing down. It was the same on Buffy for that matter, with that terribly conceived idea of the Initiative.
The bottom line is that shows like this work with a false tension. Their stories rest on individuals doing something the rest of the world doesn’t know exists. But the evidence of that world’s existence is there for everyone on the side of the protagonists to see. Sam and Dean return to this idea over and over again that they trust the evidence, do the research. The catch is that this makes the supernatural provable and fundamentally scientific in nature. It may be outside the current rules of how we think the universe works, but it still has rules that rely on observable evidence, cause and effect, and all the other elements that make science, well, science.
It’s curious how post-fantasy a society we really live in. Things have to make sense. Even the things like poltergeists, ghosts, vampires, and demons, the things of anti-reason, are still explainable and understandable if the evidence is looked at right.
But that means that within these worlds, there is no reason for the government and society at large to not accept the existence of the supernatural. But the show’s premise rests on it not, because otherwise we couldn’t tell the story of the plucky outsiders. Because let’s face it, if the lettered agencies did know, they’d swoop in and deal with the problems. There’d be a deeply bureaucratic set of letters that would make you fill out a lot of forms, and swoop in and salt and burn bones as part of their mission statement. Hell, they’d start digging up every old cemetery, do exactly that just preemptively, and then require all bodies to be cremated hence forward. And there’d be the mundane political fights of people claiming that religious freedom guaranteed that they didn’t have to cremate grandma, and so on and so on.
That’s an interesting story to tell. Charlie Stross’s fantastic Laundry series is in fact almost exactly that. It’s about the actual way that dealing with the supernatural would look once the DMV-style underfunded and overworked agencies started to get into the game. But it’s definitively not the story that a show like Supernatural or Buffy is trying to tell. And that’s fine, up until the point when the storyteller starts to have the government be a part of the stories, because then the handwaving doesn’t work anymore and the implications above either have to be addressed or just blatantly ignored to the discredit of the story.
Take the cut and dry example from Buffy. The Initiative indicates that the federal government knows about the supernatural, accepts that it is real, and has dedicated money and resources to the problem. The story has two routes it can take. Option one, the premise of the show is destroyed because the money and resources of the government are going to simply change the nature of the game and be more effective than a single twenty year old, her friends, and an old dude with a lot of books (if only because they can hire said people as supernatural Blackwater and give them the resources they never had before). Or they have to portray the money and resources of hundreds of trained people completely incompetent.
The former destroys the show while the latter just makes it stupid.
The suspension of disbelief for fantasy rests on not introducing story elements that have logical implications that torpedo the entire narrative world that you’ve created. So, while it might seem logical that the FBI would conclude that Sam and Dean are serial killers, if you’re not prepared to keep going down the logical implications of having the feds get into the supernatural game, don’t put that piece on the board in the first place.
All stories rest on dancing around the things that are unbelievable, whether genre fiction or not. No story can withstand the full scrutiny of being held up to reality, else it wouldn’t be fiction. This isn’t a flaw of fiction but a feature, just as no map can be as accurate as the land itself. The art is in knowing what not to draw on the map.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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