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Sci-Fi and Fantasy Are Flooding Our Screens
August 12, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

For fantasy fans, this is a time of plenty.

Most movie theaters may be closed, but our TV sets and computers have big stories, big ideas and, especially, big budgets.

Misha Green, a showrunner, can attest to that. Her previous series, for basic-cable, was about the Underground Railroad; her current one – Lovecraft Country (top), starting Aug. 16 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO – also has racial themes, but puts them alongside big-deal monster stories.

The budget difference, she told the Television Critics Association (TCA), is huge. "One episode of this show is maybe five of Underground."

Could this be a golden age for fantasy and science fiction on TV and streaming? "I would say that's absolutely true," said Aaron Guzikowski, whose Raised By Wolves arrives next month on HBO Max.

He likes the blend of movie-type special-effects and the extra time of TV. It lets him "open things up…to tell these kinds of stories that you couldn't necessarily do as a feature film."

There's a lot of that if you look at the TCA's first week (through Aug. 7) of virtual press conferences with cable channels and streamers.

Among the 20 scripted series scheduled were:

– Five full-scale sci-fi series.

In addition to Lovecraft and Raised By Wolves, there's The Umbrella Academy, which just opened its second season on Netflix, The Boys, starting its second season Sept. 4 on Amazon Prime, and Utopia, debuting this fall on Amazon Prime.

Two light shows with fantasy elements.

In Woke (which debuted Aug. 7 on Hulu), a cartoonist's characters start talking back to him. In Julie & The Phantoms (this fall on Netflix), only one member of the four-person band happens to be alive.

And Away (Sept. 4 on Netflix), which is sci and fi, but not fantasy. Hilary Swank plays the head of a Mars mission, feeling the strain of being separated from her family for three years.

All seem to be propelled by big budgets. "When I pitched to HBO, I said, 'This is going to be big and epic and crazy,'" Green said. "And they were like, 'Cool, yeah, we totally want to do that.'"

The result? "We had 162 sets. That's bananas, you know." She also used top make-up and special effects companies. "They make Star Wars movies…. There was no limit…except my imagination."

That's typical of HBO, which already had mega-budgets for Game of Thrones and Westworld. But now the streamers are doing the same.

Netflix has been a big spender, and its competitors often use sci-fi as a starting point – Star Trek series on CBS All Access, Star Wars films (and The Mandalorian), and Marvel films on Disney+, DC films on HBO Max, Brave New World on Peacock, Devs on the FX hub of Hulu.

In the sci-fi tradition, big budgets meet big ideas. Lovecraft Country has a Black man heading north to claim his legacy; he confronts both racism and the sort of monsters created long ago by writer H.P. Lovecraft. "A monster is a monster," said Jonathon Majors, who stars. But "it's quite different when the monster is disguised in the same body as you, and the only thing that's different is the skin color."

The story appeals to his co-star Jurnee Smollett, a long-time activist for Black rights and other issues. "The story is so ancestral," she said. "Our heroes essentially are going on a quest to bring down white supremacy, and we are still on that quest in 2020 as Black Americans."

In the same way, Ellen Page, a gay-rights activist, was pleased to see her storyline this Umbrella season. "To film a season where Vanya falls in love for the first time and…have it be with a woman was a really exciting opportunity. And especially since it takes place in the '60s (when) it was illegal."

Other themes? Raised By Wolves has androids raising humans on a distant planet. Utopia has comic-book buffs following a route that takes them through weird worlds which kind of seems topical, said Desmin Borges, one of the stars. "I don't think there's anything not-weird about 2020."

And The Boys has its people trying to stop arrogant superheroes. Eric Kripke, the showrunner, sees "a very specific parallel to the one-percent and authority figures and people who hold all the cards (and this) ragtag, blue-collar group trying to even the playing field."

Still, there's that need for epic sets. The Boys stars recalled scenes inside a mega-whale. It was fiercely hot, and Laz Alonso shouted, "Could we get some AC here in the whale?" 

Adds actor Karl Urban: "Only on this show would you hear something as bananas as that."

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