How the coronavirus could crush the fantasy TV revolution


The success of Game of Thrones inspired content creators to fully embrace fantasy and sci-fi. But that trend is in danger of dying out prematurely.

In a post-Game of Thrones world, every other show wants to imitate HBO’s monster hit. It’s something we’ve written about a lot before. From The Wheel of Time to The Lord of the Rings to His Dark Materials to The Mandalorian to HBO’s own House of the Dragon, we’re seeing a huge influx of shows that are expensive, high-concept, and ambitious in a way that’s only possible after Game of Thrones proved it could be done.

This is good and bad. As genre fans, of course we want to see more shows that embrace sci-fi and fantasy. But the elaborate productions on these shows often mean that we’re waiting a long time in between seasons, and sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it. For example, we’ve endured two-year waits for new episodes of HBO’s Westworld only to watch the show disappear ever more deeply up its own butt. Shows like Cursed and The Witcher on Netlix are fun enough, but not so much that it justifies waiting for years to get more.

I always thought that once the fantasy revolution got underway, we would see some shows rise and some shows fall. For better or worse, the biggest success so far has probably been Disney’s The Mandalorian, which managed to tap into the enormous Star Wars fanbase while also interesting people unfamiliar with that galaxy far, far away. And now, we’re starting to see the first casualties, as Showtime has announced that it won’t be renewing its 1930s period drama meets supernatural horror story Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.

In the grand scheme of things, this probably isn’t that big a loss: despite some good ideas, City of Angels never quite came together. The same could be said of Netflix’s sci-fi epic Altered Carbon, which it just declined to renew for a third season. But these are the first shows down in what I expect will be a trend. Can NBC really justify making more episodes of its expensive sci-fi adaptation Brave New World? Are enough folk watching Jason Momoa’s post-apocalyptic fantasy show See on Apple TV+ to make more seasons worth it? Game of Thrones cost a ton of money to make, but it also brought it a ton of money. But spending a lot of money on a show that doesn’t make much back eventually it stops making sense.

So I predict we’ll see a leveling of the fantasy playing field soon, as the successful shows mature into middle and then old age and the rest fade away as the studios glom onto the next big thing. But there’s an X-factor that could speed up this process exponentially: the coronavirus.

We all know the coronavirus has hurt the film and TV industry. Sets have been shut down for months, and when they open back up, sometimes new outbreaks force another hiatus. Netflix is back in business filming the second season of The Witcher, and on-set photos show us the lengths to which the production is going to protect its actors and crew:

It’s commendable that Netflix would go this far to protect its employees, but it comes at a cost. How much? I’m not sure, but The Witcher already costs a lot to product, and this is running up the bill and slowing down the shoot, meaning that not only will the show be more expensive to make, it’ll also premiere later. For a studio like Netflix, this probably won’t be that big a deal — they can foot most any bill they want to — but when it comes to the end of the year and they’re looking at their balance sheet, how well does The Witcher have to do to justify renewing it again? With the increased expense, it’s a harder call than it would have been before the coronavirus hit.

And even if the best comes to pass and we find a vaccine for the coronavirus, the industry isn’t just going to bounce back as if nothing happened. The virus has already forced some companies to shut down, like 3D Creations, which made props from Game of Thrones. Studios will have moved on to newer, cheaper production models that exclude high-end fantasy shows.

The upshot of all of this is that I think that the coronavirus stands a good chance of killing the fantasy TV revolution before it reaches the next phase. Shows that were on the bubble could look like good candidates for cancellation, and shows that would have otherwise been sure things could now be no the bubble.

This is far from the worst effect of the coronavirus on the world, of course, but for TV fans, it’s not a happy thought. But it’s one I fear we may have to live with.

On the other hand, sometimes difficult situations like this can inspire creativity. Maybe content creators can find a way to give us splashy genre fare without breaking the budget? As expensive as it is, I actually think The Mandalorian is a good example of this, since it’s the rare genre show that seems content not to make every episode an hour long, and it’s investing in technology that allows for filming to take place entirely on a set, where it’s easier to control the comings and goings of cast and crew members.

Or there’s What We Do In The Shadows, a half-hour comedy on FX about vampire roommates. As elaborate as they are, these shows are smaller in scale than some of the others we’ve talked about here, which makes them more cost-effective and, if you ask me, gives them some novelty. When everybody is trying to make a sprawling fantasy show that equals Game of Thrones, you stand out if you keep things small(er).

It’s the worst of times for Hollywood right now, but sometimes the worst of times can give way to the best.