Supernatural teen dramas used to be a dime a dozen. After all, few things are as universally understood as the trials and tribulations of high school. Add in some creepy monsters, some world-saving heroics, and a mysterious figure who seems to have all the answers, and you’ve got the makings of a coming-of-age series jam-packed with relevant and familiar life lessons. But there haven’t been quite as many in recent years, which gives Syfy’s new series Astrid & Lilly Save the World space to breathe.
The show, which hails from co-creators and executive producers Noelle Stehman and Betsy Van Stone, follows the titular outcasts played by Jana Morrison and Samantha Aucoin. They spend their evenings patrolling their hometown and spying on classmates (they’d call it research) to learn how the so-called cool kids spend their time. Their actions—driven by a love for SVU’s Olivia Benson and a desire to fit in—aren’t exactly a secret, and do not endear them to the rest of their class. But they have the effect of literally positioning Astrid and Lilly on the outside looking in, telling us from the start that these two young women aren’t your typical heroines.
In that way, the show follows in the footsteps of another recent Syfy series, the critically beloved and fan-favorite supernatural Western Wynonna Earp. Both shows actively challenge the idea of what a heroine should be and should look like while emphasizing a need for better representation on TV. Wynonna refused to portray its brand of flawed heroine as fragile in the wake of pregnancy and motherhood, while also centering multiple LGBTQIA characters in its narrative. Astid & Lilly centers its story on two plus-sized teens; in doing so, the series becomes a more accurate reflection of the real world while also making a strong statement about who can be a hero.
In the pilot, the two young women attend a party at the home of Tate (Kolton Stewart), a popular classmate who taunts them and calls them the frankly uninspired nickname “Pudge Patrol.” Hurt and angry at being treated like they’re “sub-human,” they seek to exorcise their emotional pain by burning an item that belongs to Tate as a form of catharsis and then dancing their feelings out under the night sky. Unbeknownst to them, however, their actions open a portal to another dimension, one filled with literal monsters instead of just the regular teenage kind. Not long after, they meet a mysterious but knowledgeable (not to mention hunky) stranger named Brutus (Olivier Renaud), who reveals he’s meant to aid them in their mission to close the portal before all of humanity disappears.
It’s a familiar setup: teens being thrust into the world of the supernatural and discovering their inner strength as they come into their own. But what sets the series apart is its keen self-awareness of where it fits into pop culture. The show operates as a supernatural coming-of-age dramedy while simultaneously acknowledging the well-worn tropes and beats of the genre. For example, when Brutus introduces himself to Astrid and Lilly, he refers to himself as their Giles—a reference to Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) mentor played by Anthony Head in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the defining series of this particular genre. Meanwhile, the writers poke fun at what viewers have blindly come to accept over the years, like when Brutus tells them they should have known better than to stand exactly “7.263 feet from each other” and to complete the ritual on “the third Sunday of the ninth month during a pink moon.” The two women also develop powers, but they’re hardly the kind that would benefit them in a fight; Lilly has leg cramps that alert her to the presence of the supernatural, while Astrid gains a heightened sense of smell.
The series’ acknowledgment of the absurdity of the situation Astrid and Lilly have inexplicably found themselves in is a reminder of what has come before as much as it is a channel for the show’s unique sense of humor. At times, it feels almost reminiscent of the great one-season wonder Crazyhead, as the British comedy similarly subverted viewer expectations while its two leads hunted down demons and attempted to stop them from opening the gates of hell.
But references to former shows are not the only ways in which Astrid & Lilly calls back to the past. The show also utilizes practical makeup and effects rather than relying heavily on CGI to create its unique monsters with big personalities. It’s a bit jarring at first, but there’s something admirable about it as well. In a world in which the biggest movies on the planet are 75% green screen and computer-generated effects (at least, that’s what it feels like), a return to the basics borders on refreshingly retro rather than feeling cheap or dated. It also means that the monsters are often humanoid in nature, further underscoring the darkness that hangs around the edges of humanity. It reminds us repeatedly that there are monsters in our world even without accidentally opening a portal to another dimension.
And isn’t that what’s always been true? Nearly every show in this genre has used literal monsters as a metaphor for the challenges that accompany growing up. Astrid & Lilly Save the World is just the latest to take the vehicle for a spin. Now, it doesn’t always work as well as it could—there’s a learning curve for the writers as well as the audience—but like the two women at its center, the show slowly begins to find itself as it goes. The pilot is the weakest of the three episodes sent for review, but like every introductory hour, there’s a lot of heavy lifting that must happen for the show to move forward. By the time we reach the third episode, which features a monster that manifests as one’s deepest fear (this means a dodgeball monster for Lilly and a clown celebrating the 30th birthday for a shallow and superficial teacher), Astrid and Lilly become more confident in themselves and their ability to collect the items needed to close the portal to the other dimension. Brutus also becomes less of an exposition machine and more of an awkward guide and mentor, even if his methods might be lacking.
However, some issues remain, as the series struggles to service its two halves. While the odd monsters of the week allow the show to highlight Astrid and Lilly’s friendship and their ability to overcome whatever horror the latest monster creates for them, the show falters every time the action pivots to an overarching storyline about an unseen evil entity that presents itself as a savior to local churchgoers. This storyline might as well exist in a different show at this point, as Astrid and Lilly don’t know what’s going on and therefore it’s difficult for us to care. It’s likely the monsters they’re chasing are meant to be a distraction to keep it that way. And while we know the storylines will eventually merge, until that happens, this season-long mystery will likely remain as awkward as the show’s (endearing) leads.
Astrid & Lilly Save the World premieres Thursday, January 26 on Syfy.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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