With the glut of entertainment out there, it can be hard to get an idea of what’s good to watch or read or play outside of anything new. I don’t know that this new review series is likely to change things, but maybe you’ll find it useful. The idea here is that every week (more or less), I’ll offer up a list of books, games, films, etc. within a theme and then provide a quick synopsis along with the reason for the recommendation. I’m kind of going off of Extra Credits’ Games You Might Not Have Tried format, in that these are not necessarily going to be good through-and-through, and some might even be quite bad. However, I do think they’re worth recommending, and I’ll say in the blurb why.
These will likely include series you’ve heard before, but I hope to provide just enough insight into each without spoiling them to indicate whether it might be your sort of thing. Of course, I’m limited by what I’ve seen myself, and I will absolutely forget things, so feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments if you like. I might eventually get to more famous works in each category that I haven’t personally seen yet and put them on future lists.
Oh, and some of these I will talk about in later reviews or essays. Not all of them, though, and not the majority, hence their existence here.
So, given that the world seems to be on a fire-and-brimstone kick lately, I thought I’d go with the theme of angelly-demon things for this week. Mostly the demony ones. Right off the bat, I need to say that this is not one of my main areas of interest, so you’ve probably heard of most of the ones I know. There are also a few series that could arguably fit this theme (specifically Preacher, The Sandman, and The Leftovers) that I’ve already talked to death and haven’t included here, but know those are in the mix as well.
Good Omens (novel and miniseries)
By: Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett et al.
Release Date: 1990, 2019
So, if you’ve spent any time on the charred remains of post-porn-ban-Tumblr, you’ll know that this show is beloved. The fanart (or, heck, the show marketing materials) should tell you why. But, to be honest, it’s a worthwhile little story with a charming delivery reminiscent of Douglas Adams and Monty Python. The plot of both the book and the show follows demon Crowley and angel Aziraphale in the lead-up to the apocalypse as they run around trying to stop it. Both of them have grown accustomed to living among humans, see, and neither is overly fond of losing amenities like sleeping and music for the sake of some vague war among their coworkers. Besides, they’re friends.
Oh, also there’s some sort of Antichrist, a professional witch descendant, a semi-professional witch-hunter/witch-hunter descendant, some horsemen, and a dog.
The show is a close adaptation of the book to the point where its necessary changes are a little disheartening if you have the book close in your mind. It might be worth seeing both, but the first hundred pages of the book are probably the best of the narrative as a whole. After that, things get squirrelly, though not considerably less entertaining. The show adds in a few of its own scenes and more interaction between the ostensible main characters — Crowley and Aziraphale — which is where the strength of the story lies. The book is more detailed and joke-filled (and it has the merit of not needing to render anything in CGI that can’t quite cope), but it’s also very visibly written by two British men in the 1980s. Make of that what you will.
Carnivàle (television series)
By: Daniel Knauf et al.
Release Date: 2003-2005
Here’s a show I’ve only ever heard people talk of to acknowledge its existence. An HBO series cut down before its prime, know that Carnivale is incomplete and ends its second season with a lot unresolved. This series is less based in the literals of a Heaven and Hell so much as its own world wherein the Christian mythos (specifically that adopted from the Evangelical sect common in the southern and southwestern US) could be seen as a retelling of other fantastical phenomena. The story takes place in the middle of the Dustbowl and follows Ben, a recently orphaned farmboy from Oklahoma. A traveling circus comes across they boy while he’s burying his mother, and after some deliberation, invite him to come with them as a laborer. Meanwhile, in a less remote but still rural town, a wrathful preacher, Brother Justin, discovers he can make miracles happen and turns on the faithless in his congregation before fleeing the law. We eventually learn that Ben too has a sort of power and is linked through it to the machinations of Brother Justin.
The haunting atmosphere is this show’s defining feature, though its lore and characters also get effective moments. It captures the sepiatone southwestern Gothic of the Great Depression, with a high degree of detail (except where the snakes are concerned). The show occasionally dips into philosophical rants that mean only as much as you want to read into them; the story is otherwise straightforward, if a bit full of itself toward the end.
Darksiders (video game series)
By: Haydn Dalton et al.
Release Date: 2010
Some of my recommendations may be deep and insightful. Lol, this one isn’t.
The Darksiders games pretty much own the three-star rating. They are mediocre, not in an explicitly bad way, but in a way that just screams to the heavens with all of its might, “Enh.” It’s actually kind of astonishing how middling these games are. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love them for it.
The plot has something to do with the four horsemen of Revelations, one per game, dealing with the aftermath of someone starting Armageddon too early. Whoops. There’s more to it in terms of number of words of dialogue, but if you’re looking for depth, you have come to the wrong place, my friend. This is a series about slicing through demons while running through not-quite cartoonish, not-quite realistic worlds while on perpetual fetch quests. There are also a few boss battles thrown in and, for some godforsaken reason, platforming.
I’ll be honest, I’m mainly recommending this game for the platforming. Specifically the platforming in Darksiders II, which is the best of the three (yes, only three despite a supposed four horsemen, but that’s what happens when you deal out one horseman per game, I suppose. Another one’s apparently coming, maybe. Fingers crossed). It’s not especially good platforming, being middling and all, but if you’re disappointed in the lack of 3-D platformers (hello darkness my old friend), then this one is at least fluid. The combat system is gratuitous and silly and plays well for what the series is, and each game has just enough mechanics and complexity that it feels somewhat challenging without being tedious.
Okay, I mean the fetch quests are tedious, and they’re most of the game, but you know what I mean.
Perhaps the best thing about the series is its confused lore, which is unmistakably based on Revelations, but also has, like, ice trolls and dragons and giant dwarves and the like. I’ve checked with a friend who says that a lot of the game has bible references of a sort, but neither of us can figure out where the sand worms come in. Again, I would recommend the second installment, as it introduces several worlds willy-nilly and these are wonderful to come into when you have utterly no reference point. At one point you enter the Land of the Dead, which is not Heaven or Hell, and which is ruled over by a Lord of the Dead, who is not Death the horseman, and who tries to kill your character, who is Death the horseman, who can’t die because, you know, Death, but if he dies enough times, actually he can???
The game is just bland and poorly-written enough to be a bad game, but just mechanically decent and bonkers enough to be a good one. It all ends up evening itself out in the long run. It’s a wonderfully odd series, and I highly recommend it. Just set reasonable expectations for yourself.
The main merit of the first game is the moment where War is reunited with his pony, which is amazing because this moment has utterly no setup and it’s the first time we see or even hear of the horse.
Oh, there’s also a Portal gun ability that pops up at one point?
Okay, I’ll shut up now.
The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (video game)
By: Ken Rolston et al.
Release Date: 2006
This one is the most tenuously related to the theme, but it’s basically a low-res Skyrim with portals to hell, so what’s not to love? It doesn’t buck the trend of generic high fantasy any more than the other games, so if you’re looking for a unique experience, you’d best search elsewhere. It’s good to sink into after a long day, though.
The Elder Scrolls series has been dated for a while. I can’t genuinely recommend the earlier ones because I can barely get through the opening level in Morrowind; there are no player considerations, and blocks of text combined with vague instructions and iffy controls make for an unintentional challenge. However, Oblivion is recent enough that it’s more player-friendly and generally comparable to Skyrim. It looks terrible, of course, and it’s still quite clunky, but that’s all part of the charm. This game really wants to be an epic fantasy, and in fairness, it provides a lot of unique quests and areas to explore. If you love Skyrim but replaying it just doesn’t scratch that itch anymore, this might be worth a look.
The Book of Phoenix (novel)
By: Nnedi Okorafor
Release Date: 2015
Here’s an idea, what if religious angelly things, but also science fiction? Not the most original idea, sure, but what Okorafor weaves with her unique blend of descriptions and conscience makes for a lightning fast read that stands out amidst a sea of repetitive trends.
Phoenix is an artificial superhuman created in a totalitarian science facility after the world has suffered from hard times. She can read any book in minutes and is far stronger and healthier than any human, but compared to those who share her prison-like home, she’s the normal one. Her best friend can’t eat normal food but eats shards of glass like potato chips. Others in the compound are half-animal, some are nearly full animals, and, as she eventually learns, at least one of them is ethereal. One day, her entire short life is upended; her friend dies, apparently by suicide, and she tries a desperate escape attempt that sends the entire building crashing down around her. From there, she’s on the run from the authorities that will take her halfway around the world as she tries to reconcile with both her past and her future.
Nnedi Okorafor is quickly becoming one of my favorite new fantasy authors, and her perspective as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants lends many of her worlds a realism that you don’t get in a lot of other contemporary fantasy. I understand this book is part of a series I haven’t fully explored, but if you’re looking for something with more creativity than your typical genetic experiment and fantasy loosely inspired by the lore of the Abrahamic religions, this is an enjoyable read.
Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (films)
By: Guillermo del Toro et al.
Release Date: 2004, 2008
I can’t speak to the comics these films are based on as I haven’t read them yet (though I very much intend to). They are just as if not more beloved than the films, though.
I don’t have a lot to say about Hellboy, other than both films by Guillermo del Toro are solid supernatural adventures with a horror lean.
A baby demon is released by Nazis in World War II as part of an attempt to destroy the world. When Allied forces stop the experiment, the baby demon is trapped and they choose to raise it, calling it Hellboy. Decades later, Hellboy runs around as a special field agent of a Men-in-Black style branch of the US government devoted to keeping tabs on all manner of occult and fantastical creatures. Hellboy is the pride of the department, being fireproof and nigh-indestructible, but he’s joined by others, including his pyrokinetic former girlfriend and a clairvoyant fish-man. There is also a sad boy.
That’s kind of it, really. A fun romp that will satisfy anyone with a hankering for paranormal action and hell decorations, with del Toro’s famous eye for beautiful practical effects (find a video of how they filmed this and it will blow your socks off how little CGI there is), and compassion for monsters. There’s a plot to each film, but it’s the themes and other peripherals that make them what they are.
Supernatural (television series)
By: Eric Kripke et al.
Release Date: 2005-2020
Yeah, I’m surprised by this, too. I binged more seasons of this series than I’m willing to admit in a fevered rage at one point, and while I’ve never had any desire to go back to it, I can’t deny that it’s a monster of a thing. For me, it was a background show to listen to while playing video games (I have a lot of shows like that), but I know several people who are or were obsessed with it, so it’s worth discussing at least.
This is about as standard as your fantasy semi-procedural drama gets: two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, have inherited their father’s eccentric hobby of hunting demons and other monsters, but have grown distant since becoming adults. When one of them loses a girlfriend to demonic possession, they team up again to figure out what in Hell is going on. Along the way, they run into various colorful characters, including the angel Castiel and the demon Crowley (I’m sure this has nothing to do with Tumblr’s Good Omens obsession).
The plot, insofar as one exists, basically goes kaplooie after the apocalypse subplot, and the show is notorious for leaving threads unresolved or retconning important events through bad script magic just so that it can keep dragging viewers along. It also has an habit of teasing gay where there is no gay, and I don’t have anything favorable to say about that. However, for all of its myriad flaws, the show does still provide some creative episodes every now and then, and its main characters have a charming dynamic. It’s usually self-serious for my tastes, but it can be surprisingly funny when it wants to be. It’s not really worth the effort, but if you have an inner teenage girl who loves this sort of trash, embrace her and watch up through about season five or so. After that, you’ll want to jump off the bandwagon before you have some serious regrets.
The Good Place (television series)
By: Michael Schur et al.
Release Date: 2016-2019
And of course I can’t leave any talk of a Heaven and Hell aesthetic without bringing up this show. I’d actually call it more similar to Defending Your Life in that it’s not really based in the traditional Christian afterlife (the show even says this explicitly), but rather what it fundamentally means to be a good person regardless of religion. However, apparently references to obscure Albert Brooks films from the early 90s don’t earn much recognition these days, so here’s a better summary:
Eleanor Shelstrop is one of an incredibly select number of people admitted to The Good Place after death. Like any Heaven-analogue, it’s a paradise full of everything a person could ever want, from puppies to pizza, all available instantaneously. However, Eleanor isn’t supposed to be there; she was a sub-par human being who barely ever did a good thing, preferring instead to cheat, lie, and scam her way through life. When she realizes that coming clean might send her straight to eternal torture, she recruits the help of her assigned soulmate, Chidi Anagonye, an ethics and philosophy professor, to make her a person worthy of the Good Place. Of course, her staying there when she belongs in the Bad Place means the fabric of the world is starting to break apart, but she’s probably a quick study, right?
The first season of the show is amusing in a way similar to Pushing Daisies, albeit with more of a single narrative arc. It has a few fantastic laughs, particularly once the characters and scenarios are established enough to create runners. However, it’s once the show gets into the next few seasons that it really starts to take off; the showmakers take what seems like a fairly limited premise and expand upon it in every which way until it starts to resemble a finely-shaved poodle, which is to say, magnificent. All of its core cast are delightful, but Ted Danson as Michael, a Good Place architect, and D’Arcy Carden as Janet, a huma Siri, frequently steal the show. As the narrative develops, all of the protagonists get surprisingly deep moments as they struggle to understand the nature of being good in a world with so much of the opposite. Go watch it, it’s good for you.