Television has embraced these characters throughout the decades. TV’s long-running Bewitched (1964-1972) gave us the suburban witch Samantha who used her powers to essentially solve the problems of everyday life. A few decades later, Charmed (1998-2006) took a decidedly darker spin by exploring the doings of three sisters – all witches – who used their talents to battle the greater forces of evil in the modern world. Furthermore, programs like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Penny Dreadful, The Magicians, and even Supernatural may not have put witches front-and-center but certainly never skirted their existence, giving audiences even more looks at the good and the bad of using witchcraft as a means to an end in good times and in bad.
Still, I don’t know that TV’s witches have ever been given the kind of highbrow seriousness afforded them in A Discovery Of Witches. Based on a series of novels by Deborah Harkness, the show follows the adventures of Yale University professor Diana Bishop, the academic who discovers her unnatural talents and then puts them to use to protect herself and her equally extraordinary friends from the forces of evil who also exist in secret. The program recently concluded its second season – with a third on the way – and I was recently provided a screener copy of Season 2 for review.
So let’s see if we can unbox our own magic with a look at where the mystical Bishop is at this point in her development …
From the product packaging: “After narrowly escaping the Congregation of vampires, witches, and daemons, Diana and Matthew are hiding in time in the fascinating and treacherous world of Elizabethan London. Here, they must find a powerful witch teacher to help Diana control her magic and search for the elusive Book of Life …”
There’s a bit more, and all it really amounts to is giving readers a bit of ‘up to speed’ notice on when and where the show is (second season). Suffice it to say that essentially audiences are delivered to the learning stage in the life of Diana Bishop (played by Terea Palmer). She’s joined in her efforts by her loving Matthew (Matthew Goode); and the bulk of this season sees the two of them squaring off against supposed friends and enemies while Diana’s true skills are revealed: she’s not just a witch but also a ‘timewalker’ as well as a ‘spellweaver,’ amping up her value in this world where magic exists for those who have been born into it.
In some ways, this crystallizes an issue I have with televised (and movie) Fantasy: many storytellers choose the path wherein characters have to be ‘born’ with a particular skillset and then they spend the bulk of their screentime figuring out how to put them to best use. In reality (well, let’s just say the world we live in), folks can research witchcraft (if it’s indeed a legitimate ‘thing’) and learn how to put a hex on a coworker or cast a spell to make that girl in accounting fall deeply in love with you. But this Discovery Of Witches doesn’t allow for such diversity as it would appear that it’s either in your blood or it isn’t: maybe there are those who can acquire some tricks by trade, but they’re rarely given the kind of exposure Diana and her ‘sisters’ get.
When the world only explores that level of exclusivity, I’ve always found it hard to relate. It separates the commoners from those blessed with the right genes – always a risky proposition as it enforces a kind of genetic elitism (whether intended or not) – and I suspect that perhaps this is why the tales of witches, warlocks, and the like have never touched me. Harry Potter was essentially “born with it,” and even George Lucas twisted his own universe’s Jedi powers to be something folks were “born with” (in the prequels), a development I honestly never cared for. I guess it’s that I prefer stories wherein the classical ‘everyman’ has the potential to rise up, learn a craft, and save the world, not just those who are gifted with the right bloodline.
Still, A Discovery Of Witches has a nice feel to it. Though framed with many treacherous elements, it’s the tale of a beautiful young man uncovering who she is and what she can do; and Season 2 gives actress Palmer some nifty little sequences that show her blossoming into … erm … witchhood, for lack of a better word. It’s in these scenes that I thought the program excelled … and, sadly, there are just far too few of them to make it any more interesting than it was. (Hint: it wasn’t … at least not to me.)
As an example, say you’re making a superhero film. In the course of two hours, you’re typically given a small(ish) origins story as well as a series of events wherein the audience gets to marvel at the superpowers, what potential they have, and even a hint at limitations. Usually (if not formulaically), our hero employs whatever semblance of magic he has three times – the discovery, the educational, and the mastery – and this unfolds at a pace that makes it all palatable. But Diana Bishop is given so little time to show us her powers here and so little emphasis was put on what she could actually do with spells, I was seriously at a loss to understand what all of the fuss was about. There’s very little of it on display, and the cycles of her tutelage – while interesting – were structured more as visual filler than anything else. And, technically, I hate filler.
Don’t get me wrong: I suspect the people who love this kind of thing will take to it faithfully and will definitely tune in next season to see where all of this goes. But the casual observer? Someone like myself who is prone to decide fairly quickly whether or not a program is truly interesting as an investment? Honesty, I struggled with the slow, slow, slow pacing of this one; and the actors and actresses all seemed to be shackled with scenes that never quite developed any tension or conflict (what little there was). Much like a soap opera, the real struggle seemed to always be just around the corner instead of right up in my face. When the protagonist seems in no real danger, what’s the impetus to hang around? Because Diana is gifted and pretty?
Meh. At my age, I need a bit more motivation than that.
RECOMMENDED, but I also have to be honest: I found an awful lot of A Discovery Of Witches: Season 2 to be more than a bit overly melodramatic to the point of near-campiness. I’ll admit that – like other recent televised Fantasies – I’m just not the target demographic, so feel free to give this one a watch and decide on your own. Production values are good – a bit undercooked in some obvious scenes of CGI – and performances are a tad predictable; but it’s likeable enough if this sort of romance-fueled soap opera is in your wheelhouse. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it …)
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Acorn Media Group provided me with a Blu-ray of A Discovery Of Witches: Season 2 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.