[4 June 2007]
Students going to school on a campus that’s a hotspot for witchcraft and satanic activity, ghosts that haunt empty classrooms and demons that lurk in the darkness just outside the dorms, and a wide-eyed heroine whose taste in men runs toward dark, tall and demonic. It’s no surprise that Hex has been described as “the British Buffy”. Joss Whedon’s landmark horror / coming-of-age series earned high praise for its tremendous emotional resonance and ability to use the archetypes of monster movies as metaphors for the collective pain of growing up. But does Hex manage to touch the same stratospheric heights as its across-the-pond spiritual sister?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes. While Hex doesn’t have the cumulative power that Buffy the Vampire slayer developed over the course of its seven seasons (even if the last two were frustratingly uneven), its first 10 episodes are compelling enough that you can believe the series might have become something truly exceptional, if its story had been given the time to run its course.
While Buffy the Vampire Slayer addressed a wide range of adolescent problems and fears, Hex limits its focus almost exclusively to its characters’ sex lives, an ever-changing battlefield of unpredictable lusts and romantic longings. Even the adults can’t help themselves from falling into bed with the wrong partners: their loneliness is an even greater aphrodisiac than the drunken horniness of the teenagers.
At the center of Hex’s overlapping relationships is Cassie (Christina Cole), a blonde bombshell whom we’re supposed to believe is a social outcast preyed upon by the popular crowd. The show’s writers half-heartedly explain that Cassie has become emotionally withdrawn after years of caring for her mentally ill mother, but that doesn’t explain why many of the other characters taunt her for not fitting in. Are we really supposed to suspend disbelief and pretend everyone can’t see that Cassie is gorgeous? (Buffy and Veronica Mars were also pariahs at their respective schools – there’s not much drama in telling the story of the contented homecoming queen – but at least their shows gave credible reasons for why this was the case.)
While Cassie sets her sights on a bland pretty boy named Troy, she’s also lusted after by her dead lesbian roommate Thelma (I’ll explain later) and Mephistophelian baddie Azazeal. As portrayed by Michael Fassbinder, Azazeal seems like just another vaguely Eurotrash arch-villain at first: he dresses in partially unbuttoned shirts and knee-length overcoats, has two days’ worth of stubble at all times, and intones every line of dialogue in a slithery monotone. But Azazeal develops into a surprisingly complex antagonist. He genuinely loves Cassie and can’t bring himself to hurt her even when she’s betrayed him. He even seems to treat his enemies with a certain grudging respect, admiring them for their compassion towards each other and their resolution in fighting the forces of darkness. It’s this sort of nuance that makes Azazeal a more interesting enemy than your garden-variety sadist.
The show’s other standout character thus far is Thelma (Jemima Rooper), who tries to get Cassie to reciprocate her Sapphic desires while they’re roommates and continues to look after her when she’s killed and becomes a ghost. Thelma’s new existence as a phantom haunting Medenham Hall does give her some new sources of entertainment: she likes to spy on the students and teachers to find out their dirty secrets, and after discovering that she can enter people’s dreams she starts implanting lesbian fantasies into the minds of the popular girls.
Thelma is also a nice physical contrast to Cassie. While Christina Cole is blonde, slim and fresh-faced – she’d look right at home as the love interest on a CW drama – Rooper, with her curvaceous figure and butch haircut, manages to look both tough and feminine at the same time. She’s the most sympathetic figure on Hex, since she can only watch sadly as everyone around her gets to have their fun while the object of her affections doesn’t love her back and couldn’t feel her touch even if she did.
Hex serves as a revealing look at what you can get away with on British television as compared to the American networks. Most obviously, characters on Hex use the f-word in casual conversation and there’s even the occasional flash of nudity from both the men and women. But unlike American television shows, which either awkwardly skate around such forbidden content or else revel in it on the less-restrictive cable and premium channels (think of FX’s dramas Dirt or Nip/Tuck, where the raunchiness on display is one of the show’s main selling points), Hex uses its language and nudity in the service of its story.
Even more eye-opening is how the show handles potentially controversial topics like abortion or teen sex. While conservative media critics like to disparage the current state of television as a sludge of amoral behavior and zero consequences, the truth is that television characters are rarely depicted as making any ethical decision that could make them unpopular with a segment of the audience. Almost any American television show that dares to broach the topic of abortion makes sure that the viewers are lectured about what a weighty issue it is, and usually stacks the deck in its favor by having the girl in question not go through with the procedure at the last moment.
However, Cassie quickly opts to terminate her pregnancy when she discovers that she’s carrying the Antichrist-like child of Azazeal (her decision is almost a darkly humorous contrast to the tendency for genre shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Angel, and The X-Files, to use a mystical pregnancy as one of their key plot developments). As she checks herself into the hospital, the episode cuts to Azazeal attending a church meeting, where he of all people delivers a fiery speech about abortion being a sin and the need for everyone to obey God’s divine laws. I can’t even imagine the protests from the religious right that might have resulted if this show had aired on a major American network like ABC or CBS.
A little side note on how the DVD for Hex is packaged: while it’s labeled as the “Complete First Season”, this set actually contains the six episodes which made up the first season and the first four episodes of 13 total from the second and final season. It’s hardly a huge deal – the split was probably done to make both DVD sets contain the same amount of material – but it does mean that the story concludes awkwardly on an episode that was never meant to act as a season finale.
The second season of Hex moves farther into the supernatural with more otherworldly creatures and reshuffles part of the cast. Troy is suddenly sent home, while his man-child best friend Leon gets an expanded role (the bad boys are usually more interesting than the chump boyfriends). But the biggest addition is Laura Pyper as Ella Dee, a centuries old demon hunter, whose steely resolve makes her an intriguing foil for Cassie’s confusion and lovesickness for Azazeal. And therein lies the reason why Hex is more than just raging hormones and gothic clichés: it takes the time to understand its characters and shows that even in the battle against evil, our emotions are never black and white.
The DVD extras for Hex include a handful of deleted scenes and a behind the scenes documentary. While the documentary is definitely amusing (Cole and Rooper joke about their male co-stars, while Amber Sainsbury details her embarrassment at acting in a sex scene in front of the crew), it’s clear that it was produced after the second season concluded since it contains references and small spoilers to future episodes. It might be best to watch this after the second DVD set is released.