Premiering on BBC America on 14 January, The Fades is a perfect follow up to that most sinister happenstance, Friday the 13th. A spooky supernatural teen drama, it pulls off humor, atmosphere, and genuine frights. While it recalls both Attack the Block and AMC’s The Walking Dead (the opening credits sequence is an almost identical knockoff), The Fades stands on its own merits.
That’s not to say its premise is wholly original. Paul (Iain De Caestecker) is a geeky 17-year-old whose only friend, Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), is a speed-talking horror comic book fanatic (Mac describes his ideal woman as a mix of Princess Leia and comic creator Alan Moore). Paul feels alienated, of course, a condition exacerbated by his visions: he sees people no one else can see, as well as vividly apocalyptic nightmares where the world is a charred pile of ash and cinders. You can understand why Paul spends most of his life vaguely terrified of every moment and convinced he’s on the verge of losing his mind.
Paul has always known he was “different,” but it takes a chance encounter with the gruff spirit chaser (Paul calls him a “ghost buster”), Neil Valentine (Johnny Harris) to confirm exactly how different he is. Neil reveals that the people Paul sees are real, at least real enough to be called something — Fades. They’re the remnant spirits of the dead who don’t go to heaven when they die. Paul learns that upon death, you either ascend or stay here, and those left behind on Earth fester in a stew of bitterness and deep resentment. Paul also learns that Neil is like him: they’re both called Angelics, people with the ability to see the Fades. They’re on the front lines of a brewing war between humans and spirits, as a group of vengeful Fades attempts to break back through onto our plane of reality and kick off a catastrophic conflict.
Paul is dropped into a race against time to save the world from a horrible destruction, the very one he’s been dreaming about. And because he’s a teenaged male in a TV series, he also has a crush on a girl he barely knows, Jay (Sophie Wu), a super-cute, short-haired pixie who is way out of his league. No pressure or anything. High school sucks bad enough on its own, but it sucks more when you’re tasked with keeping an army of pissed-off undead spirits from wreaking havoc. Let that happen and you’ll never score a date.
The Fades, who as a group become increasingly angry and aggressive, aren’t supposed to be able to interact physically with people. When a teenaged Fade nearly electrocutes Paul, he and Neil investigate, hoping to get to the bottom their newfound abilities. What they discover is gruesome, bordering on cannibalistic. The graphic imagery is more on par with dark horror cinema than your average teen-centric television series, which don’t tend to feature the severed arms of children who’ve been devoured by hungry ghosts.
Apart from the grisly details, though, the plot too often recalls Buffy or Smallville or The Vampire Diaries. Like those shows, this one often veers off into melodrama. Paul endures strife and disorder at home: his mom (Claire Rushbrook) doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, and he doesn’t want to talk about it. His parents have split, and Paul’s therapist thinks the divorce is the underlying reason behind his hallucinations and nocturnal urinations. School is no cakewalk, academically or socially, a situation made worse because of Paul’s hell-beast of a twin sister, Anna (Lily Loveless). She’d rather not acknowledge the presence of her unpopular sibling.
But just when things seem like they’re about to come off the rails, when the teen angst is about to become too much to handle — for Paul or for the rest of us — we’re convinced to stay with it because of De Caestecker’s performance. Charming and sympathetic, Paul is your basic troubled teen, but in this actor’s version of the stereotype, he’s never overly whiny or off-putting.
His engaging affect is helpful, as he inhabits a world located between awkwardly mundane and too often terrifying, between Freaks and Geeks and The Twilight Zone. Neil wants Paul to leave his daily life behind and go underground so they can prepare for the impending battle. Paul hopes to exist in both worlds, to be a normal teenager with all of the usual troubles, while also the savior of human kind. If he does walk away, if he does abandon everything that matters to him, what will he be fighting for?
As The Fades folds together its ghost story and coming of age saga elements, it allows for complications too. It’s an exhilarating take on a couple of familiar genres, balancing horror, humor, and heart.