Pay attention, everyone! Class is now in session, and I hope you have done your homework as well as found a date for prom. That’s right, this week we’re talking about high school, but specifically supernatural stories that take place in high school. We’ll discuss why high school is such an attractive setting, how to mesh magic elements and high school elements, and how you can do a teen focused story with no high school at all. Also, we spend a good five minutes analyzing season two of Stranger Things because there’s always more to draw from that well!
Generously transcribed by SpacePineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Oren: This episode was produced thanks to our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory and Star Trek.
Chris: This is the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is—
Chris: And this time, we’re gonna have to go back to high school and then cast magic. And then we’re gonna get in arguments with each other.
Oren: Half of that is my entire nightmares. Why are we going back to high school? I swear I’d never go back. I don’t even have a date for prom. What is happening?
Wes: But magic? So it’s okay. Is it?
Oren: I guess maybe, if there was one thing that could get me to go back to high school, it might be magic.
Wes: Yeah. That would help.
Chris: So, magical teen drama, I think is a good topic because they’re actually specific storytelling things that are specific challenges and things that are different when we decide to have the story specifically about teens. And it’s not always in high school, but it’s often in high school. So, most likely in high school.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, there are a few stories that follow similar tropes that aren’t technically in a high school, but that is sort of the standard, right?
Chris: Yeah. Most often in a contemporary setting, et cetera, et cetera. And we’ve talked previously in some of our episodes about other kinds of sub-genres, like a central problem that they have to solve, or sometimes there’s more than one. So, in our haunted house episode (Mythcreants Podcast episode #193)—that ended up being about the history of haunted houses—still had briefly talked about the big problem being, why can’t they leave the house? It’s not an insurmountable problem, but if you’re making a haunted house story, I really need an explanation for why the protagonist can’t just leave. And in cyberpunk (Mythcreants Podcast episode #160), I briefly went over—a lot of these stories take place in a virtual reality, but we need some consequences, some actual way to endanger the protagonists that is not inherent to virtual reality. You have to do something to solve that problem.
Oren: Yeah. If you die in the game, you have to put in another quarter.
Chris: So recently, especially after watching Sabrina, the new Netflix Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which I’ll talk about more, I really started thinking more about the big problem that happens in magical teen dramas, which is the fact that the magical part almost always overpowers the teen drama part. Because teen drama problems are just inherently low stakes problems. Whether you get good grades in school, or your relationships with your friends, or whether you have a good day for the prom, and all those things that make the center of teen drama … I mean, they can be very important to people, but as far as storytelling goes, the world is not going to end over these issues. And if we have a plot that’s only about those things, it’s fine. But what tends to happen is, especially with these TV shows, they have a separate magic plot line. It can be higher stakes, so they want it to be, ‘cuz that’s more exciting. And then pretty soon, the teen drama starts to feel trivial in comparison, and it’s just dragging the show down.
Oren: Yeah, and I have a pretty simple way to fix Sabrina. So first, take out the devil worship stuff, just have them be witches. Make them a little older, and then add two sisters, and make them all women of color, and then go watch Charmed. There. You fixed it. It’s done now.
Chris: Yeah. I don’t think it’s really fair to call Charmed a teen drama, though.
Oren: It’s not. It is definitely not a teen drama. They are clearly college students or older.
Chris: Which is actually a pretty unusual age to have stories, at that college level.
Oren: Yeah. This is very unusual. I don’t know why I’ve heard things about how, supposedly, publishers don’t think that college students watch or ingest media. I have no idea if that’s even—
Chris: Well, I’ve heard that the college students don’t read as much because they’re reading so much college textbooks, right? Just the fact that they’re in college, it gives them less time for pleasure reading. I don’t know if that would hold true for TV shows and things, but Buffy moved to the college years and had tons of problems trying to—“how do we do college?” “I don’t know.”
Wes: Well, yeah. In those cases, the high school is just being used. I mean, it’s solely for setting and I think there’s appeal there because if you’re writing a story high school’s great to pick, because a lot of your work is kind of cut out for you. There’s cliques. There’s archetypes. There’s a start and an end to the school year. It’s ticking so many boxes for you, and then you’re cramming a story into it. And if you move outside of it into college or whatever, you suddenly are responsible for more reasons why they’re continuing to stay in this one area, why they’re being forced to spend time together. So I think that’s kind of a funny thing that, because most of us have been through high school, and because, as much as we are trying to find out who we are, a lot of people fall back on embracing archetypes, like jocks or band members or math club, those kinds of things. I think when it’s done badly, they just take that for granted, and they don’t pay any attention to it. It’s like, okay, this is part of the setting. And I’m like, well, I like the setting to matter.
Oren: Little bit.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, that is a really good point. It’s like the high school itself can supply a lot of the basic sort of tension that a normal high school teen drama would have in its setup and rhythms, and JK Rowling definitely benefited from having the structure of the school year. There’s no question of that.
Wes: Big time.
Oren: Right. And Rowling also found a way to get around the problem of the magic story distracting from the high school story, because it is a magic high school. So, you know, done.
Chris: Certainly, I think that’s the big thing that shows like Sabrina are running into, is if they’re in a contemporary setting, they want it to feel like a normal, relatable high school. And they don’t feel like it’s easy to then work big magic plot lines into that. Whereas when you have a magic high school, you don’t have that restriction. It’s a lot easier to make your magic plot line and the high school kind of the same.
Oren: Yeah. Right. And Sabrina kind of feels almost like it’s two shows. We have the stuff that’s happening in the high school, and then, almost completely unrelated, we have the stuff that’s happening in the magic world, which is way higher stakes and people could die over it. And then it’s like, (unenthusiastically) now we’re in high school, and whatever. Although, sometimes the high school stuff is entertaining in its own right, but it doesn’t feel related to the magic stuff, especially since Sabrina’s powers are so broad and undefined. You can’t help but wonder, could she not solve this high school problem with magic? She knows there’s a bunch of bullies running around, beating up her friends. Maybe she could put a spell on them. I don’t know, maybe. What are her powers?
Chris: Right. I’m not far enough into Sabrina, but there also doesn’t seem to be a lot of stories with spells like that, that are like, oh no, if you cast a bad spell on the principal to make him sick for a week, it’s going to have bad consequences, ‘cuz you did a bad thing. But Sabrina, so far, that I’ve watched, does not have anything like that. It’s like, “ha ha, isn’t that fun that you did that bad thing to the principal?”
Oren: Yeah. I mean, the spells that we’ve seen in Sabrina are incredibly arbitrary, and also very powerful, and seem to have no downside. Now, they could introduce one later, but that’s the sort of thing you really get introduced up front. That’s just your basic magic system building. I will give Sabrina credit for having really cool spell chants, though. I really liked them, and I liked that they were in English. I’m just tired of Latin. Latin is not a magical language, guys. It’s just a dead language.
Chris: They did have some spells that were not in English, but they were cast by villains, which I think is actually a good combination, because letting what the villains are doing feel more mysterious generally helps build a mystique around the villain. Whereas the protagonists, you kind of want a more robust understanding of what the protagonist is doing.
Oren: Right. And having the spell chance be in English also means you don’t have to stop and explain what the spell does every time. ‘Cuz it’s right there. It’s in the chant.
Chris: Yeah. I will say another thing that Rowling did well, that honestly Sabrina could have really benefited from, is just keeping the magical plotline slowly building on the back burner while you focus on the high school drama. ‘Cuz that’s what Harry Potter does. Books one through six, there’s a bigger plot line that’s outside the school, but that one is just kind of slowly building. Whereas, there’s the smaller plotlines, is what we focus on most of the time.
Oren: And the problem there that Sabrina is running into is that it’s, in theory, supposed to be about Sabrina choosing between the magical world and the human world. But it’s actually about all of these dangers Sabrina is encountering in the magic world. So that doesn’t really have anything to do with the high school, is definitely a part of what’s hindering it. I thought Teen Wolf also did a pretty good job of that because, at least in the first season, the whole thing with Teen Wolf is that there is a big, bad, supernatural monster in the background, but most of the magic stuff in the first season is Scott getting used to being a werewolf and figuring out what that means for him in high school.
Chris: Yeah. And it’s used really well to enhance the teen drama. So he’s now a werewolf or turning into werewolf, and he’s warned by the other werewolf, “you better not play in this lacrosse game.” Teen Wolf actually manages to make a number of lacrosse games actually exciting.
Oren: Yeah, it really does.
Wes: Big time.
Chris: It’s really hard for a show to make sports games exciting, but Teen Wolf—I mean, eventually they kind of give it up, but for quite a while, they managed to make them exciting because of this whole idea where the “loss of control” theme with werewolves—“oh, if you play lacrosse, you’ll lose control.” And then maybe I’ll start acting like a werewolf in front of the whole school. But anyway, so he has this lacrosse game and he’s warned, “no, you cannot play in the game because you don’t have things under control.” And then at the same time, he’s receiving all of this pressure from his coach to be in the game. And he has to deal with the pressure coming from two different sides, but it’s a very personal drama issue. It’s not like a big magic plot issue. Despite the fact that, you know, the magic of being a werewolf is used to make the personal drama more riveting.
Oren: Teen Wolf also does—as the series goes on and the magic plots get more and more intense, we ease up on the high school stuff because it just can’t compete.
Chris: Yeah. Teen Wolf basically becomes a horror, and there’s no way, when you get into full-on horror territory, that the high school stuff is going to matter anymore.
Oren: Right. The last sort of element of the high school that Teen Wolf keeps, which is more flexible than the others, is this question of keeping up your grades while you are out fighting whatever at night. And that’s a very flexible thing, because the grades are important, not specifically for their role in high school, but because they have an impact on your future, whatever that’s going to be. There are some issues with that, ‘cuz sometimes it kind of feels like, “who cares what grade Scott gets. He can bench press a thousand pounds. I’m pretty sure he’ll find a way to make money.”
Chris: Although, to be fair, Scott, we know specifically that he wants to become a veterinarian.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: He needs certain grades to do that. But I think this is used frequently in Teen Wolf to add some of that interpersonal conflict and lower level conflicts that just enhances the normal scenes that are almost in the story for logistical reasons. It’s like, “hey, we hear about something going on. Should we leave school? But we can’t just leave school every time we hear about something going on, because then we won’t be maintaining our own lives, and we’ve made a commitment to try to do that better.” So it just adds some of the lower level conflict that just enhances a lot of scenes that are otherwise serving the bigger parts of the plot.
Oren: I also think it’s worth pointing out that, if you want to do a show or a story of some kind that has teenage characters, and you’re not really interested in the high school stuff, the high school stuff can be in the background. That’s also fine. For example, both the Runaways and Black and White, two Marvel shows that are about teenagers, they’re technically in high school. Or at least in Black and White, one of them is, but as a rule, the high school stuff’s not that important. It’s mostly in the background. There’s a little bit of drama about the high school, but it’s only insomuch as that it directly intersects with the more magical plot that’s happening. And that’s also fine. You don’t have to spend a huge amount of time in high school just because your characters are teenagers, if you’re not interested in high school stuff. That’s better than spending a lot of time at high school and then having nothing really to do there.
Wes: Whenever it’s used for filler, it’s not as effective. It’s like, you know what? We need to pass time until the next magical conflict. So I guess they’re going to go to class and get angry at each other.
Chris: Yeah. I do definitely think in the Teen Wolf situation, when the high school started to feel like it was ancillary, they just dropped it. And that was the right thing to do. I do think that you want to have a story that is sustainable, that really feels like a classic teen drama, though. Then you are potentially losing something by not keeping it within the genre that you promised. I think one of the issues with Sabrina that happens is that they really try to make all the high school stuff important by adding to her dilemma for whether she’s going to stay in the human realm or become a full-on witch. It’s this dilemma. But by trying to make all of the things that happened in high school about her dilemma and tie them into the plot that way, she just has an unconvincing motivation. Because the problem is that most people do not really keep their high school friends and sweethearts long-term, and most people after high school, a lot of people, leave for college, anyway. So the idea that she should not follow what, at that time, is her life goals for becoming a witch, just because she doesn’t want to leave her friends in high school behind, just doesn’t really ring true. It’s not very compelling.
Wes: Do you think that’s ‘cuz—and I’ve been thinking about this—is that just the showrunners or the show writers—it seems pandery to me, maybe that’s the word for it. Okay, well, it’s high school. And sure, these conflicts … we know that they don’t matter ‘cuz we’re adults looking back, but we really need to somehow convey that it really did matter at that time. In that moment, you really do think that all this stuff, like your friends and relationships, (sarcastically) are gonna last forever, and you’re never going to die. And all of this is the highest stakes ever. I sometimes get a sense that that’s kind of what they’re trying to do.
Chris: Well, they feel like a teen audience is going to look at it and—
Wes: Right. When really, I don’t think a teen audience is watching it as much. I mean, I could be wrong, but the rest of us are out of high school.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, certainly that’s not what I was like when I was a teenager. I couldn’t speak for everybody else. If everybody else is like, oh no, these are friendships I can have for the rest of my life. (laughs) When I was a teenager and ending high school, I was like, okay, how do I pare away all of these friendships and just keep the ones I can maintain across the country?
Oren: Yeah. I mean, my friendships were pretty much all over by the time I left high school, because all of my friends were a year or two older than me. So, it’s not a universal experience. It is possible that someone who is in high school who is living in the moment might find that more compelling than someone who’s already gone through that. But if you’re going to do that, because this show is clearly aimed at a wide audience, right? it’s clearly designed with adults in mind. They want adults to watch it. If you try to put the audience in the shoes of a character to whom high school feels like it’s, forever, and it’s what matters the most, then you have to actually take steps to do that. You can’t just assume that everyone’s going to be on board with that idea.
Chris: I will say, in Teen Wolf, by the end of Teen Wolf, like we do feel—I felt, personally, at least—some pull when … the idea of them leaving for separate colleges, but that’s because we have so many seasons of them together, struggling in these very high stakes plots where death is on the line. They’ve had friends that have died. They’ve gone through so much together. So then, we have a basis for which to feel like it’s tragic that they’re splitting apart. And when the characters start to make plans like, well, maybe we couldn’t go to the same college together and are throwing that around, but are clearly torn, that means something to them, it means something to the audience. Sabrina opens the story with all of the teenagers already good friends, and we don’t even see her have a romance where she starts dating her boyfriend. He’s just already her boyfriend. So I don’t feel like we have any basis for which to really feel, to understand why those relationships are so compelling, and that kind of thing.
Oren: Right. And so much about Sabrina would make more sense if they had gone with the original premise back from like the show in the ‘90s that she didn’t know she was a witch until she turns 16, because in that case, at that point, they wouldn’t be so much like, “leave your high school.” It would be like you’re leaving your entire world behind, essentially. And also that would make sense, ‘cuz Sabrina doesn’t seem to know anything about the witch culture despite being raised in it, because they just don’t know how to do exposition properly. So that would also make more sense if everything had to be explained to her, because she had only just found out she was a witch.
Chris: Right. And then she could go through some of the same process that Scott does in Teen Wolf, where it’s like, I’m now adjusting to the idea that I have magic while I’m going to high school.
Oren: I mean, that would be great. That’s the automatic thing I think of when I imagine a witch in high school. It’s like, what if we had some episodes where the witch starts to learn to use her powers and she thinks, oh man, I could use this power to pass a math class, ‘cuz I don’t have anyone around to tell me otherwise. And then she does it. And oops, now frogs are raining from the sky. (joking voice) Lesson learned. (laughs) I’d watch that. Why is that not a show? Please, someone make that a show.
Chris: I think another show that’s worth talking about is Secret Circle.
Oren: But it’s a secret, Chris. We can’t talk about it.
Chris: (laughs) This show has a really good setup, but ultimately, pretty poor implementation. So in this one, the idea is really good. The idea is that there’s a group of teens and that they need each other to cast magic. There’s dangers in the world that threaten them, and they need to cast magic to protect themselves. But they can’t really cast magic together if they are not talking to each other. (laughs) So then, you have a reason why their relationships are just critical to the higher stakes plot, and why that matters. And it does help the show in some instances where they need all of the members of their circle; they’re more powerful. So when the stranger comes into town, they have a reason to be like, okay, we need to engage with this person, even though we have a bad history with him, even though he’s an asshole. (laughs) Because if he actually joins us, we’ll be more powerful, and that’s important. It breaks down, partly because they just can’t help giving the main character a bunch of candy. So she gets her own independent magic that makes everyone else unnecessary.
Oren: Yeah. Once that started happening, I was like, why are they even a circle? I don’t get it. What’s even the point now? But I think the Secret Circle was sort of aiming for and missing another really strong element of high school dramas that we haven’t talked about as much, which is the relationships. High school is a time when you are constantly changing, and of course, every human is always changing, but the changes you go through in high school are very drastic. You can change very quickly, in very dramatic ways. And that leads to very high drama in interpersonal relationships. And you can have really compelling character arcs that take place in just a few episodes. And I think that’s what Secret Circle was going for, but then they kind of didn’t really want to write a lot of the characters interacting, for some reason. And they ended up splitting off and kind of doing their own thing.
Chris: Yeah. I’m not sure what happened there, because originally—definitely the writers from what I watched—were just better at plotting than they were at characterization. Maybe they just had trouble working with their characters and motivating the characters to do what they wanted. I’m not sure.
Oren: Yeah. They were actually really solid with plot. It was one of the few shows I’ve seen where the plot just kept moving and they kept adding higher stakes conflicts, but the characters were just really boring and didn’t really interact or play off each other in any meaningful way. I don’t know why. It was very strange.
Chris: Yeah, it really was. So, any particular high school drama that you want to talk about, Wes?
Wes: I was kind of musing a little bit on Stranger Things, and the extent to which the drama plays out in that. But that show’s a little different, because we kind of have—there is high school drama. How old is Eleven and the boys?
Chris: I think they’re thirteen?
Wes: So they’re middle school drama.
Oren: Yeah. They’re middle school and not quite high school yet.
Wes: Right, so there’s middle school drama, high school drama, and adult drama happening in all these layers, and then there’s a magical other world with monsters.
Oren: So elementary school drama, then.
Wes: I was just kind of thinking about what we were talking about with that one. I definitely like—the first season, I think, approaches the drama differently, and I think, better, but that’s mostly because the stakes are well balanced. And we’ve talked about this on previous podcasts before, right? Each age group gets to meaningfully deal with an appropriate conflict for them. So their relationships matter in resolving those conflicts, and how they relate to each other, and how they react against the magical issue or the magical problem. But then, who likes who and how that’s affecting friendships, and … yeah. So, I think season one’s actually a pretty good example of a magical, multi-tiered school drama. What’d you guys think about that one?
Chris: I thought it was pretty good in season one. I thought in season two, it was substantially less good. But that was partly for other reasons, right? It was partly that they had an overpowered character. They didn’t know what to do with her. They had some issue with Eleven coming back, and how she related to the other characters, and creating conflict. But at the same time, creating conflict, not letting her just take over because she is so powerful. And certainly, it’s very different, because it’s definitely written from a very boys-type perspective.
Wes: Yeah, it is.
Chris: And they made an effort to add more female characters, but I think they were still stuck in the notion that, in order to make tribute to all of these movies in the ‘80s, that they could not change the gender of any of the characters or archetypes in the movies in the ‘80s.
Wes: That’s a good point. Yeah, definitely.
Chris: So the problem with the character relationships is that they weren’t actually willing to break the mold in any way. So they added female characters, ‘cuz they knew that they needed to do that by making extra ancillary characters, rather than making any of the core characters that were in the tropes that they were paying tribute to—that they were copying over—making them women.
Oren: And what really gets me is that they somehow found time to add two very important core characters, and they’re both white guys.
Chris: So they have—I can’t remember, what’s the name of the red-headed middle school character?
Wes: Max, right? Was her name Max?
Oren: Yeah, Max.
Chris: Yeah. So they bring Max in as a definite outsider, and the entire time, it’s not like a full-fledged drama, because it’s all about her versus them. I guess we could say that having two boys compete for her affections is kind of high school drama-y, but it certainly doesn’t feel like fully formed relationships. I feel like it would have been more meaningful if she had simply just joined the group and been accepted earlier, but then found that that created the different social dynamics, where they now had to split where they wanted to do things in different ways. And then that caused conflict between people in the whole group, instead of this sort of, having some people want her to join the group, and other people not want her to join the group. And maybe it’s just that the drama isn’t at high school level, is their issue. Partly because the whole thing does feel kind of childish.
Oren: Also, (sarcastically) hot take, but Max should have been the one to find D’Artagnan. Don’t @ me.
Chris: And they have some high school stuff, but they only have three high school characters. And I think with the high school drama, you need more characters than that to make it work. Otherwise you just have a love triangle, right?
Oren: And I think it’s worth pointing out that, at least in the first season, the school drama is almost always focused on the younger kids. The teenagers are doing stuff, and in the first season, they’re pretty good. My love for the first season of Stranger Things is well known. But the high schoolers don’t actually spend very much time in high school. They almost always do their adventuring after school, whereas the boys, the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) group, they actually spend a fair amount of time in school. And I think that it uses that as a pretty good scenario to increase the drama and give them access to resources they might not otherwise have, but in a way that they can’t just tell their teacher what’s happening. So that’s not exactly a high school drama, but it follows a lot of the same conventions.
Chris: I will say, in season one, though, they definitely use a lot of the archetypes from teen drama to their benefit, where the central issue that Steve has is the fact that he is kind of caving to peer pressure in order to stay popular, and he has a bunch of friends that are just jerks. And in season one, I think he just kind of breaks up with his friends so that—
Wes: Steve’s friends are terrible. (laughs) They’re so bad.
Chris: Right. And then in season two, he’s in a very different place, and he’s dealing with that. So it definitely uses the archetypes from a traditional high school drama. Whereas, we have, unfortunately, a few scenes that we see Barb in. One of the things that makes her so likable is the fact that she doesn’t really feel like she’s buying in to the whole pressure to be popular. She’s just there, she’s supporting her friend. She’ll go to the party with her, but she doesn’t really think this is a good idea. She doesn’t think it’s important for these popular people to like her, that kind of thing. So they do a kind of “in miniature,” but I think with the character spread of Stranger Things being so wide across ages, you really need a robust cast of all teens to pull off a good teen drama. Or like the 100, which has half teens and half adults that are each—usually at least for the first season—are segregated off into different places. You have enough teens in the teen side of the plot line to carry a teen drama.
Oren: Yeah. Also, while we’re on the subject of Barb, when we said “justice for Barb,” we meant we wanted more Barb-type characters. Not that we wanted a side plot where the government gets fined for her death. That isn’t what we meant. I’m sorry that’s what you guys heard.
Chris: The sad thing is that Stranger Things 2 really did try to respond to criticism of Stranger Things 1. It’s just, they didn’t do it very well.
Oren: All right. And speaking of being bad things, we are at the end of our time for this episode. So, for those of you home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Otherwise we will talk to you next week.
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