This review contains spoilers.
1.1 A Very Trippy Horse
Two new youth-skewed fantasy series are arriving on UK TV this week, both billed as ‘the British Buffy’. One is Howard Overman’s horror comedy Crazyhead, the other is Patrick Ness’ Doctor Who spin-off Class.
Glossing over the fact that CBBC has been quietly airing a British Buffy since 2012 in the form of the terrific Wolfblood, on the surface, comparisons to the Joss Whedon series make sense. Class is set in a high school that’s a hub for all things alien and strange while Crazyhead is about a young woman who discovers she’s not a slayer but a “seer”, someone able to spot the demons living among us.
You don’t deserve a Buffy comparison just for making a show about young people fighting monsters. To truly earn it, you need to tell an emotionally real story using the props and scenery of fantasy. Growing up is a battle, high school is full of monsters, boyfriends can turn evil, adolescence can be hell, friends can save your life… Buffy’s stroke of genius was making those figurative truths literal. It was a triumph of metaphor pepped up with martial arts moves and pop culture quips.
Crazyhead and Class, at least in their promo material, look to be doing the same. According to its writer, the latter shows that “…the horrors of the darkest corners of existence are just about on par with having to pass your A-Levels”, while the trailer tagline for the former reads “Deal with your demons, or they’ll deal with you”.
The demons Crazyhead’s two leads Amy and Raquel (played by the appealing combo of Cara Theobald and Susan Wokoma) are dealing with aren’t only of the supernatural variety. As the title suggests—though without a great deal of sensitivity—the show uses its supernatural trappings to tell a story about mental health and loneliness.
Amy and Raquel both have histories of psychiatric treatment thanks to their ‘hallucinations’. They’re isolated young women with hinted-at troubled backgrounds. Amy was bullied at school and her mum “wasn’t around much”, while Raquel struggles to make friends because of her abrasive personality and poor impulse-control (the second time she meets Amy she pinches her nipple. It’s a whole thing).
It’s also likely to prove thematically significant that the ‘big bad’ (so long as we’re talking Buffy…) introduced in episode one isn’t an ancient vampire, mayor or a government-sponsored super-monster, but a psychopathic psychiatrist.
What we’re really watching in Crazyhead though, is the story of a friendship between two outcasts who find each other. It’s a sound place to start. It was after all the basis of some of the UK’s best, most satisfying supernatural shows—Being Human, The Fades, In The Flesh, Misfits. Those series all pivoted on oddball friendships formed between characters in unreal situations. The warmth of unexpected relationships were why they worked, whatever impending apocalypse or mystical doodad was the focus of the plot.
Crazyhead’s well-cast central pairing is its best shot at success. Its fantasy world, in which demons—some of which aren’t evil and have telekinetic powers—live among and are able to possess us, offers nothing new at first glance.
The plot of episode one hits so many familiar notes you might wonder if it’s a remake or reboot. The nods to US culture in Raquel’s letterman jacket (are those E4 colours deliberate branding?) and Amy’s bowling alley workplace create a blander, more transatlantic identity than something as rooted in its Englishness as any of the shows listed above. The closest comparison is probably to NBC’s Grimm, at least in terms of the demons’ appearances. Amy’s induction into the world of seers and demons has flecks of every other ‘you’re not telling me monsters are real?!’ chosen-one pilot.
One distinguishing factor here is the crudeness. From the creator of Misfits, one of the most joyously filthy shows that ever aired, Crazyhead swears like a navvy and revels in gross-out laughs and smut. Amy pees on her possessed best friend during an exorcism, while Raquel reveals that demons can be defeated by shoving wooden poles “right up their arse”. You don’t see that on Buffy, nor are you likely you see it on BBC Three’s Class.
Wokoma’s Raquel provides more comedy, though promisingly not only that. She’s revealed in one scene at home with her brother to have more depth than the fast-talking side-kick she first appears to be.
Creator Howard Overman’s most recent gig with this production team (the people behind ITV’s short-lived Demons and for whom he wrote a number of episodes of Merlin) was BBC One Saturday evening adventure Atlantis, a show whose tone often seemed at odds with its time slot. In comparison, this rude, energetic show feels like a much more comfortable fit. Crazyhead borrows handfuls of mythology from so many places that it starts to blur. Using that mythology to tell the story of Amy and Raquel’s loneliness and the solace of their friendship is its best chance of sticking around.
Crazyhead airs on E4 and Netflix UK.