Superstition Everywhere (Except on Syfy; They Cancelled it)

Superstition aired for one season, in 2017, on Syfy. It’s already been cancelled or at least not renewed, and I watched it On Demand. If more episodes were available I would watch them.

The show, co-created and co-produced by Mario Van Peebles, borrows liberally and heavily from other supernatural fantasy shows, the two most obvious being Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (adapted by Starz) and the CW’s Supernatural. Even though it only had a 12-episode run, Superstition was better than Supernatural.

Please note that I’m not saying the show was great, just that it was better than Supernatural. I know that’s a pretty low bar.

In addition to producing, Van Peebles wrote several episodes and starred in the show, which is set in an “unusual little town” in Georgia. The Hastings family owns and runs the town mortuary — apparently it’s the only mortuary in town, because even the town’s former Klansman’s body is taken there, even though the Hastings are African-American. Patriarch Isaac Hastings (Van Peebles) and his family lovingly and respectfully care for the dead and they also fight demons, which they call “infernals.” They are assisted by Tilly, the town/county medical examiner and mythologist, who has some connection to the spider god Anansi, and Mae Westbrook, the chief of police.

Our story starts when Calvin Hastings returns home after 16 years in the military — in, among other places, Afghanistan. A premonition of his father’s funeral drew him home, a home he fled after his younger brother was killed in an attack by infernals. (Despite the fact that the cemetery outside the Hastings house is filled with Hastings headstones, that attack seems to have taken place in a different house in Louisiana.) When he gets home, he finds changes and secrets, and of course he harbors several of his own.

The Hastings family must work together to defeat a Big Evil called the Dredge, one that wishes to destroy the Hastings clan once and for all, and also the little town of La Rochelle. Some of the family secrets are revealed, like the fact that Isaac is an immortal, a Moorish crusader who was changed magically so he could fight infernals, and is  778 years old; or that Calvin is the father of Mae’s daughter Garvey. Calvin’s mystery unfolds more slowly and the first big clue is that his official military records ended three years ago. (Can you say “Special Forces?” I can.)

None of these revelations is particularly original. The special effects budget for the show must be measured in tens of dollars, giving it the look of Tom-Baker era Doctor Who episodes. Think cardboard and strobe lights. (On one episode, a dead raven meant to foretell the death of someone looks like the polystyrene-and-chicken-feather ravens you can buy at Michael’s Crafts.) The best thing about the show is the family at the heart of it, and the second best thing is the casting.

The family is a real family. They are compelling. Van Peebles does not shy away from racism in the past or present, even though the black mortuary family and the chief of police seem to be quite comfortable. While the writing is uneven, it has moments of wit and brilliance that I would put up against the best moments of Killjoys and Wynonna Earp.

Isaac and Calvin are the main characters, but Superstition is not a sausage-fest. The women characters are smart and strong, with their own histories, and their actions drive the plot. Bea Hastings, Calvin’s mother, is a mortal (apparently) but carries a vast amount of magical knowledge and clearly has powers of her own. Tilly functions largely like pre-witch Willow did in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Garvey walks a tightrope; she is fascinated by her paternal grandparents’ metaphysical work, but she is also rebelling against a strong, protective mother. Mae is mostly unflappable, even when she’s pulled into a mirror dimension, threatened by a witch, and nearly killed by her own doctor. The one place the show lets Mae down is her relationship with Calvin, making her dithery and inconsistent as a way to create “romantic tension.”

Other choices, like an interpretation of Anansi that featured Jasmine Guy, are inspired.

When we talk about diversity, often there’s a condescending undertone, or the same tone we use for getting exercise or eating kale;  it’s good for us, not enjoyable. Superstition is, on its face I suppose, a “diversity” show, with a mostly black cast and black main characters. For me, I saw it more as a slice of American culture that I was less familiar with than others, and I enjoyed the new stuff I was seeing and learning.  Opponents of works that feature main characters who are not white,male and cis often talk about check-boxes, but the check-boxes in Superstition come from the backstory, not the characters:

  • “She’s your daughter!”
  • “You have a dark soul, Calvin.”
  • “There’s stuff you need to know but I’m not going to tell you yet.”

The original season ran 12 episodes and I’ve seen 8 so far. I’m sure it ends on a cliffhanger. It’s a shame Syfy didn’t give this show more of a chance. They have a Friday time-slot, the lead-in to Wynonna Earp and Killjoys. Killjoys is winding down; finishing up its penultimate season in a few weeks. Superstition would have been a good understudy; and had a place among the quirky, family-centered Friday supernatural dramedies.

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