Paul is enduring the agony of being an unperson -- the kind where he's been deprived of his humanity not by supernatural means, but by having been kicked down to the lowest rung of the untouchables in the nattering hierarchy of ordinary teenagers. His status as demoted below all others at school is ensured by two things: his absorbing interest in geeky films (not to mention his hanging out with Mac, who can quote Star Wars by the yard), and his fraternal twin sister, who despises him, being queen of the cool kids.
Paul, as played by the gifted young actor Iain de Caestecker, is utterly real. He walks through corridors and down sidewalks with the kind of hunched, self-protective, get-through-it-just-get-through-it posture that's instantly recognizable to anyone who figured among the unwashed and unwanted at school.
Most teenagers in supernatural dramas are like those girls in Cinderella teen romantic comedies, a study in waiting for the moment when the glasses come off and someone does something with their hair and they turn out to have been beautiful all along. But Paul -- Paul is unnervingly real, and when terrible things start happening to him, the hurt -- and how it pushes him, and forces him into deeper and darker places -- comes across that much more vividly.
Living Outcasts and Angry Spirits
The origin story for The Fades is written all over the first few episodes: Writer Jack Thorne wanted to make a supernatural version of Freaks & Geeks. Freaks & Geeks meets Ghostbusters. But the premise would have resulted in utter failure had not Thorne taken the idea deeply seriously: he created not only Paul and Mac's fully articulated social isolation, but the painful underground world of the Angelics -- the ragged assortment of random individuals who have paranormal abilities that include seeing and interacting with the unwillingly earthbound spirits known as the Fades, whose frustration with their unelevated fate slowly corrupts them. The Angelics scrape by on the fringe of society, finding it too difficult to act in the paranormal world while maintaining a normal life; and they're not united by goal or methodology, or ready to work as a team when their worst fears start to manifest.
Sarah (Natalie Dormer), one of the Angelics, is prone to having visions; and lately her visions have been apocalyptic -- the world of humans reduced to windstorms of horrible ash. The increasing hostility of the Fades and their emerging ability to touch (and attack) humans are harbingers of this imminent Armageddon. She's convinced there's no way to stop it, but Neil (Johnny Harris) isn't so sure. "The world's coming to an end," she says. "There's nothing you can do." "There's always something you can do," Neil mutters. He's heard of premonitions of an Angelic more powerful than any other, and he hopes they're true.
Descent and Evolution
Paul, it turns out, has been having these visions too, as nightmares so terrifying that he's been wetting his bed, the latest and worst aspect of a dysfunctional life involving a missing father, a single mother unsure of how to relate to a teenage boy (Claire Rushbrook), a girl he likes but is afraid to talk to (Jay, played winsomely by Sophie Wu), and the crushing social disdain represented by his mean girl sister (played with chilling adolescent cruelty by Lily Loveless). Even his best friend (the endearing Daniel Kaluuya) has the sometimes annoying habit of falling into incessant monologue when he's feeling nervous or awkward, which is most of the time.
In this kind of context a dip into the supernatural might seem like a way out and a path to empowerment, but it doesn't look that way to Paul. When Neil tells Paul "The s*** has hit the fan -- and you're standing right in front of it," Paul can only wonder why there's so much excrement in the world in the first place.
What's riveting about Paul's situation is that each shocking development makes his life worse in a way that Paul doesn't even realize is steeling him to deal with what is to come, both in the normal world and in the approaching crisis with the Fades -- in fact the slowly solidifying menace behind the Fades starkly parallels Paul's own development. Most importantly the writer and the star, Jack Thorne and Iain de Caestecker, have absolutely nailed Paul's evolving situation, presenting each moment of it in a way that's engrossing, disturbing, and, occasionally, very funny.
The Real and the Hidden
Case in point: each episode after the pilot has a recap intro by Mac, to camera as a sort of video blog. This could be a sort of winking, "meta" kind of thing, which would totally ruin it; but instead, Mac plays it totally straight, telling us what's been going on with the kind of awed intensity of a teenage boy who's been watching Star Wars all his life and has just found out that his best bud may be a kind of Jedi -- but the dark side is very real too.
The Fades is exactly what supernatural drama should be: the potency of evil must be matched by the potency of real life. The production values are superb; the writing, acting, editing, and music are all outstanding and, more to the point, fresh and involving. The biggest downside to The Fades may be that its six episodes will be behind us too quickly, leaving us, like flesh-eating Fades, insatiably hungry for more.