“Magic realism is defined by what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” These words appear in the opening sequence of the first episode of Narcos, a thinly fictionalized TV series based on the life of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Though the events that follow are based in reality and would not traditionally be considered magic realism, the fact that one of the most popular shows of the past two years opens using this term signifies its importance in contemporary popular culture in 2016—even though it has its roots in a literary genre invented long, long ago.
Over a decade ago, the late critic David Lavery published an essay titled “It’s Not Television, It’s Magic Realism: The Mundane, the Grotesque, and the Fantastic in Six Feet Under.” Lavery’s essay looked at how one of the most interesting aspects of Six Feet Under was its use of magic realism, a genre popularized by Latin American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez in the mid-20th century. A narrative device popular in the literary genre of the same name, magic realism had rarely been seen on TV. Lavery sadly died earlier this year, but he lived to see how prescient his essay was, as the same devices he identified in 2005 are now everywhere in 2016.
The early days of television were often an idealized version of middle-class life, an aspirational counterpart to the American Dream. The art form has gotten darker as it has matured though, and since the turn of the millennium, TV has been more concerned with depicting the failings of our society in the here-and-now than providing a pleasant vision of the future.
In the 2000s, television was filled with symbolism that reflected middle-class uncertainty. Show after show depicted people whose lives appeared secure and full of certainty suddenly falling through a trapdoor into some sort of bizarre and threatening underworld. Walter White, Nancy Botwin, and even Tony Soprano were all characters whose comfortable, normal lives are snatched away in an instant—and in a way that could just as easily happen to you, the viewer.
Magic realism takes a world that’s familiar to viewers and then twists a part of that world into a new shape. It’s been said that looking at a TV is like looking at a mirror; what we see on TV reflects what is happening outside our living rooms in the world at large. But in 2016, that mirror is now straight out of a funhouse. The underworlds of the 2000s were naturalistic, albeit frightening versions of everyday reality that we wouldn’t want to wind up stuck in, but the places that characters have been ending up in of late are … well, strange.
The most prominent example of late has been Stranger Things, the winner of the “That Show Everyone’s Talking About” mantle for 2016. The “upside down”—a parallel universe into which the unfortunate Will Byers is kidnapped at the start of the show’s narrative—is a terrifying inverse reflection of our own world. The environment of Stranger Things is our own, but with a sinister, largely unseen twin locked up in the basement (or, as the above image of Eleven shows, a laboratory). The allegorical implications make perfect sense in 2016: the world we’re living in is built on shaky foundations, and when the crazy starts bleeding through into our day-to-day lives, the results are no one’s idea of a good time. Stranger Things’ “upside down” stands in for all the horrible oddity that exists in the world—the explanation for the suffering and injustice surrounding us in real life.
Like any other narrative form, TV has long embraced the supernatural. But its presence has largely been limited to what we might call “genre” TV: horror-based shows such as The Walking Dead, fantasy worlds like Game of Thrones, and all sorts of other unrealites. Now, the supernatural and surreal are seeping into the world of “normal” TV, wherein the lead characters and their backstories are as seemingly average as you or I. As with the literary genre, magic realist TV isn’t fantasy as such—instead, it presents a naturalistic world where fantastical things happen, often for allegorical or narrative purposes.
There are many more examples of this in current popular TV. The Leftovers presents a post-apocalyptic narrative, but with a twist. Instead of a large amount of the world’s population having disappeared in a nuclear holocaust, they’ve just vanished for no reason at all. The new HBO series Westworld features robots, but the result—an amusement park populated by lifelike androids that allows visitors to live out any and every fantasy—is a world that seems to be entirely magical. Then you have Cleverman, a cult Australian TV series that fuses the traditional “dreamtime” stories of Australia’s indigenous peoples with an ostracized community of hyper-strong, hyper-hairy humans.
All these examples of televisual magic carry sinister undertones. The trend uniting these series are that the magic aspects of their universes exist to allegorically illustrate the less savory aspects of the reality outside of our lounge rooms. The Leftovers looks at how humans deal with events that appear inexplicable and senseless. Westworld interrogates our desire for pleasure and the way that desire tends to obfuscate its own consequences. Cleverman confronts how we view and treat minorities as unwholesomely “other.” And so on.
By taking a world that’s familiar to viewers and then twisting a part of that world into a new shape, scriptwriters are able to emphasize an aspect of society that would be impossible when bound by the restrictions of an entirely “realistic” world. After all, when you look into a funhouse mirror, it’s the distorted aspects of the reflection that grab your attention—and it’s those that stick in your memory long after you look away.