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The counter-culture heroes of 'Tomorrow People,' 'American Horror Story'

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Tomorrow People
Michele K. Short/FX; Cate Cameron/The CW

In 1963, with the civil rights movement on the march, a wealthy idealist began chasing a dream to redeem an unjust society. His plan was X-tremely unconventional: A private school for teenagers, who belonged to a persecuted minority, one whose members possessed an extraordinary genetic mutation that could be experienced as a liability or affliction, but was actually a source of strength. His academy would be a refuge from hate and a finishing school for heroic character. It would also have a rather radical extracurricular program: A secret boot camp for training a fighting force with a two-pronged mission: Protecting the world from others of their kind who had broken bad, and proving through good deeds that those who feared them had nothing to fear at all. Downsides? The uniforms made you look like a honey bee, and the gymnasium was certifiably dangerous.

Today, Professor Charles Xavier’s metaphorically loaded ambition of Mutant equality remains unfulfilled. And yet The X-Men still fight the good fight, and in many mediums: Comic books, movies, television, videogames, and toys. The success of the franchise — which turned 50 last month — has helped to cultivate a popular form of allegorical fantasy, the supernatural minority as demonized Other, and a subgenre, the secret school for supernatural misfits. It would be nice to think that “X-liberalism” (to borrow a phrase from Grant Morrison’s run on the comic a decade ago) has positively affected the worldviews, attitudes, and empathic faculties of many generations of fans. Think: A superhero To Kill a Mockingbird In Spandex. You never really understand a person until you consider things from the point of view of his optic eye-blast visor. Most likely, though, they read it as an absorbing sci-fi soap opera. Nothing wrong with that. Some people have Luke and Laura. Comic book ‘shippers have Scott and Jean. So it goes that a comic book inspired by the activist counter-culture ’60s is now a perennial billion-dollar brand on Planet Comic-Con.

The new television season includes two interesting additions to this category of allegorical supernatural fantasy, both airing Wednesday nights: The CW’s The Tomorrow People and FX’s American Horror Story: Coven. Like The X-Men, they offer freaky-geeky escapism with some heady ideas blended into the stew, if not bobbing conspicuously in the brew. One of them reformulates the metaphors of the genre to create a romance about activism. To tweak the moral of every Marvel-ous superhero story: With great power comes great social responsibility. The other shares the genre’s concern for social justice, yet is also full of wicked irreverence. It considers the deep wisdom of Professor Dumbledore — “You have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy” — and responds with a long, unnerving witchy cackle.

The Tomorrow People — the latest incarnation of a British series from the ’70s (a Nickelodeon reboot aired in the ’90s) — takes a huge dollop of X-Men, dices in some Heroes, and seasons with The CW’s signature YA secret sauce to create a very familiar but satisfying piece of genre entertainment. The point of departure comes on the allegorical level. The CW’s ads have featured heroic shots of the show’s superhuman protagonists and the tagline “Different Is Dangerous.” The slogan subversively appropriates the perspective of most every “Mutie” hater in any X-Men-ish story. It’s a messaging that might have made old-school Professor X types somewhat nervous back in the day. No! Don’t say that! We’re NOT dangerous! We just want what everyone else wants! But in The Tomorrow People, “different” is not just code for adolescent angst or racial/gender/sexual Otherness — which, to be honest, has always been somewhat problematic. (Would a world suddenly popping with super-powered humans really inspire lynch-mob hatred? Wouldn’t such people actually capture our imagination? Wouldn’t we want to BE like them?) Here, “different” is a simple metaphor for counter-culture living, and more generally, an optimistic/activist worldview. It bucks the trend of so much dystopian/apocalyptic pop by being a story about saving society, not blowing it up, with a Outsider hero trying to change his world from the inside. Think: Cultural revolution, not Revolution.

Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell) is just your average, ordinary, heavily medicated young man who thinks there’s something wrong him. Whenever he goes to sleep, he wakes up somewhere else. Clearly, he must have issues. Right? Nope. The only thing wrong with Stephen is that he doesn’t know his own power. Literally.

In Stephen’s world, a small percentage of human beings are Tomorrow People, or  “homo superior.” They have one or all of the three “Ts” — telekinesis, telepathy, or teleportation. They also seem to be incapable of using their adaptations to kill — which may or may not be a “power” depending on your point of view. Stephen is manifesting the complete set of talents, plus one more — he can stop time. So he’s, like, super-duper homo superior. His unique standing within this unique community might have something to do with his father: Stephen grew up thinking Dad had abandoned him and his mom when he was young, but he was actually a very powerful Tomorrow Person who disappeared while searching for a safe place for those of his kind, which he called Haven.

By the end of the premiere episode, Stephen had flushed away the groggy-making pills and become heroically activated. In Dune language, he’s Paul Atreides become Muad’Dib: The sleeper has awakened! But now what? The pilot left him with two options: He could join an underground community of Tomorrow People, who hide from the world, who cynically believe that hateful homo sapiens deserve extinction, and who help others of their kind by teaching them how to use their powers or rescuing them from those who would hurt, kill, or exploit them for their differences. Or he could join his evil uncle, Jedikiah Price (Mark Pellegrino), who runs an organization Ultra that believes that Tomorrow People must be controlled, neutered, or just plain destroyed by any means necessary for the sake of maintaining a stable, comfortable society. Because society is so awesome, right? Price has convinced many Tomorrow People of his perspective, and so they work for him. Sellouts!

If The Tomorrow People was The X-Men, Stephen would go underground, i.e. the proverbial school for gifted youngsters. But instead — and this is where the show really begins to earn the word “interesting” — Stephen joins Ultra … as a double-agent. The hero as extraordinary cultural saboteur, not X-ceptional first responder. He wants to learn more about his heritage, and he wants to subvert the more inhuman, dehumanizing expressions of Ultra’s mission, whether its “curing” people of “difference” or warping them into human weapons. Stephen’s ideological sympathies are with the Tomorrow People underground, but he can’t connect with some of the values they represent. He doesn’t see himself as “superior” to the rest of humanity. He enjoys his newfound community but doesn’t want to retreat into a niche or subculture. And he doesn’t want to wait for Haven, which may or may not even exist. He wants to make the world better world for all, here and now.

The Tomorrow People, then, seems to be spurning a depiction of “counter-culture” that we get from other fantasies in which the alienated, ostracized Other finds or forges a secret, parallel society of kindred spirits that allows him escape from a cruel world and the opportunity for a meaningful life, albeit in a separate and unequal way. It also seems to be rejecting the idea propagated by the genre — surely unintended — that self-love is all you need to endure a culture that is toxic toward your kind or those who regard you as abominable. Indeed, the show had Stephen traverse the “I suck!” to “I’m great!” arc in its pilot, as if to get it out of the way, right away, so it can move to its chief interest: To reconnect with the old-school notion of “counter-culture” that is activist in nature, that doesn’t retreat from society, but lives within it while not conforming to it. It also takes aim at any institution that impedes progress and perpetuates retrograde attitudes that makes cynicism, tribalism or life in a very roomy closet appealing, including Pop Culture itself. Forthcoming episodes will dig even deeper into the characters, make the No Killing rule a primary plot point, and see the Tomorrow People underground become more proactive due to Stephen’s influence, and possibly more dangerous, too. What are the distinctions separating activist, revolutionary, and terrorist? The Tomorrow People seems interested in dramatizing the question.

NEXT: The radical irreverence (and irreverent radicalism) of American Horror Story: Coven