By Jeff Jensen
October 16, 2013 at 12:00 PM EDT
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

American Horror Story, a decidedly postmodern storytelling franchise, is a more overtly pop-aware show than The Tomorrow People. It specializes in making creepy burlesque out of the cultural narratives that both entertain us, define us, and even degrade us. For its third season, set in present-day New Orleans, AHS has made a thick brew of geek gumbo out of witches, the occult, race, sex, religion, misogyny, tribalism, cult pop communities, Harry Potter, Goth pop, and 666 other things — including the folly of looking to pop culture for meanings that are unintended or just not there. (See: the fanciful example of Steve Nicks-wannabe Misty Day, played by Lily Rabe.) And yet, there’s ironic method to American Horror Story‘s brand of mad irreverence: It loves to be outrageous, for the purpose of expressing outrage over any number of things that are wrong with our country.

Coven introduced itself last week as an impish riff on the boarding-school-for-persecuted-powerful-people subgenre. But Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Extraordinary Young Ladies — a school for witches, descended from the survivors of the Salem gynocide of Puritan times — is not some parallel-dimension Hogwarts, safely hidden from the ignorant and hateful. It is located firmly in our world, in the gothic heart of New Orleans. It is a bubble world of feminism in a perversely patriarchal culture — but it has been weakening in recent years, and as we find it at the start of Coven, it feels ready to pop.

On the steps of Miss Robichaux’s, you will find a maxim: “From education, as the leading cause/The public character its color draws.” This sentiment is matched by the interior, as white and empty as blank canvas. Its only personality comes from its faculty and students. The current headmistress is Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), a principled, disciplined white witch who practices earthy magic. Her mother, Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), is a darker creature. She is a Supreme, a once-in-a-generation witch who possesses multiple powers. Fiona is obsessed with cheating death; she seeks a cure for aging. She’s also a bit more open and aggressive to using magic for self-interest and self-defense compared to her goody-goody daughter, although as she will explain in tonight’s episode, discretion remains the better part of will-to-power. By the end of the premiere, Fiona had moved into Miss Robichaux’s and taken a strong interest in impressing her views upon the children. Cordelia and Fiona are echoes of other adult archetypes in this genre — shades of Professor X and an all-grown-up Hermione Granger in the former, bits of Magneto and Emma Frost in the latter.

Miss Robichaux’s isn’t the place that it used to be. The witch population is dwindling. They keep their existence a secret and remain a persecuted class, subject to fiery lynches. Many witches live disconnected from their heritage (if they’re aware of it at all), or explain their magical identity with other narratives, like religion. And so the school only has four students at the moment. Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) is a teen movie star and telekinetic, hot and haughty. She thinks being “Special” is her birthright. On the other hand, there is Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), African-American, a foster system product, and a human voodoo doll. When she inflicts harm upon herself, she doesn’t feel the pain or suffer the effect — you do. She can’t get R-E-S-P-E-C-T even if she was the manager of a fast food restaurant — which she was. All she knows about witchcraft is what she saw on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Charmed, stories of sorcerers blessed with a support system of sisterhood and so much White Privilege. Nan (Jamie Brewer) seems to be a simpleton, but is anything but; she’s a clairvoyant. Her story is TBD.

And then there’s the newcomer, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who — like Stephen in The Tomorrow People — is a Harry Potter type, a kid coming into power and just now learning about heretofore hidden heritage. She has a tragic power: If you have sex with her, you die.* So many ways to decode that, all of them flick at narratives that turn women into agents for The Fall of Man. She’s a literal femme fatale. She’s the “sex = deathhorror trope. She’s the Original Sin claptrap.

*I have three theories about Zoe’s power: 1. Her ability is tainted by cultural influence. If she thinks, consciously or not, of sex in illicit terms, then her sexuality is thusly demonized. Ergo, her “power” will change when she changes the way she thinks about her sexuality. 2. Zoe’s destiny is to destroy the curse of Original Sin through an act of sex magic, most likely performed in concert with Goth Pop’s favorite male archetype, The Undead Boyfriend, which Coven has cleverly reconceived as a riff on Frankenstein — an attempt by womankind to build a perfect man. (This theory, inspired by Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.) 3. The witches labor under a fundamental, superstitious misunderstanding of their biological identity. Zoe’s weaponized sexuality is a genetic response — a defense mechanism adaptation — to an environment that is hostile to women, that alternately exploits female sexuality and fears female empowerment. Basically, Coven could be telling us a tale about a religious culture transforming — revolting — toward a scientific one.

Coven‘s metaphors and satire are actually pretty broad. Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), based on a despicable historical personage, represents toxic racial Hate that won’t go away. A slave-turned-monster known as The Minotaur represents the historical Wrong that has never been righted and a country trapped in a maze with a demon of its own making. In the second episode, long-lived voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), based on another historical figure, explains that American witchcraft owes everything to White America’s history of racial injustice. She tells the tale in her beauty salon, which inspires Fiona to crack a mean joke about the measure of progress since the end of slavery.

And so Coven gives us a diverse, fragmented, highly allegorical minority group trapped in a retrograde and rigged-game culture that threatens their flourishing, if not their very existence. What’s a proud witch to do? Well… nothing. Like the homo superior underground in The Tomorrow People, the women of Coven are supposed to suffer silently, nobly and smugly. Yes, self-defense is permitted. But be discrete as possible. Don’t use your magical powers to reshape our reality, even for the better; that would take away our free will, which is so much more important than, say, the good that would come from magically ending hunger, or telepathically rehabilitating each and every racist, sexist, homophobic mind on the planet. No confrontation, no violence, and, of course, no killing. Murder is the big no-no in this genre. You murder, you’re no better than a genocidal megalomaniac. Most stories in this genre take the measure of a hero’s character and equate true “empowerment” with their ability to resist the urge to take a life in pursuit of justice. This is a positive message, for sure. Hey kids! Don’t kill anyone… unless they’re a zombie, because they’re, like, already dead. Yet this kind of heroism offers meager catharsis on the level of social-justice allegory that these stories possess. Integrity and virtue are great! But it doesn’t stop haters from hating. And bullying. And exploiting. And worse. You’ll notice something else about the heroes setting this example: Mostly white guys. Self-control, restraint, discipline, sacrifice, etc. are important values to internalize when you’re in the power elite and society is rigged in your favor. For everyone else, things are more complicated. It shouldn’t be, of course.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?

The premiere of American Horror Story: Coven played out this Thou-shalt-not-kill “empowerment” arc with Zoe, and came to a slightly different conclusion than many other stories in this genre, including The Tomorrow People. The plot had her and Madison attending a house party and running afoul with a proverbial terror cell of predatory misogyny, a pack of frat boys who went to a party with one thing on their minds and armed with enough date-rape drugs to get it. And Madison suffered their evil. Madison retaliated by going Carrie on their asses and using telekinesis to crash their party bus. All died, but one. Zoe went to the hospital, hoping to discover that the survivor was the one good boy in the bunch, the kid who took an instant shine to her but understood that “No” means what it means and was content to just talk to her and get to know her. Nope. It was the rape-gang ringleader who survived. Outraged by the unfairness of Fate, and certain that this beastly boy would get back to disrespecting women once he had recovered, Zoe took justice into her own hands — among other body parts — and screwed him to death.

Charming. What would Stevie Nicks do? Probably not this. But can you blame Zoe for her Bitchcraft? After all, she belongs to a metaphorical minority who have played nice (and by the genre rules) for too long and yet still suffer a society that tells them that everything they are and want is wrong. Will Zoe be forced to pay some kind of price for her Dirty Harry Potter approach to producing culture change? Maybe. Maybe not. But like The Tomorrow People, Coven suggests that to get the change we all want, it’s time to be and do something Different — even if it’s Dangerous.

This essay was edited and updated on October 23 to include non-spoilery info about upcoming episodes of The Tomorrow People and correct some details about aspects of its creative world.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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