Sci-fi and occult dramas became so pervasive in the wake of Buffy's success they're not even a guilty pleasure anymore, just mainstream entertainment with a nerd slant. Whether you tune in to paranormal thrillers like Lucifer, Grimm, or Sleepy Hollow, or are doing your annual marathon of favorite DVD box sets like Buffy, Angel, or Charmed, you'll notice there are things every supernatural show does, points at which the narrative gets predictable. As loveable as the genre is, it's filled repetitive themes in need of a switch-up. Here you'll find a host of tropes that are way overused in sci-fi and fantasy. Dear show runners, like, seriously, as fans, not haters, can we stop using these tropes now?
Unlike deathfests such as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, supernatural dramas don't traffic in the veneration of cruelty. Fans of the likes of Heroes aren't subjected to a litany of favorite-character deaths or forced into situations in which heavy choices must be made, at least not until the end of the show's run. It’s a genre you can consider safe, the fans of which viewers get their jollies without being emotionally destroyed. That said, your patience might be shredded; the genre is plagued with tropes that just won't die.
Ah, but, counter argument: tropes are (perhaps a very large) part of why audiences love these shows. The comfort of the familiar, the epic journey of the hero, the satisfaction of seeing obstacles overcome and lessons learned. Don't forget to add your favorite trope in the comments below, if it didn't make its way on here.
It’s Always the End of the World
It’s common sense the fate of the world is at stake when battling the forces of ultimate evil. As it is in anime, so it is in supernatural drama: when the big bad menace is taken down, another one rears its head, threatening Earth, the universe, existence, whatever. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first to utilize this pattern flagrantly,while poking fun at itself in the episode “Doom.”
Since Buffy, countless supernatural dramas have followed suit. After defeating Yellow Eyes, The Winchester Bros of Supernatural face a new world threat each season, be they forces of Hell, Heaven, or Purgatory. Or even God’s sister. Sure, why not? Sleepy Hollow has unabashedly jumped into the fray, as The Witnesses faces enemies bent on bringing about the apocalypse with each new season. This trope has also bled into movies. Looking at you, Marvel.
The Goddamn Pentagram on the Map
Whether characters are finding the source of an unexplained phenomenon or locating a final boss, they inevitably turn to a large paper map. Pins are placed or dots drawn on significant locations. The dots are connected and, totally coincidentally (or maybe not), a pentagram appears, in the center of which a final showdown or something equally as epic occurs.
This trope can be seen in its prime when Dean Winchester (Supernatural) connects unused railway lines to locate Yellow Eyes’s final destination. Halliwell Manor in Charmed is centered in a pentagram drawn from connecting five elemental locations. Angel from Buffy spin-off series Angel, drew the Eye of Fire on a map of Los Angeles, which helped find The Beast. Different iconography, same practice.
Suggesting Main Characters Will Die or Exploring What Would Happen If They Did
Sooner or later, supernatural dramas turn to the trusted It's a Wonderful Life trope of investigating what might happen if one of the main characters, maybe even the main character, died. This character won't actually die, no matter how dramatic the show gets about it. But what if?
When Piper Halliwell of Charmed caught a killer bug from a crate of smuggled exotic fruit, there was no way that she would really die. When Buffy gave her life to destroy The Master at the end of Season 1, the series wasn't over. Whenever Supernatural's Dean and Sam were separated, one staying on Earth, the other ending up in Hell or Purgatory, there was no doubt they would be reunited.
The only exceptions are Shannen Doherty and Nicole Beharie of Charmed and Sleepy Hollow, respectively. The former was written out because she and co-star Alyssa Milano couldn't stand one another. The latter’s circumstances are shrouded in mystery.
Someone Goes to the Darkside
Going to the dark side is a fun (or perhaps played out) way to explore shades of familiar characters while taking a show in unexpected directions. Of course, it's such a trope. nothing about this ploy is unexpected. Supernatural dramas milk the idea so hard it can consume an entire season. Whether it's via possession, a curse, a traumatic incident, or a falling out with the gang, someone eventually goes full Vader.
Shall we count (just some of) the ways in which this went down?
- Buffy's Willow transformed into Dark Willow following the murder of her girlfriend, and her downward spiral was an obvious exploration of drug abuse as a means of coping with tragedy.
- Sleepy Hollow's Frank Irving came under possession by the Horseman of War after being tricked into a contract.
- Phoebe Halliwell from Charmed joined up with demons following her engagement to Cole Turner.
- The Winchesters from Supernatural are often at odds with, or wary of, one another, thanks to incidents such as Dean succumbing to the Mark of Cain and Sam being possessed by Lucifer.
- On Angel, everyone at Angel Investigations is on constant red alert whenever Angel shows signs of reverting back to Angelus.
Objects of Interest Are Always Conveniently Local
Be it an ancient artifact of foreign origin, a secret weapon, a set of car keys, or extinct ingredients key to concocting a powerful spell (that aren't actually extinct), objects necessary to a hero's task are always conveniently nearby. Whether they’re tucked away in a museum, pawned at an underground auction, buried in an occult shop, on Ebay, or coincidentally in the hero's hometown, which is located near an abandoned occult site, items of interest always seem to be right under the protagonist's nose.
Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer found the Scythe, an ancient weapon embodying the essence of the Slayer, laying around underneath Caleb’s stronghold. Although, to be fair, it makes sense something it would turn up around the Hellmouth. Because Joss Whedon did a very good job of setting up the Hellmouth as the perfect excuse for any future plot point that might need fudging.
In Supernatural, a number of great artifacts are scattered throughout the world. Thanks to Castiel and Crowley’s teleportation skills, they might as well be available at the local Target.
All Problems Are Solved Through Research
Be it a collection of ancient tomes, The Book of Shadows, the Grimm Journal, or just plain old Internet, whenever there’s a monster wreaking havoc, all the heroes have to do is gather around for a research session, find out how to kill the big bad, and, like a Megazord sheathing its sword, the day is won.
Supernatural has changed things up in this department with episodes involving ghost hunting. The brothers learn salt, iron weapons, and burning corpses don’t always cut it, and routinely research the personal history of a target’s previous life, which sometimes leads to the realization that they’re chasing the wrong ghost.
There's Always Some Hackneyed Prophecy
Prophecies are a writer’s safety net. Typically, the audience never gets the fully skinny on a prophecy, which is so vaguely worded it could mean anything (and therefore ultimately means nothing). The trope, which often includes mistranslation of ancient texts, is a great tool for writers, because it allows them to make things up as they go along. Foretelling a prophecy is a surefire strategy to squeeze out enough episodes to meet quota.
This was most memorably used in Angel, with regards to the Shanshu prophecy. The mistranslation of a single word kicked of several episodes of turmoil, during which Angel lost his son and fractured friendships, while the bad guys basked in the glow of sweet chaos. When things settled, the prophecy was relegated to a source of musings on whether Angel might become human again, which was never fully explored until the comics readdressed it after the show’s cancelation.
The Charmed Ones from Charmed lived within their prophecy, providing versatility for when things needed to change. Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills from Sleepy Hollow, meanwhile, have learned all about vague, ambiguous soothsaying from the prophecy of The Witnesses.
Aimless Interspecies Coupling
When you spend a lot of time messing around with intelligent, humanoid non-humans, you're bound to get freaky with one (or a few, or a boat load) of them. Interspecies romance or sexual deviancy was originally used for character development and, at times, to make statements on interracial dating.
The practice got ridiculous well before Twilight and Warm Bodies made it exceedingly awkward (if not endearing). It’s commonly used for shock and cheap laughs, but tends to lacking meaning. In Supernatural, Dean and The Darkness’s steamy magnetism was built for ages, then dropped at the end of Season 11. Hank Griffin, from Grimm, had a thing for a Wesen, only for it to be revisited later as a cheap plot device. Then there’s Cordelia Chase of Buffy fame, who was impregnated three times by demonic forces.