Oh well, I’m the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are, well, you know that I’m around
I kiss ’em and I love ’em ’cause to me they’re all the same
I hug ’em and I squeeze ’em, they don’t even know my name
They call me the wanderer
Yeah, the wanderer
I roam around, around, around, around
– Dion, “The Wanderer” (written by Ernie Maresca)
Like much of the music that formed my childhood songscape—including Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” or Dion’s other hit, “Runaround Sue”—I never stopped to consider the implications of “The Wanderer” after I was old enough to understand them. When I was a kid, it was simply a song about a guy who liked to, well, roam around. A flâneur, if you will, much more serene than his cousin Runaround Sue, who I imagined sprinting from house to house, dragging various men in tow. It wasn’t until it became an ominous refrain in Season 3 of SyFy’s Lost Girl that I understood just how creepy these lyrics are. And I don’t mean “demons are going to kill me in my sleep” creepy. I’m talking about the double standard implicit in its boastful tone as compared to Dion’s warning to “keep away from Runaround Sue,” who isn’t doing a thing that the Wanderer doesn’t crow about.
It’s appropriate that I received this revelation from Lost Girl, a character-driven, supernaturally tinged police procedural, imported from Canada’s Showcase station, that concerns itself overtly with sexual politics. In its first episode, Bo, a fugitive bartender, finds out that she is a succubus and is initiated into the hidden world of the Fae, not-so-mythical beings that feed on humans while living among them. It’s a hodgepodge of world folklore, heavily skewed toward Norse and Celtic influences but not beyond featuring sirens (Greece), kitsune (Japan) and nāgá (India). As a succubus (Judeo-Christian), Bo feeds on the chi (East Asia), or life energy, of regular humans during sexual intercourse. Not that she ever knew this, hence the fugitive thing—when making out with her first boyfriend, she accidentally drained him dry, skipping town when she awoke from a blackout to find herself in a steamy parked car with a corpse. Her devout parents, who had warned her of the price of sin, only confused the issue further, and she has been living in fear and shame ever since.
I think that you can see where this is going. As a succubus, Bo has a naturally healthy sexual appetite that has been repressed by her confused and uneducated upbringing. When she learns her true nature, and that she can “feed” on other Fae without killing them, she becomes a liberated woman…in more ways than one. As part of her initiation into the Fae, Bo is asked to choose an alignment with either the Light or the Dark, a millennia-old Fae schism that is as Manichean as it sounds (technically, the only difference is that Dark Fae kill the humans they feed on and Light Fae let them live, but the writers have consistently failed to produce a Dark Fae who isn’t also an evil asshat, whereas the Light are, for the most part, cops and camp counselors). Bo, for reasons that are insufficiently justified, refuses to pick a side. Her unaligned status becomes the anchor of the show’s narrative and thematic arc—the credit reel introducing each episode concludes with the statement “I will live the life I choose.”
The problem with this sex-positive message is that Lost Girl‘s writers and producers are, like their lead character, attempting to have it both ways. Bo’s body and sexuality (though not her sexual orientation, as elucidated below), are exploited in every way possible during the series run. As might be expected from the premise, she gets naked regularly, with a rotating band of regulars and extras. When she isn’t tearing off her leather jacket, she’s seducing men and women with a touch in order to bend them to her will. Her insatiable sexual appetite, her ability to seduce anybody and anything she meets, and the fact that her “love carries a death sentence”—another quote from the intro reel—are laid on way too thickly to overlook her plunging necklines and tight-fitting pants. At those times, she’s just another high-kicking, leather-wearing, oversexualized female badass.
When the show manages to pull itself out of the gutter, though, it makes some impressive strides in the depiction of female sex and sexual desire on television. As portrayed by Anna Silk, Bo’s blatantly bisexual (pansexual, even) nature is refreshing in a genre largely dominated by heternormative love stories, but even more impressive is that it doesn’t define her. Though she pursues a love interest with both male and female leads, sometimes simultaneously, with plenty of action on the side, her sexual preferences never become a central “problem” of the narrative. The same can be said of Lauren (Zoie Palmer), Bo’s primary female love interest and a human doctor in the employ of the Fae. As with Bo, her sexual preference is handled tactfully—it’s not swept under the rug, but it never becomes an “issue” in the show. Her character could easily have been played by a man and the dialogue, aside from a few pronouns, would have needed no alteration—she’s just a person in love with another person. Batting for the other team is Dyson (Kris Holden-Ried), a Fae werewolf (Germanic) cop who is contractually obligated to go shirtless at least once per episode.
Of course, the lack of friction resulting from Bo’s sexual preferences could also be read as naïve, just like the central premise—we are lead to believe that a Fae refusing to align with either side is an extraordinarily rare and dangerous choice, yet Bo seldom experiences any backlash and, in fact, is able to mingle freely with both the Light and the Dark, a privilege not shared by her aligned colleagues (who remain her colleagues in spite of her unaligned status). However, in the context of what the show is—essentially a goofy monster-of-the-week format—I think it was wise to underplay the drama in this department.
From its first minutes, it’s obvious that Lost Girl desperately and unabashedly wants to be Buffy, another television show that broke ground in its depiction of same-sex relationships. Buffy was masterful at weaving pulpy monster stories floating on a sea of subtext, and while Lost Girl doesn’t reach the heights of the sub-genre’s instigator, series creators Michelle Lovretta and Jay Firestone manage to take the heroine-led, tongue-in-cheek monster-of-the-week format to some interesting new places. Highlights include a kappa (Japan) living under Kappa House; an exclusive country club whose members ingest the good fortune and lifeforce of illegal immigrants in the form of organic, locally sourced hors d’ouevres; a tetchy brownie (Celtic) who demands nothing in return for his housekeeping services, excepting an endless supply of Honey Berry Crunch; an all-female prison policed by Amazons (Greece); and Season 3’s late-season story arc involving “The Wanderer,” an enigmatic figure whose appearance is heralded by the Dion rock’n’roll hit.
Which brings us back to the opening. As far as we know at the end of Season 3 (there’s a fourth season and fifth season, but they haven’t made it to Netflix yet) the Wanderer is none other than Bo’s daddy—her real daddy, not her adopted family. This is the man who held her mother prisoner, tortured and raped her repeatedly for years during the great Fae wars of the past. A far cry from the carefree tone of the song, but a parallel that foregrounds the ludicrously dated machismo of Dion’s subject.
Like its protagonist, Lost Girl is a deceptively seductive show. After the first episode, I didn’t expect to get into it—my wife and I started watching it mainly for something to do. It was enjoyable enough, with spotty writing that was sometimes clever and sometimes clumsy (particularly when it comes to establishing major story arcs). However, I found myself growing strangely attached to the series. Sexual politics aside, it’s at its best when it’s transplanting mythology, very much rooted in a historical time and place, into the modern metropolitan milieu. One of the most striking images of the show is that of the Norn (Norse), a goddess of fate situated at the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree, depicted here as a handsomely aged woman in a thoroughly average living room, except for the large ash tree growing through the middle of it.
At its best, the show spins these myths into Buffy-esque allegory, such as its depiction of Selkies (Celtic), seal-women who can become trapped in human form if a man steals and hides their pelt, as strippers forced into indentured servitude. The acting never rises above mediocrity, but you grow to love both the characters and the cast themselves, who exude a sense of playfulness on set. Palmer gives the strongest and most subtle performance, and Holden-Ried excels in later seasons, when he is allowed to unleash his inner ham. Trick (Richard Howland), a gnomish barkeep who wields more power than his small stature (both physically and politically) would imply, is another standout regular, but the best of them is Kenzi (Ksenia Solo), woman of many wigs, Bo’s human roomie and live-in “bestie.” Though their sudden friendship, like other aspects of the show’s central arc, is inadequately justified in the pilot, once established, it quickly becomes the core of the show. Take out all the monster-of-the-week mystery-solving, Fae politics and tongue-in-cheek ass-kicking, and this is a show about a platonic female-female relationship, portrayed both realistically and endearingly. Even moreso than Bo’s bisexuality, this is unusual for the supernatural crime serial format, rivaling even Supernatural‘s unrelenting bro-ness for small, character-defining moments.
Though its refusal to pick a side between iconoclasm and cliché sometimes holds the writing back, the sense of fun coming from the cast and crew, particularly in later seasons, is irresistibly charming. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but Lost Girl shows that there’s still some power in the old ways.