Fate: The Winx Saga-Season One-Review
Sometimes it's hard to shake the feeling that Riverdale has a lot to answer for. Greg Berlanti and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's modernisation of the colourfully comedic Archie Comics into a darker 'David Lynch directs Dawson's Creek' approach worked wonders for its first season. But it quickly ran out of steam from season two onwards and became a weird parody of itself that didn't seem to get the joke anymore.
The knock-on effect of its massive commercial success (and let's be clear, it has remained a massive hit in the US for The CW and a big draw for international audiences via Netflix) has seen producers looking to other YA and kid-friendly properties and trying to find a way to turn them into darker fare. Sacasa took Archie Comics other big property Sabrina: The Teenage Witch and reimagined her in the more creepy, satanic flavoured Chilling Adventures of Sabrina that has for the most parts worked wonders (and unlike Riverdale, came to a conclusion while they were ahead of themselves).
It's a similar approach that seems to have formed the intent behind Netflix's newest YA fantasy Winx: The Fate Saga. An adaptation of Iginio Straffi's animated Nickelodeon animated series that had a style bordering on Anime, you get the feeling that everyone involved saw Sabrina, with its famous history of being both a Melissa Joan Hart sitcom and animated series, and decided a darker, swearier, and considerably violent soap opera is the approach to take to a live-action version.
Things begin promisingly. There is a genuinely unsettling opening scene complete with creepy forest, a dread sense of atmosphere, dead sheep and a violent, splattery murder. Anyone coming to this with images of the cute and colourful animation are definitely in for a shock, but these things when done well work wonders. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of everyone involved here, and there is some considerable talent both in front of and behind the camera, Fate: The Winx Saga never gels as successfully as you want it to. It has the dark creepy forests, the atmosphere, the world-building, everything that you might think should come together that ensures something wonderful, but it never quite works.
Showrunner Brian Young had previously worked on The CW's The Vampire Diaries, while co-executive producer Speed Weed had contributed to the same network's gritter interpretation of Green Arrow with Arrow. So on top of writers that have prior experience working on genre material such as this, they are also writers who have experience in taking material and filtering it through a grittier, adult style.
Except here, it falters frequently. At times it feels like someone has taken a genuine Nickelodeon mid-teen drama and threw in some buckets of gore and the occasional swear word in a way that isn't subtle or natural. The cast, including series lead Abigail Cowen, try their best to sell it all, but in truth, the writing just isn't up to par. Worse yet, it's hard to see how any of it might appeal to fans of the series that were charmed over by the colourful style of the animation and subsequently being given whatever it is that the live-action version is determining what grit is.
There is no denying that it has a great visual look. Filmed in the Irish county of Wicklow, the lush green fields and foreboding trees do lend considerable atmosphere to proceedings. But it's in service to world-building and plotting that is being knocked together, because it's being produced by a streaming service that thinks kids and young adults will watch anything as long as it has the name of their favourite property on it.
On top of the performances, there is considerable work done from directors Lisa James Larsson and Hannah Quinn who bring a stylish charge to it all, and are clearly trying to elevate the writing above what it is. The jittery handheld camera work, speeded up frames and sense of movement and violence in the set-pieces, are amongst the most memorable parts of the series. But once the characters stop to take about the plot or their lives it becomes something of a drag. Given that this is a series driven for the most part by female lead characters, it's disappointing that it isn't better, or that its clearly talented actresses aren't being given better material.
Unfortunately, it all falls apart when the majority of the storytelling is being given over to sub-par and predictable plotting, expositional dialogue that never feels natural and an adult approach to the stories and character interactions that on the one hand feels like a turgid soap opera, but also like a fourteen-year-old has written a television series and with it their idea of what adult and gritty entails. It desperately wants to be the next Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or Riverdale, but when all it does is remind you of the weaker seasons of the latter and is never even as memorable as Archie and friends at their absolute worst, then you know something has gone terribly wrong.