There’s something delightfully charming about the Nickolodeon UK show, House of Anubis. I should know: I’ve just ingested over 90 episodes worth in a couple of weeks — most of it in this last week.
It’s part mysteries of the unknown, part supernatural thriller, part high-school drama, part conspiracy study.
Imagine this premise: a boarding school in the UK, in which the students are slowly drawn into a collection of mysteries involving aspects of ancient Egyptian mythology. It’s part mysteries of the unknown, part supernatural thriller, part high-school drama, part conspiracy study.
It includes a very interesting mechanic* (sorry, been thinking more about GMing tabletop RPGs lately, so story ideas tend to be expressed as game mechanics): opponents in the conspiracy must stay in the same space and pretend to each other that they don’t know what’s going on. That brilliant basis provides a very incredible pressure for dramatic tension.
Normally, in other shows, such tension is embodied in the viewer and one side of the conspiracy, where we are aware that the opposition is coming close to discovering the secrets, but both sides aren’t aware of each other.
In this case, everything is out on the table, or rather underneath the table: both sides of the conspiracy are aware of many of the things that the other is up to, but does not either have enough proof to condemn them, enough power to outright unseat them, or enough detail to really know how to defeat them.
(Also, at one point, I think I could count 4 different conspiracies going on, some of grand level, some of personal..)
And furthermore, there is a group of innocents who are getting along with their own dramatic lives, dealing with more “mundane” problems as producing good schoolwork, keeping an exhibition of artifacts afloat, and falling in and out of love.
It is a potent mixture, and for the most part, kept simmering very well. There are the occasional points when the pot starts to run dry, so they add new ingredients. There are points when the flames are getting low, and they immediately heat it up with another twist. There are points in which the pressure has built sufficiently, and the whole thing boils over spectacularly.
Most of this lies in the great performances from the cast. Some of it is pantomime, over-expressing emotions but in a way that can make sense within the context of teenage lives. There are some incredibly nuanced scenes here, where there are not only a visible layer of the drama (school play), but but layers beyond that: teenage romance gone bad to revenge plot, ancient evil slowly growing in insidious power, friends growing in distrust of each other.. All of these things portrayed simultaneously, with each character now having a complex collection of awarenesses and reactions.
It’s not a perfect series, but even some of it’s imperfections serve it well, and end up not only referenced within the series but providing a turning point for the drama. It has the spirit of a soap opera in that way, not in the negative sense but in the feeling that it was swiftly produced and any gaffes are taken as fodder for later productions. There’s a throwback in energy there that feels reminiscent of live theatre productions, where there may not be opportunity to straighten out errors at the time, but later corrections can straighten an errant course.
Given that the series consists of three seasons, but the last two seasons are 47 and 40 episodes each, it strikes me that it must have been produced in that manner, a fact I do not hold against them whatsoever.
And then there is the cliff-hangers.. Oh my, but that part is somewhat difficult to deal with at times. It was obviously produced originally for broadcast television, with the unfortunate interruptions of commercial breaks producing long-hold reaction shots that replay after the interruption, only to often swerve out of the oncoming situation safely. Those minor thrill-repeats within an episode are thankfully not too disruptive, and the dramatic height they repeatedly scale at the end of an episode is thankfully remedied quickly by having the next episode immediately available for digital streaming.
(There is an aside here about the effect of having an entire season or even series readily available at your fingertips, and the effect it has of providing an incredibly addicting adrenaline rush like a continuous candy infusion, but I’ll not stray too far from the point of reflection on this particular show just now.)
But, in my breathless post-marathon haste, have I forgotten to tell you about the show? My short description above hardly does it justice, but to speak too long on the matter is to introduce what might seem like spoilers. I’ll attempt a middle ground..
The centre of the show, initially, is the sudden leaving of a well-liked student who is staying in Anubis House of a British boarding school. Simultaneously, the appearance of a brand-new student, an American girl, raises suspicions. The new girl is immediately placed in the former student’s room, and everyone seems to be incredibly unaccepting. The first episode (or few — the exact start and end of an episode blend together when you seem them so close together on a streaming service like Netflix) are actually quite hard to take, before the story starts to take hold and weird things begin to happen.
The entirety of the boarding school, it is revealed, is the former estate of Robert Frobisher-Smythe, a noted Egyptologist. Anubis House was, in fact, his house, and he left considerable mysteries behind. The unraveling of those mysteries — and the lives of the students staying there, as well as the overbearing custodian Victor — drives forward the story.
It helps that the characters quickly become familiar. They are initially stereotypes: the brainy girl, the nerd, the class clown, the airhead, the schemer, the outsider and the American. Some of these characters wear these themes through the entire run, but there are subtleties introduced into the characters that surprised me: the schemer has family issues; the rude outsider is shy, the class clown is scared of small spaces (and just about everything), and so forth.
Note that in describing the characters, I list mostly mundane traits; the contrast between the outrageous supernatural problems they are facing and the reality of teenage life is another way the show keeps being interesting, as consequences flow back and forth between those halves of the show.
There are some limitations to the harshness of the setting which I like as well. There are certainly a few life-threatening scenarios that happen, and there is loss of life, but it isn’t meant to be a gory, depressing story. There is also an innocent microcosm to the world that I appreciate: it isn’t an issue show, meant to sell hard lessons on the dreary, dangerous reality of life. Relations between students are kept to the blushingly simple holding hands, and a kiss is still a tremendous event.
This is Teen Wolf crossed with Indiana Jones crossed with the non-wizardy aspects of Harry Potter. A childhood fantasy of discovering that mythology is real and kissing your favourite boy or girl is a sweet deal.
Our lead character for most of the series is an American. (It actually changes American character as the series goes on, a strange conceit to keeping some aspects of the show canon as cast moved in and out.) That serves as a way to view some British things from the outside, as well as play with the fish-out-of-water feeling. Being a North American myself, the character is recognizeable, and I wonder if that was intended to allow the show to capture North American viewership as well as UK audience.
There’s a resetting element of the setting which I appreciate as well. The X-Files had this: after the end of a self-contained encounter, agents Mulder and Scully returned to the office, despite the fact that their boss might be spying on them. I mentioned it earlier, the effect of having all sides of the conspiracy constantly interacting with each other, a cloistered world in which multiple groups are all vying for control, but cannot expose themselves either to each other or to the mundanes surrounding them.
That is not to say that the plotline itself ever resets. Quite the contrary! Each season is all part of one big, progressing arc, but they keep coming back to the appearance of the basic premise: students in a boarding school. This premise itself is a plotline in the show, as the students (and others) have to make continual excuses for being out of class due to investigation or kidnapping.
The series, in that way, is a ship in a bottle, with the outside world nothing but a hazy, mutated and largely ignorable blur. Inside the bottle, the ship is the whole world, tossed about as much by it’s own passengers’ competition as well as supernatural forces.
It would be like the entirety of Firefly being on-board the ship, but Jayne was smuggling something that Mal shouldn’t know about, Mal was searching the deep dark for long-lost heirlooms (of mystic power, to defend against a great alien evil), and Zoe needed to keep Wash in the dark to keep Book’s secret from Simon.
It would be like the entirety of Star Trek TNG being about how Geordi discovered that Worf is selling secrets to the Klingon army, Picard cracking down on mutiny in the crew (which is being secretly led by Riker), and Dr Crusher and Data having a sordid, semi-private affair that leads to Data becoming hyper-intelligent (due also from questionable experiments conducted by Geordi).
Come to think about it, the intensity of the internal drama in House of Anubis really makes some shows sound a bit mundane, at least in their character-driven plotlines..
There are a lot of examples of this kind of show, where characters are the engine for plotlines, but they rarely mix in an additional, over-arching, external time-driven plotline. Again, I return to X-Files as an example which grew that way from occasional meta-plot episodes to full-blown meta-plot focus, but it took 9 seasons to brew its plot of tea, and even then it was a bit watered down.
I’m reminded a bit of Babylon 5, but that show sacrificed individuals for the greater swirling mass of galactic politics and god-like warring factions. For the most part, the House of Anubis plotlines are kept personal, although both the second and third seasons are apocalyptic on a scale grander than expected, with consequences of failure heightened with and between each season tremendously.
I fear that I will oversell the series in my enthusiasm for it, and undoubtedly there are many series out there which I’m utterly unaware of which excel in greater ways at most of the things I’ve outlined. I still think, however, that this show has successfully combined elements skillfully to satisfy many of my own desires for entertainment, from the innocent problems of youth, to the dream fantasy of boarding house living, to the search for meaning and mystery in life through stories like mythology.
And did I mention that the series is actually really, really funny as well?
The show aired from 2011-2013 in the UK and the US. The three complete seasons showed up on Canadian Netflix a little while ago, but my American friends say that they they haven’t seen it there. I’ve watched all of those original seasons, what Netflix called approximately 107 half-hour episodes (but which are listed elsewhere as twice that many 15-minute episodes). Sadly, one of the central original characters did not return for the third season, but largely the cast remains intact.. There is a “special episode” for me to see, some sort of 90-minute movie-length episode, but I see no sign of it yet on Netflix.
There exists a change.org petition to entreat the creators of the show to re-unite for a movie or more episodes. I’m not sure if they would be able to listen to that, but I have hope. Still, a couple of years away would undoubtedly impact the young actors involved, and recapturing the spirit (and recalculating a new mystery to pursue) might be problematic.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder if the old House has a few more secrets to divulge, or if something similar couldn’t be staged in another basis, like a college or even a town..