BBC America’s marketing people need to be seriously rapped on their knuckles for calling the TV series Hex England’s version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The only similarity between Hex and Buffy is the general theme of high school girls encountering the supernatural while dealing with maturity issues. The English series’ treatment of the theme, unfortunately, turns out to be far less quirky than the American original.
The story begins at Medenham Hall more than 200 years ago. Lady of the house Rachel McBain enjoys her version of an evening snack by visiting the slaves’ quarters. While enjoying the sexual favors of a handsome slave, the young woman witnesses an odd ceremony involving a blood sacrifice and a peculiar vase.
Flash forward to the present day. The 18th century manor house has now become a private co-educational school. The slave quarters are now the school’s storerooms.
Cassie Hughes (Christina Cole) is a shy but talented art student who longs to be part of the school’s attractive in-crowd, especially since one member of that crowd is crush-object soccer jock Troy. However, the only times the in-crowd notice her are when they feel like publicly humiliating someone. Cassie’s only relief from personal heartache is Thelma Bates (the wonderfully named Jemima Rooper), her roommate. This proudly out lesbian in turn has an unrequited crush on Cassie.
While on a secret storeroom smoke break, Cassie accidentally discovers the vase used in the ceremony witnessed by Rachel. During the girl’s examination of the vase, a drop of her blood ominously lands inside it. Cassie takes the vase back to her room.
Touching the vase awakens previously unknown abilities in Cassie. She has enigmatic visions of Rachel’s past and has momentary sights of a mysterious brooding stranger. A talent for telekinesis appears during moments of high emotional stress. Over time, Cassie gains control over her new abilities, and even becomes a provisional member of the in-crowd. These changes seriously fray her relationship with Thelma, who objects to Cassie using her talents to commit malicious pranks.
But Cassie’s biggest danger comes from the enigmatic being of her sightings, Azazeal (Michael Fassbender). He may look human, but he’s actually the leader of the Nephelim. This band of fallen angels was ejected from Heaven for obtaining the wrong sort of biblical knowledge about mortal women. Thelma attempts to intervene when the fallen angel threatens to sacrifice Cassie to further his plans. For her troubles, the young lesbian gets stabbed to death.
Death does not remove Thelma from Cassie’s life, as she re-appears at her funeral as a ghost audible and visible only to her former roommate. However, the two girls do not turn into a distaff version of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), despite the hovering menace of Azazeal and an occasional forced supernatural confrontation. Cassie’s energies seem more focused on winning Troy’s affections. Thelma winds up investigating the mysterious history of Rachel McBain and her family. During this investigation, the ghost discovers an unexpected link between Cassie and Rachel.
The above synopsis covers roughly the first half of the series. Yet despite having nearly three hours to play with, Hex’s first two episodes fail to fully entice this viewer to eagerly follow its story to the end. Its familiar "average girl discovers previously unsuspected abilities" plot follows the predictable checklist associated with such stories, such as "girl is initially frightened of new abilities but learns to accept them." Had sufficient visually atmospheric moments of dread been provided, Hex’s look could have provided the continual sense of menace noticeably missing from the script. That doesn’t happen. Medenham Hall and its surrounding lands do not look shadowed by hints of a terrible secret history. For the most part, the faded elegance of Hex’s setting remains emotionally static.
For a mystery supposedly steeped in the supernatural, Hex takes a generally cavalier attitude towards its genre roots. Odd occurrences are neither totally enigmatic nor logically explained. Instead, strange things happen because the script calls for their occurrence. Thelma’s ghost can enjoy junk food but she can’t entertain the possibility of enjoying the pleasures of Cassie’s flesh. Azazeal’s ability to cover up both his disappearance while in angel form and Thelma’s fatal stabbing feels born out of the need to tie up loose ends for that episode.
A mass of half-baked ideas best describes the treatment so far of the lesbian student’s encounters with the world of the living. For an alleged ghost, Thelma seems unable to pass through walls or other solid objects. If the plump lesbian shade wants junk food to snack on, she needs to drop some coins into a vending machine instead of pulling a spectral five-finger discount. She also seems able to carry on public conversations with her former roommate without other people noticing or even commenting. Could Thelma’s "ghost" actually be an unconscious creation of Cassie’s, born out of her guilt at breaking her roommate’s heart? The dead student’s independent investigation of a school office indicates otherwise.
Hex’s dialogue works best when it offers subtle double entendres. Cassie’s dubbing Thelma her "dyke in shining armor" conveys a high level of trust and affection. Yet could it also be the charming come-on that Thelma sees? When the scriptwriters attempt humorous riffs on culturally specific references, the quips generally sink before completing their transatlantic crossing. Thelma’s "wax on, wax off" reference to a beauty salon thus fell flat to this American viewer.
What anchors Hex in the somewhat watchable category are the one-and-a-half actors’ performances at its core. Azazeal should project an enticing yet palpably dangerous sexual allure. Yet Michael Fassbender, who plays the fallen angel, can only produce a small wisp of smoke as his version of sexual heat. Perhaps he needs to take a cue from the films of similarly named German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder?
Christina Cole provides a memorable half-performance as the secretly talented Cassie. She catches the student’s concern for others’ welfare. Her comforting a member of the in-crowd who mocked her feels genuine and not calculated. Yet her small delight in dropping a flaming sculpture on an obnoxious student also feels plausible. The big problem comes in Cole’s failure to tie these two character strands together to make Cassie’s personality as a whole more complex. After Cassie has her big argument with Thelma, her character should be tormented regarding the truth of her roommate’s accusations. Is Cassie too afraid to acknowledge her own lesbianism? Or has she deliberately strung Thelma along because she’s afraid of suffering complete social isolation? Cole doesn’t take her character in those deeper emotional waters, and thus leaves her telekinetic student only partly memorable.
The truly memorable character in Hex is Jemima Rooper’s Thelma. Her forthright character is part and parcel of a personality flexible enough to rise above the most negative circumstances. The lesbian ghost generally does not moan about being sundered from the living. Instead, she realizes that her ghostly state allows her to pig out on unhealthy snacks without worrying about gaining weight. Yet Rooper manages to make Thelma’s occasional displays of vulnerability be plausible parts of her character as well. One remembers the look on Thelma’s face when she realizes that the room she’s searching happens to be the one where she was murdered. Her scenes with Cassie are affectionate and loving, yet tinged by a heart-breaking fear that she may be mistaken about the nature of her roommate’s affections for her.
Rooper’s playful performance as Thelma may be enough for some viewers to watch Hex to the end. Other viewers may require more than just a strong lesbian character to keep watching.