I like to think there’s a graveyard for cancelled television shows where each unsolved murder, unrealized love, and unfinished plot is lovingly buried beneath a commemorative headstone — and apparently I’m not alone, as Slate created a virtual one in 2015. In my graveyard there’s an obelisk in memory of the British supernatural horror series The Fades. The show’s first and only season premiered September 21, 2011 on the BBC, before finding its way stateside on BBC America in early 2012. News of its cancellation was announced — bafflingly — within months of it winning a BAFTA Award for Best Drama Series, Britain’s highest entertainment honor. This week marks the tenth anniversary of The Fades’ premiere, making it a perfect time to revisit the show that set a new standard for British horror television.
The Fades did more imaginative world-building with just six episodes than many series do with multiple seasons. Unlike anything else on offer at the time, The Fades successfully blended the irreverence of a teen show with the tense beats and gore of low-budget horror. It crafted a striking apocalypse world that centered around a seventeen-year-old named Paul (Iain DeCaestecker) who can see dead people known as ‘Fades.’ These Fades are unable to crossover because the access points for their ascension to heaven are mysteriously closing. In his dreams Paul sees a coming apocalypse and gets a vague idea that he has a role to play in it. As the show progresses, he finds himself in the middle of a war between other people who share his gift called Angelics and the Fades.
Upon its initial premiere, The Fades understandably drew comparisons to another British series, Skins. It was created and written by former Skins screenwriter Jack Thorne and like its predecessor, Fades revolved around teens who actually spoke like teens. It even featured two Skins alumni before they went on to win an Oscar and become one of the most meme-d faces in Hollywood, respectively: Daniel Kaluuya and Joe Dempsie. But that’s where the similarities end.
Kaluuya plays Paul’s sex-obsessed pop-culture-loving bestie Mac, Dempsie plays the series’ Fade antagonist John, while Lily Loveless stars as Paul’s twin sister Anna. Rounding out the cast are other future stars like Tom Ellis (Lucifer) who plays Mark, a teacher at Paul’s high school, and Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) who plays his wife Sarah.
The Fades wasn’t the first end-of-the-world story with teens at its center, but a large part of its appeal was that it metabolized the best parts of both coming-of-age stories and mature horror. It’s set in a tense pre-apocalypse time, so naturally the stakes are high, but the series also neatly folds in high school drama like school dances, burgeoning sexuality, and identity crises.
Then there’s the endearing heart of the show: Mac and Paul’s friendship. DeCaestecker shows early signs of the nuanced character work and emotional range that would later make him the beating heart of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, while Kaluuya, best known now for his dramatic work, is a quippy riot. (Fun fact: in episode five, Mac wears a Black Panther t-shirt. Kaluuya would famously go on to star in the billion-dollar movie adaptation of the comic book hero's story.) But Mac isn’t just comic relief. For Thorne, the duo’s emotional connection was paramount. “The whole thing is sort of a love story between those two,” he explained in a 2011 interview. Fans of MTV's Teen Wolf will understand from the Scott-Stiles dynamic how a platonic relationship between two teen boys can be a love story. They are each others' anchors, helping one another through emotional crises and difficult home lives. The Fades distinguished itself by granting teen boys the interiority and complexity other shows would deny them.
The show’s original mythology is another key part of what made it special. Unlike other supernatural series that rely on established mythology about supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves, The Fades focuses on underivative world-building. Fades — who, yes, cannot be seen, heard, or touched like ghosts — continue to rot in their flesh. They are conscious beings, locked out of heaven in a world where hell doesn’t exist and limbo is a hellish life spent watching loved ones grieve them and eventually move on while they helplessly rot and become monsters against their will. “The Fades is its own world,” Kaluuya confirmed in a conversation with Metro UK. “If you try and link it to some religion you have people going: Oh, that’s not right, with their Bible open.”
The Fades hope to reintegrate into the human society they passed on from but have to become inhuman to do so — John, who died in the 1940s, has found that eating human flesh can restore a Fade’s body and begins spreading the word to others. Paul and the other Angelics gifted with sight witness this tragic predicament and emerge conflicted about how to address it. Kaluuya once explained that the show operates under the theory that “death is as random as life.” This philosophy is part of what makes The Fades so good: it understood that to reflect on death is to reflect on life, it’s sanctity and profundity and fragility. Paul’s fight for humanity is an existential-crisis-inducing, obstacle-filled road along which many losses are incurred. It benefits both from the fact that Thorne is less precious with his hero than other creators are, and that the questions the show raises about death and ethical decision making aren’t easily resolved, keeping the show from pursuing predictable character arcs. Farren Blackburn, an in-demand television director (Doctor Who, Daredevil, Luther) who helmed the show’s first three episodes, stated not long ago in a tweet: “It remains the most crazy imaginative tv show I’ve ever been involved in and one of my proudest directorial achievements.”
A show’s quality isn’t measured by the size of its viewership but by how well it tells the story it set out to tell. By this metric, The Fades was a true one-season wonder. “When I made #TheFades no-one took fantasy seriously,” Thorne tweeted in 2019. “& we got cancelled.” Second and third seasons were teased but never materialized. Still, ten years on, The Fades has earned a place in British horror history with a single memorable season.
The Fades is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Max and Tubi.
Naomi Elias is a freelance writer, interviewer, and critic. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of outlets including Elle, Teen Vogue, Interview Magazine, and Film School Rejects.