Generally speaking, when I watch a television show, I tend to assume it’s set in something close to the real world until I’m told otherwise. Usually, this happens pretty quickly. I am not, for example, mistaking the Cordyceps-ridden Boston of The Last of Us for the real one. (Some may disagree and argue that Boston is really Like That.) But what’s really fun is when a show mostly looks like it’s set in a world like ours, and then slowly reveals that it’s actually messed up as hell.
Lockwood & Co., Netflix’s new supernatural teen drama, knocks this particularly sly style of world-building out of the park. It takes place in a London that looks pretty normal for a while, yet slowly adds clues that, over the course of its first episode, confirm it absolutely is not.
Created by Attack the Block director Joe Cornish, Lockwood & Co. is a show about teen ghost hunters. Initially, I believed this to be the only divergence between its London and the real one (though honestly, who’s to say that actual London isn’t full of specters? That whole country is loaded with closets full of skeletons). But as its premiere episode introduces you to the life and times of its protagonist, Lucy Carlyle (Ruby Stokes), the things that are amiss quietly pile up in the background.
Here are a few, in no particular order: Lucy’s partner, Anthony Lockwood (Cameron Chapman), says something to a concerned client about child labor laws as they prepare for a ghost hunt; the city itself, while mostly familiar, is peppered with odd details here and there, like strange lampposts that seem to serve a safety purpose or posters about wealthy, famous people who founded “agencies”; and, most hilariously, in the second episode, the particulars of ghost hunter insurance plunge Lucy and Lockwood into tremendous debt.
This is the primary way the viewer learns that this version of London suffered some kind of supernatural event called, quite Britishly, The Problem. No one explains what The Problem is, not at first, and they don’t need to — it’s enough to know that something happened to make the world this way, and that it happened long enough ago to have a measurable impact on society. Child labor laws are different, presumably because kids can see and hunt ghosts in ways adults can’t. A curfew is in place, perhaps because this ghost problem is not fully under control. And a method of fighting these ghosts has been formalized, as ghost hunting agencies are a bustling industry for talented youths with supernatural sensitivity.
In other words, Lockwood & Co. almost entirely disposes of exposition. The only thing it lectures the viewer on is the methods its characters must use to fight ghosts, which are, frankly, pretty damn cool. In keeping with a lot of supernatural fiction, iron, silver, and salt are what will ward off the ghastly figures, and what that generally means is that every character carries a silver rapier, among other things. Swashbuckling teen ghost hunters? Very cool!
All of this makes Lockwood & Co. feel like a surprising rarity. The streaming era, in its tendency to drop entire seasons at once, has granted fantasy and science fiction showrunners the flexibility to finally stretch their legs and build elaborate and fantastical worlds, but with that space comes the temptation to lore-dump and prioritize world-building over character. Lockwood & Co. is a reminder that things don’t have to be this way. You can dive right into the fun stuff, and let the audience piece the world together along the way. They might even have more fun doing it themselves.
Lockwood & Co. is currently streaming on Netflix.
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