The function of television as an artform is debatable. But, for countless parents, one thing is true: Once you have kids, you care a little bit less if something is good and care a little bit more about how it makes you feel. This partially explains why parents return to cheesy sitcoms and objectively dumb movies from their youth, but it also explains why a sequel to Bill and Ted can exist over two decades after the previous film. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but I’d argue that at least half the time, parents aren’t so much looking for a show that will make them feel connected to the zeitgeist, but instead, a show that won’t make them feel like shit.
Raised By Wolves, the new science fiction TV series on HBO Max is about parenting. Two androids are raising human babies on a barren alien world in the far future. The android “dad” makes a bad “dad joke” about what one magnet said to the other magnet in the first scene. You might think this show is throwing a bone to parents, and as several critics have pointed out, the show’s primary character — the android named “Mother” — is exciting to watch, precisely because she viscerally will destroy anyone who plans to abduct or hurt her human children. This kind of power-fantasy is nothing new. From the rescue of Dom’s (Vin Diesel) infant son in The Fate of the Furious to the entire plot of The Mandalorian, the idea of wielding violent power to protect children is something that connects to all kinds of viewers. You don’t have to be a parent to understand why this is exciting. You just have to have been a child at some point.
As science fiction, Raised By Wolves asks fairly old questions, which, if you’ve been reading Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov since, you know, forever, you’ll be fairly familiar with. The basic question is this: What if atheism became persecuted to the point that it affected the way children are raised? Although the series was not created by him (that would be Aaron Guzikowski) famed Alien and Blade Runner director Ridley Scott directed the first two episodes of the show and is its producer. In this way, Raised By Wolves has more in common with Scott’s more recent movies, like the Alien prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Like Raised By Wolves, both of those films toyed with the idea that non-belief can be its own kind of belief.
Still, for anyone who has read a few paragraphs of any philosophy book, this stuff isn’t really earth-shattering. And so, the stakes of the show are more visceral. Will “Mother” and “Father” protect their human children? Spoiler alert (literal spoiler alert): NO.
Kids die in this show. Kids die in this show in the first episode. Dramatically. I don’t have a problem with this, but as a parent, it’s tough to watch. Raised By Wolves seems to assert itself as a kind of throwback, pulpy sci-fi adventure (I mean, the helmets the androids where were stolen from ’70s Buck Rogers, I swear) but the horror and death in this series make it closer to one of Scott’s Alien films. In that series, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) didn’t defend a human child until the second film, Aliens, and of course, that film was directed by James Cameron, not Ridley Scott. The point is, reminding parents that children can die in harsh conditions, like alien planets, is just not an exciting metaphor for the real problems we actually face.
Raised By Wolves wants to be a fanciful adventure and a hard-hitting Battlestar Galactica copy-cat at the same time. The problem is, it doesn’t have the charm of Battlestar to pull this off. Bleak Ridley Scott sci-fi opuses tend to work because there’s one really charming element that propels the whole thing. In Alien it was Sigourney Weaver. In Blade Runner, it was duh, both Harrison Ford and Sean Young. Even the Alien prequels have fantastic performances from Michael Fassbender as various different robots.
The problem with Raised By Wolves then, is that it doesn’t earn its bleakness. Like many “big” shows, it thinks that death and sadness and talking about religion will translate to the show being “deep.” This might be broadly true, but it’s not enjoyable. The androids are awkward and slightly “off”, which is supposed to be “funny” (sort of?) but instead, it usually plays out like the greatest hits of Data from Star Trek, only without any of the warmth.
At one point, in the first episode, Mother says “Belief in the unreal can comfort the human mind, but it also weakens it.” Raised By Wolves wants to have this concept both ways. The too-tight silver jumpsuit of Mother and the absurd sun-clothing clothing of the religious fanatics (the Mithraic) are very hard to take seriously, partly because the show is campy on accident. And yet, the show wants us to take all of it seriously. The parental power fantasy in The Mandalorian works because it has swagger. The silly clothes on Star Trek are fun because Star Trek has a sense of humor and heroism. Raised By Wolves just has its concept and its — admittedly — impeccable direction and action. Watching it feels mechanical. You’re really just here for the way it looks.
Mother’s speech about the “unreal” leaves out one important thing: Humans don’t believe in the unreal — like science fiction — for comfort, they do it because it’s often fun; either viscerally or intellectually. If you’re a parent, watching this charmless android try to take care of stranded space kids isn’t fun. It will only make you want to hug your kids when they wake up and watch something different when they’re asleep. Want good science fiction that has cool robots and a family working in outer space that won’t bum you out? Watch the new Lost In Space instead.