The Short Version: After battling back the demonic invasion of the Vatican, the Bookburners are back on the job of tracking down and stopping magic where it occurs. But with the Orb malfunctioning and magic clearly on the rise – not to mention those pesky technocultists planning something awful – the Team must take greater risks with more uncertain rewards. Whether they as a team – or the Society as a whole – will adapt and survive is anyone’s guess…
The Review: What do you do after a successful first season (or installment or whatever)? Do you replicate what went well and just tweak the formula a bit here and there – or do you make some radical shifts in focus and concept, building outward from what you did previously? There are shows that’ve made arguments for both options, but my favorite is always the latter, and so I was thrilled to see Bookburners taking that path. Season Two is more nuanced, more complex, and altogether more than Season One – and it achieves this by pivoting rather dramatically from its established format.
Okay, okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Season One was largely a monster-of-the-week style show, although that gave way to the larger plot of the demon that was inhabiting Sal and the ramifications of a demonic invasion into the Vatican. And there are still some monster-of-the-week episodes here, especially in the early going, but even those are colored by a major shift: the Orb, the magical device that announces magical eruptions for the Team to go investigate, has started to… malfunction? It’s unclear, because it’s showing pretty much a constant magical outpouring now – which would seem to be a malfunction but might also reflect the greater presence of magic in the world. So Team Three needs to fix the Orb or at least find out what this means, which leads them on an immediate larger quest to find the Orb’s makers, Team Four.
I won’t go blow by blow – you can read my season recaps, which I was delighted to do in the style of an NYMag or TWoP TV recap, if you want that – but I’ll just say that this structural shift, of two much larger and less installment-based plots (the Orb plot and the back-half return of the technocultists) allowed for more growth and development of not just the characters but the world of the show. The authors have a ball advancing the characters this season, especially Liam and Asanti (and in the last few episodes, Grace), in ways that feel organic and complex and sometimes even downright unexpected. They all feel increasingly human and as though they have complicated inner lives that only sometimes reach the page, which is a challenge for any long-running episodic show but that Bookburners handles with ease. This is, of course, due to the fantastic writers room that SerialBox has put together. Max Gladstone and his team are all clearly working together, delivering their own idiosyncratic take on the characters and their world while also creating a unified vision for what happens and what it all means.
The greater attention on the overarching plots is also notable here in Season Two because the plots are so very different from the engine that drove Season One. Season One was a lot of fireworks and pretty big gambles: demonic possession, Team Three on the run, corruption (both literal and metaphorical) within the Vatican… This is the sort of thing that you want to do when you want to make a good impression. Season Two, by comparison, is very character-driven. The fracturing of Team Three and their various internecine conflicts is really what the show is all about this year, with the Orb quest and even the threat of the Network largely serving as devices to further that ‘plot’. This is a wonderful and refreshing twist from most serialized shows, where character is used to further plot. Here, it is very much the other way around. The tighter focus (even when the fate of the world is still admittedly at stake) is a bold choice by the writers’ room but damned if they don’t make it work beautifully.
I should also note that I read this season on the page instead of listening (although I did take some time to listen to one episode, happy to hear Xe Sands again), and I have to say that I think I actually did get more out of the show by reading it. Sands’ voices remained in my head, which I didn’t so much mind (her character voices are delightful), but I was able to move through the story at my own pace. For some people that doesn’t so much matter, but I think I was able to notice some of the quieter moments and appreciate them more than I would’ve if I was listening. Season One is absolutely listenable and Season Two is, too, if that’s your thing – but I think the maturation of the show is definitely more noticeable when you’re taking it at your leisure.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Exactly the kind of development you want from a first season to a second, of anything. The writers’ room is more confident, more willing to take their time in a moment, and the overall plotting of the show is much tighter – all to great effect. As the world of the show expands but the focus remains tight, the ‘villain’ plot taking a backseat to the larger and much less black-and-white questions of morality that plague our heroes, we see the show really come into its own. Magic is expanding – and I can’t wait to see what that’ll mean for Season Three. If this season (which sits up there with The West Wing S2 and Parks & Rec S4 as near-perfectly sustained seasons of serialized storytelling) is any indication, what comes next is going to be fantastic.